Beans: Superfood for Ming Maritime Expeditions

Zheng He Expedition by

One Belt One Road: Interesting facts for the history of the ancient Silk Roads

Long before beans were categorized as one of the superfoods in the West, the Chinese have already been using and consuming beans of all shapes, colors and sizes for thousands of years as a valuable nutritional food.

As many of us recognized today, beans are an important part of the food and healthy diet in the Far East (China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.) and they have also been made into various by products, such as soy sauce, soya milk, bean curd (tofu or doufu), soy bean cooking oil, bean paste, noodles, natto, etc., and of course, there are the bean sprouts and green beans, eaten raw or cooked as an ingredient in other food dishes. Soya sauce was first fermented in China over 2500 years ago.

During the long expeditions of the old Maritime Silk Road of the Ming dynasty from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean, Admiral Zheng He who took charge of these expeditions under the Ming emperors, bean was part of the main staple which included rice, millet and wheat. They could stay fresh and provide great nutritional value for the crew during their long voyages, and prevented them contracting diseases such as scurvy and beriberi that afflicted the Western crews, such as those of Christopher Columbus, etc. years later. Scurvy is a disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C, characterized by initial fatigue, swollen bleeding gums, the formation of spots on the skin and the opening of previously healed wounds. Unlike their Western counterparts, the Chinese were fully aware of the dangers of scurvy and had the remedies to prevent it. According to Chinese records and the Western historian, Gavin Menzies, besides beans, they stocked up enough citrus fruits, such as lemons, limes, oranges, red tunics, pomelos and coconuts which helped prevent their men from the disease.

Bean sprouts by


You can imagine how useful, nutritious and valuable and delicious these foods were to the crews of Zheng He. Of course, their expeditions also carried fresh food such as cabbages, turnips, bamboo shoots, etc. among others but when these items ran out they were quickly replenished with fresh, new “vegetables” like bean sprouts flavored with fermented soy sauce.

Beans were by far not the only “dry” foods available for the crews on board as they also carried dried salted and fermented fish among other food provisions but they form a very important part of their daily diet.

The nutritional value of beans, and soy beans, in particular, is now well known and widely available in supermarkets in the West and all around the world today but this was not so even a few decades ago.


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