Although the regions of China, India, and the Americas had no
contact during their early development, the cultures regarding
food 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, "low
class" food, and delicacies.
The most important component to feeding an entire culture is the
food staple, the food which can be eaten at any time of the day
and in a variety of forms. Characteristics which are conducive
to reaching staple status are abundance, diversity and flavor.
This is to say that the food grows in large quantities for a significant
part of the year, it can be prepared in a number of different
ways, and it tastes good in doing so. In China's early days, millet
was the preferred grain and top staple in the region, followed
by rice (Anderson 51). Similarly, barley and rice were the top
foods in the region of India, with wheat playing an important
role as well (Achaya 33). The most prominent food staple on the
other side of the world, in the Americas, was maize, accompanied
by the root manioc (Coe 9,16). Each of the above staples can be
ground with a mortar and pestle, or similar tools and then made
into a flat bread or cake, which was a common practice. Even though
the specific foods differ, the function is the same: to provide
a 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 not
the acceptance of the people as such. As a result, foods which
fall into this category became regarded as foods only eaten by
poor people, or those trying to cut back on expenses. Wheat, beans
and barley were inferior to rice in China (Anderson 51). In much
the same way, in India, wheat was considered to be food for the
outcasts (Achaya 34). Part of the reason that wheat specifically
became a low class food is that it had a "slightly bitter
flavor" when boiled, whereas millet and rice did not (Anderson
51). In the New World, one of the less acceptable foods was beans.
This is largely due to the fact that when boiled, the beans had
a bland flavor and produced an unpleasant amount of flatulence
for the consumer (Coe 32). Another reason that foods can become
socially unacceptable is overabundance and the resulting low cost
of the good. It is human nature to scorn that for which we do
not have to work.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were the delicacies, the top
level of the hierarchy. Here we find the foods which were fashionable
to serve, foods which were good enough to feed kings. In China,
chiu is a complex ale brewed from grain considered to be socially
important. Also, roast meats were prestigious, the more exotic
the better (Anderson 52). Salt quickly became a valuable commodity
in India, highly taxed and not permitted to students, widows and
newlyweds (Achaya 37). The pineapple was a highly valued fruit
from the Americas. Although the people in the New World may not
have had a great affection for the pineapple, nobility in Northern
Europe did. The pineapple was brought across the Atlantic to King
Ferdinand of Spain, and the explorers efforts were rewarded with
praises from the king, who said that it was the "best thing
he 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 the
same. In every region, the people prepared foods for everyday
use, considered some foods to be inferior to others and reserved
certain foods for special occasions. People throughout the world,
regardless of location and economy will be part of a food culture
which 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 University
Coe, Sophia. America's First Cuisine. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.