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Jul 2, 2010 11:08 AM

When was corn first introduced to China?

... and how prevalent is corn in Chinese cuisine?

But first question first. I've always understood that corn was first introduced to mainland China during the Columbian Exchange in or around 1492. But this paper I stumbled across seems to pour cold water on that theory.

A more interesting question to Chowhounds, I suppose, may be how the Chinese originally used corn in their cooking.

Nowadays, I suppose there are obvious things like creamed corn chowder or corn soup, or corn maybe mixed into fried rice or some sort of moo-shu filling, but those are really sort of bastardized versions of European dishes, or Americanized foodstuffs.

I can't think of any truly authentic recipes that either use corn as a main ingredient, or corn flour or cornmeal as a base.

Any thoughts?

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  1. Corn is quite popular in China's Northeast (Dongbei) region, where it is used in cornmeal type breads as well as some stir-fry dishes. One today can find millet in the rice served in Dongbei restaurants. According to E. N. Anderson (The Food of China, 1988), maize was known to be present in China by 1555 at the latest - possibly introduced by the Portuguese who found it grew well in a tropical climate. And in Taipei, I've seen corn mixed with ice cream bars. Delicious.

    1. " creamed corn chowder or corn soup, or corn maybe mixed into fried rice or some sort of moo-shu filling," - these all use fresh sweet corn, right? Baby corn is also common in vegetable mixes (and commonly sold canned).

      However in the 16th C I expect most corn, whether in the West, or China was the mature field corn. The mostly likely way of eating that is a corn mush (polenta), which in many countries was adopted as an inexpensive food for the poor. If the same pattern was true for China, we wouldn't expect to find many recipes using it. Until the last century or two, written recipes recorded royal and wealthy class eating, not peasant cooking.

      2 Replies
      1. re: paulj

        Not sure if it matters whether the corn was mature or not – it can be planted just about anywhere as it is a high yield crop, easy to grow in hilly and poor soil. The earliest known record of daily cooking in Chinese life can be found in the sixth-century classic 齊民要術 (Qi2 Min2 Yao4 Shu4.) The first court recipes (circa 200 BCE) are found clearly written on bamboo strips unearthed at the #1 Han Tomb at Huxishan (near Changsha) in 1999. The first recipes to emerge of a regional cuisine (Sichuan) appeared in the late 18th century.

        1. re: scoopG

          Sweet corn is a relatively recent development in the long long history of maize - for most of its history, the use has been of dried corn.

          Corn is an interesting cereal crop because, in warm climates, you can get 2-3 plantings in one growing season, which is one reason it is such an incredible demographic boost compared to almost any other cereal staple crop. Potatoes are possibly the only competitor (at least in temperate climates - some tropical tubers might qualify) for the amount of calories per unit of land one can get over a growing season.

      2. dunno history of corn cultivation in china, but know that the typical was a highly starchy white corn until the last 7 years or so when exporting pushed the sweet yellow corn into pre-dominance. 1980's and early 90's living in BJ could find street vendors boiling ears for breakfast (warmed the hands and the tummy on chill morns), lunch or dinner. Corn also was predominant in Shanxi, Shaanxi area which is arid and not good for rice production.
        Corn stores well for winter and is often dried ears are hung by the door at Lunar New Year for good luck.
        Corn kernel stirfry with pine nuts is a favorite vegetarian dish in north china.
        the creamed corn soup is likely from the Brits bringing in canned stuff to the legations and HK.

        1. Perhaps the corn was used as animal feed instead of for people. Many types of corn are not suitable for human consumption. I was in Germany back in the 80's, and I managed to shock my German friends when I told them we ate corn in the US. For them, corn was only for livestock because their corn obviously wasn't the sweet corn that is eaten by people.

          1 Reply
          1. re: raytamsgv

            No, not for animal consumption although corn stalks were valued for their sugar, firewood capacity and use in building materials. Corn, along with other New World crops helped to fuel a population explosion after being introduced. China's dominant animal protein has always been the pig, who do not require feed.

          2. As a current expat in Beijing, I can attest that corn is frequently a "toss in/toss on" item. It is always in salads and on pizzas. However, since I was raised in the Southern US, my definition of "corn" is verrrry different from what is available here. I'd love to see some Sugar Queen or Truckers' Choice. The corn we see here pretty much meets my definition of "Feed corn" -- dry, small, not sweet, not robustly yellow, not tasty, not even "corny."
            One of our earliest Corn-in-China memories concerns the first time we were able to visit the expat enclave area of ShunYi, just outside of Beijing near the airport. You would be passing super-expensive housing in walled compounds on both sides of the road, but the taxi would be creeping along because half to 2/3's of the road was covered in drying ears of shucked corn.

            @makanhounds Corn is definitely still a street food here in BJ. And, it's still not good corn, but overly steamed flavourless stuff. My family frequently comments about how shocking it is that the corn here is of such low quality, since it is also so prevalent.

            The best corn in Beijing-- is at McDonalds. They have a "cup of corn" as a side dish. It's robust, yellow, juicy, full of flavour, and probably has a little butter/butter flavouring added.

            @paulj -- frankly, NO veg-etable or "starch-etable" is commonly found canned in any of the Chinese grocery stores. And, the only places I've ever found baby corn were at the American Foreign Grocery Stores. Baby Corn is one of those items I thought I would see--and use-- a lot when I moved here. Also impossible to find-- canned or jarred bamboo.

            @scoopG -- any pea-sized bean/starch of which you can think is put into ice cream bars here. Black bean, green pea/chowder pea, red bean, soy bean, corn...

            @Sam Fujisaka -- I'd love to see your thoughts on this thread!

            2 Replies
            1. re: Kris in Beijing


              Sadly, Sam Fujisaka died in April. It was announced on Site Talk. He is much missed.


              1. re: Kris in Beijing

                Man you are right about corn in Beijing. Steamed, gummy, and revolting. The first time I ate it was after a two-hour stair climb at Fragrant Mountain. Hungry and thirsty, I took one bite and hurled it off the mountaintop.