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  • Gene Anderson

Silk and Milk

Summary of Paper, Global Chinese Food conference, University of Michigan, Dec. 2019

Silk and Milk:

The Medieval Silk Routes and Food in China

E. N. Anderson

University of California, Riverside



Chinese food expanded into Central Asia in a limited way. The commonest Chinese foods expanded with empire, but very few spread much beyond the limits reached in the Tang dynasty, very close to the limits today in the Silk Road area. Broomcorn millet was the first and most long-distance traveler, reaching what is now eastern Kazakhstan by about 2700 BCE. Unlike most Chinese domesticates, this millet endures great drought and heat and matures in as little as two months, making it a valuable resource for the dry Central Asian world. It spread onward into Europe. Rice came much later, during dynastic times, but could not flourish outside of major river valleys, and has been abandoned as a crop, though it flourishes in Iran. Foxtail millet spread to India in the Bronze Age, and much later to Europe, but details on this spread are lacking. Few fruits and vegetables traveled west. Among them were minor crops like Chinese garlic chives and bunching onions. China, in fact, domesticated many trees independently of the west, so that different species are found at the two ends of the Silk Road. This was the case with apples (the common apple was domesticated in Kazakhstan, but China has its own species), pears, cherries, and other fruit. Only peaches went from China to the western world. Apricots are probably native to much of Central Asia. The common domestic mammals all came from the west, though pigs may have been independently domesticated in China as well as west Asia. Ducks and chickens, however, spread from east to west, the chicken moving across Asia quite early. Water buffaloes are an exception to all rules: they were domesticated in India, and apparently spread from there to China—the native Chinese buffalo is apparently a now-extinct separate species.

Overall, most flow was the other way: West to east. Specific dishes also traveled in that direction. Dumplings, kababs, tandur-baked bread (Iranian nan, ancestral to Chinese shaobing and other breads), and other dishes moved east. Noodles were probably invented independently in the Mediterranean and in China—they are fairly obvious things to invent—and their extreme popularity in Central Asia thus records dishes spreading in both directions.

Causes for the west-to-east predominance begin with ecology. China depends on the east Asian monsoon, which brings warm wet summers and cool dry winters. Central Asia has hot dry summers, or, in the mountains, quite cold but still dry summers. Winters are bitterly cold. Most Chinese food plants do not flourish. Conversely, west and Central Asian food plants do fine in China, at least in the dry northwest.

Linguistic expansion evidently mattered, in that speakers of related languages seem to have picked up each others’ foods easily. Indo-Iranic languages spread from the western steppes (focusing probably on Ukraine) to Central Asia and thence to Iran and India about 5000-4000 years ago. Other Indo-European languages were spoken farther west, with Tokharian languages dominating what is now central Xinjiang. Chinese did not reach Central Asia till the Han Dynasty. Turkic and Mongolian languages expanded south into the region from southern Siberia over the last 2000 years.

Ecology was reinforced by empire once the Persian and Scythian kingdoms expanded widely in Asia. Persian culture spread rapidly through the Iranic-language areas, east to Tadzhikstan and Afghanistan. Chinese culture expanded even before Han, influencing the Tokharians. Indian culture spread, especially with Buddhism, into the region after the beginning of the Common Era.

Religion became a more powerful influence with the rise of Islam, which profoundly influenced foodways by banning pork and alcohol. Pigs had not been important, but wine was enormously so—a major drink—and its loss was sorely felt, as medieval literature records. Many continued to drink fermented mares’ milk or mild raisin wine (which they considered nabidh, i.e. fruit wine too weak in alcoholic content to be covered by the Islamic prohibition).

A particularly interesting story concerns dairy products. These are vitally important in Central Asia, which depends heavily on stockraising. They became important in China during the period between Han and Tang, when Turkic and Mongol-related groups dominated much of the north and introduced western foodways. They maintained some importance during Tang and Song, rose again in Yuan with the Mongol conquerors and their Turkic followers, and were decisively rejected in Ming, presumably in part due to nationalism, but also to the rise of the south and southeastern parts of China in political and cultural power. Dairy products continue to be found and used widely, but as local, small-scale traditions except in the Central Asian provinces.

Today, characteristic Chinese foods such as soy sauce, fermented bean paste, and fresh ginger tend to be found west to the Uighur and eastern Kazakh cultural areas, but no farther. Dairy products essential to life in Central Asia, from qurt (dried yogurt) to kumys (fermented mares’ milk), stop short (except for isolated local use) once ethnic Mongol and Turkic peoples give way to Han Chinese. Chinese restaurants, so abundant in most of the world, are rare in western Central Asia. Korean food is much commoner, but is a recent introduction: Stalin moved many Koreans from the Russia-Korea border area to Uzbekistan and neighboring areas, to defuse opposition and break their power as an ethnic group.

Conversely, west Asian foods transmitted via Central Asia have become major staples throughout China: dumplings (Turkic manty, Mandarin jiaozi and many other names). The Turkic word, borrowed as mantou, now refers to an unfilled dumpling, but Tang accounts and archaeological finds reveal that mantou were once filled. Another borrrowing was raised wheat breads (Farsi nan). Noodle and lamb dishes, various stews, and such dairy foods as are still made in China also show influence. The food of Ningxia and western Gansu seems as much Central Asian as it is “Chinese” of the classic “eighteen provinces.” It preserves a cuisine much like that described in Yuan Dynasty sources.

In sum, religious and other cultural influences, and preferences shaped by these, sharpen up distinctions that have roots in regional ecology.