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Thread: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

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    Default Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    Thank God (or whatever deity you believe in) that we all live in the modern age of convenience with shopping centers and grocery stores located even in remote areas these days. And in such abundance that most medieval people (barring those who lived near massive markets in the larger metropolises) would probably have a heart attack if they merely stepped through the automatic doors of a modern grocer to view the variety and quantity of food on the shelves. Aren't we lucky!

    Obviously the poor and lower classes in virtually all the societies of the regions we shall focus on (i.e. Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia) had both a limited quantity and variety of foods at their disposal due to the expensive logistics of providing one with exotic foodstuffs. However, the mercantile class, nobility, and royalty/oligarchy seemed to have eaten very well, even by modern standards. Of course, before the Columbian Exchange of the 16th century, this would have excluded New World crops and grown foodstuffs like potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes, chili peppers, bell peppers, pumpkins, pineapples, cashews, chocolate, or vanilla, in addition to livestock like turkey. However, there were still plenty of foods and ingredients available in the Old World to have a dazzling array of variety for elite consumption. You might gasp at the idea of having no chocolate, but the Old World still satisfied its sweet tooth with products like sugarcane and honey.

    In both Europe and Asia (and especially Hindu India where the cow is considered sacred), the consumption of beef would have been limited to both the poor and the powerful because of the utility of using cattle as draft animals. Some of the most common meats would have been chicken and lamb, but depending on where you lived, fish or fowl would probably be more common and available. In both Europe and Asia rice would have been one of the major staples to complement a side of meat, especially in East Asian cultures where there was an absence of bread (or dairy products for that matter, which were seen as barbaric since they were consumed by the neighboring nomadic tribes of Mongolia and Central Asia). I've been able to find this and that online, but I'd like to know a much more detailed and thorough look at the availability of more exotic foods designated for the rich and powerful in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia during the period of about 500 to 1500 AD. This can include everything from expensive spices to rare game.

    If someone's interested, perhaps a separate thread can be started on food in the great empires of earlier antiquity: the Hellenistic Kingdoms and the Roman Empire in the West, the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid Empires in the Middle East, the Mauryan, Sunga, and Gupta Empires of India, the Qin and Han Empires of China (plus the Three Kingdoms and subsequent Jin dynasty), the Kingdom of Funan in Cambodia, or the Kingdom of Champa in southern Vietnam. However, I would please ask that you try to restrict the discussion to the suggested millennium-long time frame of 500 - 1500 AD, hence the successor states of the empires and kingdoms. Also try to take a holistic approach and don't focus on one region exclusively, seeing how these regions were interconnected through trade that made easily preserved foods and ingredients available at long distances and affected the cuisines of many different neighboring and far-flung cultures.

    I'd prefer that we stick to scholarly sources for advice, but we may also analyze artwork from these various cultures. For instance, here's an early 12th-century Song-dynasty Chinese painting of an outdoor dinner party. What kind of foods can we make out here? It's pretty obvious that tea is the beverage being served, but what of the colorful and ornate food?



    Or how about this famous painting below from the French Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1410, where we have John, Duke of Berry, enjoying what appears to be Cornish game hens. The large golden vessel on the table - in the shape of a boat - is an elaborate salt cellar. The other darker items placed on various dishes are most likely bread items, but it is difficult to judge some of them.



    If someone's able to find pictures online of medieval banquets from other cultures, like Persian or Japanese, that would be appreciated.

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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    Well, I know that in poland oats, barely, rye, and cabbage where a huge part of both the poor and rich diets. Most of what I am talking about is my experiance as a pole and researching the food culture, but also applies to people in the middle ages

    For most people, and eastern Europeans in the early modern period, somewhat thick stews and soups would be the majority of the diet, often made with cabbage, root vegetables, and whatever meat could be found would go in the pot(alot of the time pork for the upper and middle classes, and the poor when they could get it, some chicken, and whatever game animal could be found). This would be eaten with a fairly heavy variety of bread of any kind of flour(wheat, oats, barley, rye) that would be used to dip in the stew Also, one of the things people neglect about the diets of pre-industrial europeans was the ammount of foods that came from the forrests. Lots of nuts and roots and mushrooms.

    Food would have a more sour and hearty flavor then what people are accustomed to today(coming back from time in Europe, especially east of the rhine, I find american food unpalatable given how even things like bread are sweet). Also, almost all parts of the animal would be eaten as well as barely refined grains. . Very strong spices and sweet flavors would be un-common, except among the upper classes, but almost all classes would use various common herbs to flavor their food, like bay leaves, parlesly and thyme. Very weak, almost watered down beer would be an everyday beverage for people of almost all classes and ages due to poor sanatation, and in the evening and in taverns, very heavy, dark, hoppy beer would be drank


    Heres 3 dishes that the poor would eat in East Europe and analogues with other europeans in mideavel times that would be unfamilar to modern americans and western Europeans

    Kiszka, essentially blood sausage with barely pellets inside. This would be very typical of the kinds of lower quality sausage the peasantry would eat.


    Flaki, a soup made with beef or pork guts(those noodle looking things are cleaned pig intestine, not noddles, its quite delicious if you can get past the thought of it) Such soups were also a very common source of Protein in mideavel europe(especially so Im told in Normandy)



    Finally, Kasha, boiled Barely grains so Im told, something like this would be eaten by peasants, perhaps with some milk or a bit of meat thrown in the pot to add flavor. Such a thing was extremly common among the lower classes as an eaasily digestable food for the young and sick and for peasants wishing to avoding the milling fees, and people who didnt want to cook much. I have eaten it and can attest it pretty much just tastes like nothing and it fills the space in your stomach from when you were hungry, but not much else



    Also, after about the 1600s, most cultures east of the Rhine river heavily cultivated potatoes.

    Typing all of this makes me hungry for some good down home polish food. I think Im gonna go out and buy a six pack of Tyskie or Zviets beer from the old country and text this polish girl I've been talking to and try to have her make dinner, among other things

    Honestly, people like to bag on the diet people ate in the past, but from the 1400s to the last partion, I would gladly eat the diet my ancestors did, being partially German Polish noblemen in areas of eastern Silesia and the suburbs of Krakow. And honestly, it would probably be healthier then the food I eat today in the American midwest and all of today's fad diets.
    Last edited by Ace_General; November 06, 2014 at 02:20 AM.
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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    The food you've described here reminded me a lot of the Russian-inspired food I ate in Kyrgyzstan (as a US Peace Corps volunteer teaching English there), especially the kasha, but also foods with pig intestine and the emphasis on eating all parts of the animal. To be honest I had my fill of all that! I was the opposite of you: nostalgic for returning to eating good ole American cuisine like gumbo shrimp, blue crab fritters, New England clam chowder, sirloin steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, heavily peppered macaroni and cheese with ground beef, coleslaw and buttered biscuits with fried chicken, Chicago style deep dish pizza, Tex-Mex fajitas, lemon meringue pie, pumpkin pie with tons of cinnamon, turkey with stuffing, BBQ ribs, etc. etc.

    Also, thanks for pointing out the historic Polish diet, plus the fact that might not be so obvious to everyone that modern food is far sweeter (i.e. sugary) than medieval people would have been accustomed to. It's true, medieval people had limited access to cane sugar and honey, but sweets didn't really boom in production and importance until about the 16th century with the introduction of Central American chocolate combined with sugar. It's for reasons like that that people's teeth started to rot more often, since there were far fewer dental problems before the explosion of sugar consumption. In today's food it's almost impossible to avoid sugar, which is a major factor in the obesity pandemic.

    Personally I don't mind sugar so long as it's in measured quantities for a reasonable daily diet. I tend not to be fussy about natural sugars from fruits, though.

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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    double post, please delete

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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    I have a Roman cookbook somewhere in my library, so that's out. Not quite sure why I picked it up, since I've never read it.

    Preferred European beverage would be alcoholic, however watered down, monks seemingly at the forefront of production. Being high while seeking the divine seems a universal experience.

    Local grains would be the stable, modern agriculture having wiped out endless varieties deemed less profitable for production.

    Spices were added in to give flavour, and as an unexpected side effect, to preserve food in hot climes, and hide spoilage.

    The potato doesn't really count, since it awaits to be discovered by the European palate.

    We know that Japanese peasants had to make do with sub-grains, since rice was the currency of the rich. When the Shogun wasn't implementing the feed them just enough to survive, not enough to rebel policy.

    Going by Jackie Chan movies, the Chinese ate lots of noodles while sitting on short benches. And traditionally, anything that moved or crawled.
    Eats, shoots, and leaves.

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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    Quote Originally Posted by Condottiere 40K View Post
    I have a Roman cookbook somewhere in my library, so that's out. Not quite sure why I picked it up, since I've never read it.

    Preferred European beverage would be alcoholic, however watered down, monks seemingly at the forefront of production. Being high while seeking the divine seems a universal experience.

    Local grains would be the stable, modern agriculture having wiped out endless varieties deemed less profitable for production.

    Spices were added in to give flavour, and as an unexpected side effect, to preserve food in hot climes, and hide spoilage.

    The potato doesn't really count, since it awaits to be discovered by the European palate.

    We know that Japanese peasants had to make do with sub-grains, since rice was the currency of the rich. When the Shogun wasn't implementing the feed them just enough to survive, not enough to rebel policy.

    Going by Jackie Chan movies, the Chinese ate lots of noodles while sitting on short benches. And traditionally, anything that moved or crawled.
    Nice! I'd like to see this Roman cookbook. The Romans certainly had a diverse palate and appreciated exotic foods, even dishes from their arch nemesis of Parthia.

    You're absolutely right about beer in Europe during the Middle Ages, which was consumed perhaps as much as it was by the ancient Egyptians. Both of those civilizations (plus the ancient Mesopotamian peoples) relied heavily on beer consumption to make up their daily diet and gain enough nutrition. It's virtually liquid bread, after all.

    I'm not very knowledgeable about medieval Japanese cuisine, but I'm assuming it was heavily influenced by mainland China before modern times. Of course, on average the Japanese would have eaten far more seafood than your average Chinese peasant, who would have eaten lots of pork with his rice if anything. By the 16th century, with the advent of New World crops coming to China, though, the sweet potato actually became the staple of the poor man's diet in late Ming-dynasty China and during the Qing dynasty of course.

    Medieval India would have featured many food types we see in Indian cuisine today, with different regions of the subcontinent focusing either on rice or bread-based meals, though.

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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    I looked it up.

    I'm actually wrong, it's Food In History by Reay Tannahill published in 1973.

    Part Four: Europe, AD 1000-1500.

    Part Three: Asia Until the Middle Ages, and the Arab World.

    Or I may actually do have the Roman cookbook.
    Eats, shoots, and leaves.

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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    Quote Originally Posted by Condottiere 40K View Post
    Going by Jackie Chan movies, the Chinese ate lots of noodles while sitting on short benches. And traditionally, anything that moved or crawled.
    Nah, that's just the Cantonese. There's a saying that the Cantonese will eat anything with four legs except the tables and chairs.

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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    Crispy fried chicken is a standard dish in the Cantonese cuisine of southern China and Hong Kong.[1] The chicken is fried in such a way that the skin is extremely crunchy, but the white meat is relatively soft.[2] This is done by first boiling the chicken in water with spices (e.g. star anise, cinnamon,nutmeg, Sichuan pepper, ginger, fennel, and scallions), drying it, coating with a syrup of vinegar and sugar, letting it dry thoroughly (helps make skin crispy), and deep frying.[3]
    The dish often served with two side dishes, a pepper salt (椒鹽) and prawn crackers (蝦片).[4] The pepper salt, colored dark white to gray, is dry-fried separately in a wok.[5] It is made of salt and Sichuan pepper.[3]
    Traditionally, it is to be eaten at night. It is also one of the traditional chicken dishes used in Chinese weddings and other Asian weddings.[2][6]
    Eats, shoots, and leaves.

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    Roma_Victrix's Avatar Gatorade, is it in you?
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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    Quote Originally Posted by Condottiere 40K View Post
    Crispy fried chicken is a standard dish in the Cantonese cuisine of southern China and Hong Kong.[1] The chicken is fried in such a way that the skin is extremely crunchy, but the white meat is relatively soft.[2] This is done by first boiling the chicken in water with spices (e.g. star anise, cinnamon,nutmeg, Sichuan pepper, ginger, fennel, and scallions), drying it, coating with a syrup of vinegar and sugar, letting it dry thoroughly (helps make skin crispy), and deep frying.[3]
    The dish often served with two side dishes, a pepper salt (椒鹽) and prawn crackers (蝦片).[4] The pepper salt, colored dark white to gray, is dry-fried separately in a wok.[5] It is made of salt and Sichuan pepper.[3]
    Traditionally, it is to be eaten at night. It is also one of the traditional chicken dishes used in Chinese weddings and other Asian weddings.[2][6]
    All of the sudden, all of these pictures are starting to make sense:









    I have to wonder, did fried meat items similar to General Tso's chicken exist in pre-modern China?

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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    Speaking of Romans, I remember reading some years ago several recipes by Apicius and was surprised to see how often honey was used in there. Then again, those were quite high-class gourmet recipes, so...

    Otherwise, Ace General's Polish examples do generally fit well enough indeed for my own country (Bulgaria) as well. Sausages were common throughout Europe and intestine soup (shkembe chorba, a Turkish name) is a national dish here (we were quite worried upon entering the EU that it'll be banned due to supposed health restrictions). And kasha in modern Bulgarian simply means porridge, which indeed would have been the usual meal of the poor folk until not so long ago, along with what we call popara (bits of bread dipped in usually warm milk).
    Regarding bread, as it's said my people eat bread more than the average European, I'd say it was particularly important back then as well. And I wonder if other regions of Europe used ritual breads for the bigger Christian holidays?
    Otherwise, poor shepherd boys even in the last (20th) century would go out with just a piece of bread, white cheese and onions in the bag, f.e. Apples, beans and cabbage would've been usual as well, the latter even being the nickname of one of our tsars (the peasant-emperor Ivaylo). Though I guess the various kinds of pastries (with cheese, greens, leek or even meat) would also be usual for special occasions.

    Of course, we should also consider religion. In Orthodoxy more than half of the year is spent in various lents, which generally means no animal products in that time, which severely limits the cuisine (or enhances the appetite for the non-lenting days, perhaps).

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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    There are at least three chapters on salt.




    Parisian menu 1393>

    First course, miniature pastries filled with either beef marrow or cod liver,
    A cameline meat "brewet": pieces of meat in a thin cinnamon sauce;
    Beef marrrow fritters;
    Eels in a thick spicy puree'
    Loach in cold green sauce flavoured with spices and sage;
    Large cuts of boiled or boiled meat;
    Saltwater fish.
    Eats, shoots, and leaves.

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    Roma_Victrix's Avatar Gatorade, is it in you?
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    Default Re: Cuisine of Medieval Europe, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia: what varieties of food were available to their respective lower and upper classes?

    Quote Originally Posted by Condottiere 40K View Post
    There are at least three chapters on salt.




    Parisian menu 1393>

    First course, miniature pastries filled with either beef marrow or cod liver,
    A cameline meat "brewet": pieces of meat in a thin cinnamon sauce;
    Beef marrrow fritters;
    Eels in a thick spicy puree'
    Loach in cold green sauce flavoured with spices and sage;
    Large cuts of boiled or boiled meat;
    Saltwater fish.
    When exactly did the restaurant with a menu come about in Europe? In the 18th-century? Obviously medieval Europe was abound with its taverns, but the choice of food and drink must have been quite limited, to the point where you didn't need a menu of choices. I'm fairly certain that whatever was being cooked by the chef that day, no one argued over it or offered alternatives. After doing a bit of reading, it appears the menu in restaurants was available in 12th-century Song-dynasty China.

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