The most reliable ships in the world in the 14th and early 15th century, and by far the biggest, were the Chinese junks.
An admiral’s staff included 180 medical officers and every ship and company of soldiers had a medical officer for every 150 men. There was a varied and plentiful diet on the treasure ships, but the perils of voyaging through uncharted waters meant that life expectancy was short: only one in ten returned from the great voyages of exploration and discovery.
The staple foods- soya beans, wheat, millet and rice- were carried in special grain ships, enabling the fleet to stay at sea for several months without replenishing supplies, but if the grain ship sank, the whole fleet was in desperate trouble. Soya beans, grown in tubs all year round, were used in several ways. Soaked in water, they sprouted “yellow Curls” from the green bean. The sprouting process increased the content of ascorbic acid, riboflavin and nicotinic acid, the basis of vitamin C, and protected the crew from the deficiency disease, scurvy.
The Chinese knew well the dangers of scurvy and the remedies to prevent it. Enough citrus fruit-limes, lemons oranges pomelosand coconuts – was taken aboard to give every man protection against the disease for three months.
Some of the rice was brown, not polished, and the husks contained vitamin B1. As a result, beri-beri, a disease causing degeneration of the nervous system, was rare among the crew. Fresh vegetables mainly comprised cabbages, turnips and bamboo shoots. When they ran out, the sprouting soya beans were particularly valuable. Soya beans also produced “milk”. When boiled it became curd, or tofu, rich in vitamin D, while fermentation of soya produced soy sauce. Tofu and vegetables were flavoured with a sauce made from fermented fish, soy dried herbs and spices, or glutamate made by chewing wheat flour. The grains were chewed, spat out into a container and left to ferment. Noodles, pasta and dumplings were also made from wheat flour. Sugar cane was used to sweeten dried fruit and was also chewed raw by the crew.
Fruits and vegetables were preserved in ingenious ways. Fruit was dried or caramelized, pears, bamboo shoots and grapes were buried in the sand and vegetables were salted, pickled and marinated in vinegar and sugar.
Meat was limited, for the most part comprising Chinese pigs, dogs bred for the purpose and frogs kept in a tub. Chickens were kept for divination and were never on board, but fresh, salted and dried fish were plentiful.
They were caught by trained otters, working in pairs to heard shoals into the nets, and were caught by an array of hooks and nets. The crew drank green oolong and red tea, carried in leaf and cake form as well as the ever popular rice wine (jiu). Wine was also distilled into liqueurs, brandy and vinegar.
The junks required huge quantities of fresh water for the crew and the horses and replenished their tanks whenever an opportunity arose, but they also knew how to distil it from sea-water, using paraffin and seal blubber for fuel. Their capacity to desalinate sea-water and the fresh vegetables they carried gave them the ability to cross the broadest oceans.
The overall diet was infinitely more varied and nutritious than that provided for Magellan almost a century later- “ We ate only old biscuits turned into powder, full of worms and stinking of the urine the rats made on it”. On the junks, rats were hunted by the sailors’ little ship-dogs.