t includes the seeds of a wide range of plants. The earliest known grain appears to be millet, which was boiled or steamed. This was the staple of the early civilisation in the north of China, probably as early as Neolithic times (7,000-5,000 B.C), while by the Zhou dynasty, rice was the leading crop of the south. Wheat was also eaten in Neolithic China, but played a less prominent role than millet.
Archaeology provides little clear evidence about the vegetables Neolithic Chinese cooked with their pork and dog meat, the earliest domesticated sources of animal protein. Beef, mutton and goat came later, although wild deer and rabbit most likely appeared often on early menus. Fish and a variety of fowl were also used.
It can be said that the basic Chinese diet and means of preparation were in place about 6,000 years ago, although many imported ingredients-some transported over the Silk Road- entered the Chinese larder and new cooking methods were adopted.
A balanced mixture of grain and cooked dishes has been the ideal of a meal in China since time immemorial. The balance lies between bland, boiled or steamed grain on the one hand, and more flavourful and rich cooked dishes on the other. Further balances were sought between the yin (cooling) and yang (heating) qualities of the foods served. The notion of food as both preventive and curative medicine is deeply imbedded in the Chinese mind.
The specific proportion of grain and cocked dishes on a menu depends as much on the economic status of the diners as on the bulk of the calories, with cooked dishes serving as supplementary ornamentation and nutrition. The grander the occasion is the more cooked dishes and less grain. Even today, this tradition is maintained at banquets, where a small symbolic bowl of plain steamed rice is served after an extensive selection of other dishes.