David Doran: Essay
China, India, and the Americas
Although the regions of China, India, and the Americas had nocontact during their early development, the cultures regardingfood are strikingly similar. While the specific foods may vary,all three of the regions share a common categories of food roles.Each culture has a hierarchy of foods consisting of staples, “lowclass” food, and delicacies.
The most important component to feeding an entire culture is thefood staple, the food which can be eaten at any time of the dayand in a variety of forms. Characteristics which are conduciveto reaching staple status are abundance, diversity and flavor.This is to say that the food grows in large quantities for a significantpart of the year, it can be prepared in a number of differentways, and it tastes good in doing so. In China’s early days, milletwas the preferred grain and top staple in the region, followedby rice (Anderson 51). Similarly, barley and rice were the topfoods in the region of India, with wheat playing an importantrole as well (Achaya 33). The most prominent food staple on theother side of the world, in the Americas, was maize, accompaniedby the root manioc (Coe 9,16). Each of the above staples can beground with a mortar and pestle, or similar tools and then madeinto a flat bread or cake, which was a common practice. Even thoughthe specific foods differ, the function is the same: to providea sufficient main food source for a large group of people.
In addition to the prominent, widely accepted foods in each region,were foods which had the capability of being staples, but notthe acceptance of the people as such. As a result, foods whichfall into this category became regarded as foods only eaten bypoor people, or those trying to cut back on expenses. Wheat, beansand barley were inferior to rice in China (Anderson 51). In muchthe same way, in India, wheat was considered to be food for theoutcasts (Achaya 34). Part of the reason that wheat specificallybecame a low class food is that it had a “slightly bitterflavor” when boiled, whereas millet and rice did not (Anderson51). In the New World, one of the less acceptable foods was beans.This is largely due to the fact that when boiled, the beans hada bland flavor and produced an unpleasant amount of flatulencefor the consumer (Coe 32). Another reason that foods can becomesocially unacceptable is overabundance and the resulting low costof the good. It is human nature to scorn that for which we donot have to work.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were the delicacies, the toplevel of the hierarchy. Here we find the foods which were fashionableto serve, foods which were good enough to feed kings. In China,chiu is a complex ale brewed from grain considered to be sociallyimportant. Also, roast meats were prestigious, the more exoticthe better (Anderson 52). Salt quickly became a valuable commodityin India, highly taxed and not permitted to students, widows andnewlyweds (Achaya 37). The pineapple was a highly valued fruitfrom the Americas. Although the people in the New World may nothave had a great affection for the pineapple, nobility in NorthernEurope did. The pineapple was brought across the Atlantic to KingFerdinand of Spain, and the explorers efforts were rewarded withpraises from the king, who said that it was the “best thinghe had ever tasted” (Coe 41-2).
Despite the fact that there was not contact between China, India,and the Americas, the culture of their foods was very much thesame. In every region, the people prepared foods for everydayuse, considered some foods to be inferior to others and reservedcertain foods for special occasions. People throughout the world,regardless of location and economy will be part of a food culturewhich follows the hierarchy described here.
Achaya, K.T. Indian Food: A Historical Companion. New York:Oxford University Press, 1999.
Anderson, E.N. The Food of China. New Haven: Yale UniversityPress, 1988.
Coe, Sophia. America’s First Cuisine. Austin: Universityof Texas Press, 1994.