Within the context of the Silk Roads, China has often been regarded as a country of export. However, throughout the history of these routes a number of goods have been introduced to China via the Silk Roads. These have included types of fruit, crops, herbs and spices as well as various medicines.
The Central Asian regions to the west of China have introduced many products to the Central Plains of China. For example, during the Han and Jin Dynasties (265-420 CE) nomadic people from the Eurasian prairie introduced crops such as carrots, walnuts, garlic, flax seeds, and cucumber to China via the Northern Silk Road. One example of the impact of these imports on gastronomy is Nang Bing, a type of flat bread popular in the Western regions of China that was introduced to Chang'an by people from Central Asia during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).
Furthermore, during the Tang Dynasty, many of these people from western regions settled in China opening cake shops in Chang'an. One of the most popular products these shops sold was ‘Biluo’ a type of cake resembling a pillow that is translucent, allowing the colour of the inner ingredients to be seen from the outside. During the Tang dynasty, many of the cake shops in Chang’an sold different types of Biluo with different sweet and savoury flavours including crab roe fillings, meat, vegetable, and cherry.
In addition to these foods, a large number of spices, medicines and plants, like pepper were transmitted to China through regions such as the Indian Subcontinent. Pepper was introduced to China during the Han (2nd century BCE-1st century CE), Jin (265-420 CE) and Southern and Northern Dynasties (386-589 CE). It was originally used for medicinal purposes, but later, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) it was used in cooking.
After the Tang Dynasty, China began to grow pepper in its southern regions, however the output was not high enough to match the demand and pepper continued to be imported from abroad. During this time, pepper had a number of different functions and was used in cooking, medicine, as well as Taoism rituals, and was therefore considered very valuable.
During the Song Dynasty, due to developments in maritime transportation, pepper was imported in large quantities and was no longer as scarce or as precious as it had been during the Han or Tang Dynasties. However, for most of people, especially in rural areas, pepper remained an expensive and rare ingredient saved for special occasions such as cooking for guests. During the Ming Dynasty the Maritime Silk Roads greatly increased the import of pepper to China where it was sometimes used to pay officials their salary.
Foods and ingredients, such as ‘Nang Bing’, ‘Biluo’ and pepper, reaching China via the Silk Roads are examples of cultural interactions that enriched the Chinese gastronomy.