Marco Polo and the Culinary Wonders of the World

18th century print of Polo in a Tartar costume. Picture: public domain.*
18th century print of Polo in a Tartar costume. Picture: public domain.*

“Lords, emperors and kings, dukes and marquises, counts, knights and townsfolk, and all of you who wish to know the diverse races of men and the diversities of the diverse regions of the world, take this book and have it read...”[1]


The one reporting about these “great wonders and curiosities” of the world was no other than Marco Polo (1254-1324). He was a Venetian merchant who travelled extensively in the Mongol empire, and most probably visited India as well as voyaging from Peking to Burma.[2] What makes his almost twenty-year long journey so special, and his person so well-remembered, is not the fact that he explored the Far East. Many of his contemporaries did. It is rather that “never before or since”, as historian John Larner remarks, “ha[d] one man given such an immense body of new geographical knowledge to the West.”[3]


A Changing Best-Seller...

The books that circulated under Polo’s name formed the basis of late Medieval European[4] knowledge about the eastern parts and fringes of the world. About 150 manuscripts of the medieval “best seller”[5] survive to this day. It is impossible to pin down one original version of the text. Not only are the contexts of production unclear, but translators and redactors “corrected” and rewrote the books – to meet the changing needs of their changing audiences.[6] 


Why did late medieval readers turn to the Devisement dou Monde, the “Travels”, the “Book of the Great Khan”, or Il Milione?[7] They sought practical information (about geography and opportunities for merchandise) and religious edification; but they were also longing for pleasure, fulfillment of curiosity and the urge to wonder.[8] Still, the Eastern World was not a mere oneiric horizon for the European readership. Marco’s books reveal a distinctive late medieval perspective on Asia – partly moving away from painting “India” as a land of marvels and monsters (a tradition that influenced writing about the East since Pliny), but yet in absence of later colonialist ventures.[9]


... and an Ethnographic Panorama of Difference

Following Marco’s journeys, the books contain a panorama of different landscapes, flora, fauna cultures and religions: stretching from Russia to Japan, from the Middle East and the Mongolian empire to the islands around present-day Indonesia.[10] In almost every account about a certain region, Polo tells his readership about the religion of the inhabitants (are they Christian, Jewish, “idolaters”, “Saracens” – that is, Muslims?), whose subjects those people are (do they rule themselves, are they subjects to the Great Khan?), what they look like (how do they dress, are they good-looking?) as well as about their customs, social hierarchies and gender relations. But there is another kind of information about the people he encounters that Polo offers to us. It is one aspect that was fundamental to the medieval experience: food.[11]


Marco Polo in China, print in the Il Milione redaction. Picture: public domain.**
Marco Polo in China, print in the Il Milione redaction. Picture: public domain.**

Lands of Abundance

In the earliest version of the book, titled the Devisement dou Monde, one catches a glimpse of the culinary wonders that make up Marco Polo’s world. It is a world of “food ideologies”[12] that encompass fantastic realms of abundance and model societies with ideal rulership.

The Devisement’s cornucopia is found in Marco’s South-East Asia, where there seem to be no limits to fertility. The city of “Chuzhou” has “exceedingly beautiful plains and beautiful fields”, only three days to the south there are “beautiful arable lands, lots of hunting and an abundance of wheat and all grains.”[13] In the province of “Namging” one finds “all kinds of grain and all kinds of provisions in plenty; for it is a very fertile province” – and the list of fertile provinces and cities continues with “Dongpingfu”, “Lingiu”, “Gaoyou”, “Taizhou”, “Xiangyangfu”, “Zhanjiangfu”, “Chang’an”, “Suzhou”, “Qinsai” and many more, blending into each other in a mix of beautiful gardens, vivid wildlife, and more fruits of the earth than one could possibly eat.[14]

For Marco’s readership, these narratives around Chinese, Indian or southeast Asian abundance were closely tied to notions of a terrestrial paradise, located somewhere in the distant East.[15] They nourished the reader’s desire for pleasure; of which food was a source “so intense and sensual that the renunciation of it was at the core of religious world-denial”[16].


Marco’s Palate

The food of the East is not only abundant, but also delicious: whether the sheep of “Reobar”, who are “very beautiful and fat and [...] good to eat”[17], the “world’s best melons”, prepared and dried in such a way that they “become soft as honey”[18] or a kind of “edible paste that is good to eat, for I tell you that we tried a lot of it ourselves, for we ate it several times.”[19] It is wine, however, that receives more positive attention than any other foodstuff. In “Hormuz”, they make “wine from dates, with many other spices; it’s very good”[20], the people of “Talequan” are habitually drunk for their “very good cooked wine”[21], but in Cathay “they make a potion from rice and many other good spices and work it in such a way and so well that it is better to drink than any other wine.”[22]


Economic Concerns...

With his merchant’s eye, Marco is quick to notice merchandise, markets or opportunities for trade along the way. Pictures of vivid markets where precious spices[23] are sold and shipped to far-away places arise – tons and tons of “pepper, nutmeg, spikenard, galangal, cubeb, cloves, and all the expensive spices you can find in the world.”[24] He wants his readers to know that “through the middle of Jiangling flows a very great and wide river, on which a very great quantity of merchandise of silk, spices, and other things is carried up- and downriver.”[25] For a lot of the provinces and cities that are recounted, Marco also mentions the commodities that are sold by the inhabitants, if they engage in trade.


... and Questions of Survival

The status of food as a fundamental economic concern in the late Middle Ages was not limited to questions of trade – it included questions of survival, too. This is reflected in Marco Polo’s account, when the description passes through deserted and arid lands on the journey to the court of the Great Khan.[26] That merchants must carry their own food on several parts of their itinerary is remarked frequently. The most extensive preparation and care is advised when one leaves the city of “Lop”: “I tell you that whoever wishes to cross the desert [...] they acquire a month’s worth of food for themselves and their animals. Then they leave this city and enter the desert. [...] It is all mountains, sand, and valleys, with nothing to eat. [...] Throughout the whole desert you must go a day and a night before finding water: and I tell you that in three or four places, bitter and salty water is found, and in all the other places it is good: about 28 sources of water. There are no animals or birds, for there is nothing for them to eat.”[27]


The Mongol court, print one of the French redactions (Livre des merveilles), 1410-1412. Picture: public domain.***
The Mongol court, print one of the French redactions (Livre des merveilles), 1410-1412. Picture: public domain.***

Ideals and Transgressions

The Devisement contains attitudes toward the “edible exotic”[28], as well as normative implications and food taboos.[29] An intricate description of the feasts held at the Mongol ruler’s court serves as an ideal of civility, sophistication and glory. On a lot of occasions, however, the foodways of foreigners are judged harshly. Eating habits are condemned when are incompatible with late medieval Christian beliefs and dogmas. Even though it is called the “most noble city of Quinsai”, the people “eat all kinds of meat: dogs and all other brute beasts and animals that no Christian would eat for anything in the world.”[30] Food serves as a cultural delimiter in those cases: the “Others” do not distinguish between clean and unclean meat.[31]


The ultimate transgression is represented by cases where humans eat humans. The Devisement tapped into a longstanding literary tradition of ascribing cannibalistic tendencies to marginal peoples.[32] At the Mongol’s court, necromancers from “Tibet” and “Kashmir” who “know more diabolical arts and spells than all other men” eat the flesh of condemned prisoners.[33] The people of “Fuzhou” do not indulge in human flesh if their victim has died a natural death; but “those that have been killed by arms they eat completely and consider it to be very good meat”, which is the reason they go “killing men every day”.[34] What is striking in Marco’s account is that we can observe a shift of center and periphery. Whereas earlier travel reports about the Mongols described them as cannibals,[35] the Venetian located the fringes – and human-eaters – elsewhere.


Food and Foodways in the Devisement dou Monde

There is much that the Devisement does not mention – such as different local dietary philosophies, cuisines, recipes, modes of preparation, poverty in the lands “India” or “Mangi”, or details on the food served at the Mongol court.[36] These omissions point to the fact that food and foodways were not of primary or sole interest to the Devisement’s authors, redactors and late medieval readership. As an ethnographic record of different peoples, the role of food in the process of identification was varied and often less important than other markers such as religion or form of rule. But still, it was noteworthy – especially when difference was observed. To understand Marco Polo’s account, it is therefore crucial to pay attention to eating habits. The description of food and foodways was a reason for the contemporary appeal of the books. And it probably still is today, since Marco Polo’s journey continues to fuel popular imagination of foreign lands and foods.


Written by Lisa Blum

Further Reading:

Khanmohamadi, Shirin A.: In Light of Another’s Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages, Philadelphia 2014.

Larner, John: Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World, New Haven, Conn. 1999. 

Münkler, Marina: Marco Polo. Leben und Legende, München 2015.

Münkler, Marina: Erfahrung des Fremden. Die Beschreibung Ostasiens in den Augenzeugenberichten des 13. und 14. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 2000.

Phillips, Kim M.: Before Orientalism: Asian peoples and cultures in European travel writing, 1245-1510, Philadelphia, Penn. 2014.



[1] Polo, Marco / Kinoshita, Sharon (transl. and ed.): The Description of the World. Indianapolis 2016, p. 1.

[2] Vogel, Hans Ulrich: Marco Polo was in China. New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues, Leiden et al. 2013, p. 2.

[3] Larner, John: Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World, New Haven, Conn. 1999, p. 1.

[4] In this text, „European“ refers not to some late medieval concept of a unified European culture, but simply serves as a geographical description of the places where Marco Polo’s account was read.

[5] Polo / Kinoshita 2016, p. xv.

[6] Gaunt, Simon: Marco Polo’s “Le devisement du monde”: Narrative Voice, Language and Diversity, Cambridge et al. 2013, p. 23; Münkler, Marina: Marco Polo. Leben und Legende, München 2015, p. 53.

[7] All of those are names of different redactions of the text.

[8] Phillips, Kim M.: Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510, Philadelphia, Penn. 2013, p. 38.

[9] Phillips 2013, p. 2-5.

[10] vgl. Larner 1999, p. 1 f.

[11] Walker Bynum, Caroline: Holy Feast and Holy Fast. The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, Berkeley 1987, p. 1.

[12] Albala, Ken: Eating Right in the Renaissance, Berkeley, CA. 2002, p. 165.

[13] Polo / Kinoshita 2016, p. 120.

[14] Ibid., p. 118-141.

[15] Phillips 2013, p. 85.

[16] Walker Bynum 1987, p. 3.

[17] Polo / Kinoshita 2016, p. 29.

[18] Ibid., p. 36.

[19] Ibid., p. 154.

[20] Ibid., p. 30.

[21] Ibid., p. 37.

[22] Ibid., p. 91.

[23] The term “spices” incorporated not only seasonings, but also perfumes and medical substances

[24] Polo / Kinoshita 2016, p. 149.

[25] Ibid., p. 117.

[26] Ibid., p. 32, 41, 44, 50.

[27] Ibid., p. 44.

[28] Shapin, Steven: ‘You are what you eat’: historical changes in ideas about food and identity, in: Historical Research 87/237 (2014), p. 380.

[29] Albala 2002, p. 4.

[30] Polo / Kinoshia 2016, p. 134.

[31] Scully, Terence: Our Food, Foreign Foods: Food as a Cultural Delimiter in the Middle Ages, in: Mullally, Evelyn / Thompson, John (eds.): The Court and Cultural Diversity. Selected Papers from the Eighth Triennial Congress of the International Courtly Literature Society, Cambridge 1997, p. 333-341.

[32] Phillips 2013, p. 90 and Gaunt 2013, p. 164.

[33] Polo / Kinoshita 2016, p. 65.

[34] Ibid., p. 139.

[35] Piano Carpine, Johannes von / Gießauf, Johannes (transl. and ed.): Die Mongolengeschichte. Einführung, Text, Übersetzung, Kommentar, Graz 1995, p. 144-147; Rubruck, Wilhelm von / Risch, Friedrich (transl. and ed.): Reise zu den Mongolen 1253-1255, Leipzig 1934, p. 44-48; Phillips 2013, p. 74-76.

[36] Phillips 2013, p. 87. 


Pictures (incl. external links, last access 15.02.22):

*Attribution by Grevembrock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons:

Page-URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marco_Polo_-_costume_tartare.jpg

File-URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Marco_Polo_-_costume_tartare.jpg


**Attribution by Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons:

Page-URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marco_Polo_traveling.JPG

File-URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/Marco_Polo_traveling.JPG


*** Attribution by Mazarine Master, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons:

Page-URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BNF_Fr2810_f136v_Frontispice_Grant_Kaan_de_Cathay.jpeg




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