China boasts a cuisine culture that is paralleled perhaps by no other country than France. However, initially, the food variety on the Chinese dinner table had used to be fairly limited, and thanks to the Silk Road, new vegetables were transplanted in inland China and became available to the Chinese.

In the Chinese language, there are a number of plants that contains the character “胡 hu”. Examples include: hutao (胡桃, walnut), hugua (胡瓜, cucumber), hucong (胡葱, allium porrum), hujiao (胡椒, pepper), huluobo (胡萝卜, carrot), hudou (胡豆, horse bean), etc. It is likely, then, that such a plant had used to be an exotic plant and was introduced into China from the Western Regions, as “胡 hu” was the collective name given by ancient Chinese to the ethnic peoples to the north and west of central China.

Some other plants, though without the character of “胡 hu”, were imports, too, for instance, tomato (番茄fanqie, literally meaning a eggplant from foreign countries), spinach (菠菜bocai, literally meaning a vegetable from Persia), grape, potato, papaya, pomegranate, fig, sesame, etc. Besides vegetables, the dining culture of these ethnic minority groups influenced the Chinese, too. For instance, lamb kebabs, backed sesame seed cakes, grape wine and ardent liquor were all of northwestern origin.

China’s contribution to world’s food culture is tea. The Dutch East India Company made tea available to the Europeans in 1610, and the food culture of almost all Western countries were influenced by it. Nowadays, Europe is the most important market for tea.

Spice was another import that came to China via the Silk Road. In China, it has been widely used in various fields as medicines, cosmetics, scent, etc. Burning spice to scent clothes was fashionable in a well-off household. Emperor Wudi of Han Dynasty was so addicted to spice that he ordered his ministers to hold a piece of spice when reporting to him at the daily morning meeting. The main sources of spice in the world are the Middle East, India, and east Africa. And the ancient Chinese did not develop the habit of burning incense until the Silk Road made spice available.

The maritime foreign trade of ancient China also had important impact on Chinese medicines. The quantity of medicines imported from overseas increased greatly ever since Tang Dynasty. Over one hundred such imported drugs were recorded in Herbal Medicine, a record by Tang Dynasty pharmacist Li Xun, some of which are still extensively used in Chinese medicines nowadays.
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