Meat

Meat

By
Fuchsia Dunlop
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
ISBN
9781408869239
Photographer
Chris Terry

Until recently, meat was considered a luxury in China. Most people ate it only rarely, as the longed-for relish that added richness and flavour to a diet based on grains and vegetables. Only at the Chinese New Year – when every rural household slaughtered a pig and feasted on its meat throughout the holiday – was flesh at the centre of the Chinese dinner table. I remember one man telling me that in the bitter years of the 1960s and 1970s, when even grain was scarce, he would use a single slice of belly pork to wipe his hot wok and lend his vegetables some of its savour, before putting it away to use another time; others have told me that they had tantalising dreams about meat.

Even in times of plenty, moderation in diet has traditionally been seen as a sign of good character in China, and images of the tao tie, a mythological beast that is thought to represent the vice of gluttony, have served as a warning against self-indulgence. The epitome of the evil ruler in China is the last king of the ancient Shang Dynasty, who not only hosted orgies, but entertained his guests with a ‘lake of wine and a forest of meat’. In contrast, the sage Confucius showed his self-restraint in a fastidious approach to food and drink, refusing to eat food that had not been properly cut or cooked and not allowing himself to eat more meat than rice.

Although in recent decades, with rising living standards and the advent of factory farming, meat has become cheaper and more widely available, many people, especially in the countryside, still live mainly on rice or noodles, with plenty of vegetables and tofu and small amounts of delicious meat. It’s the kind of dietary system recommended more and more by those around the world who are concerned about the environmental consequences of factory farming and the effects on the body of eating too much grain-fed, intensively reared flesh.

The Chinese food system lends itself readily to the frugal use of meat. Most ingredients are cut into small pieces so they can be cooked quickly and eaten with chopsticks. As little as half a chicken breast or a couple of rashers of bacon, stir-fried with vegetables, can be shared by a whole family, while a potful of red-braised pork or a whole fish, served alongside a few vegetable dishes, is enough meat for a group. (The idea of serving an entire steak or sea bass for each person is unthinkable in traditional Chinese terms.) Tofu, cooked with mouthwatering seasonings, is a rich source of protein, while the use of preserved vegetables and fermented sauces gives largely vegetarian ingredients the tempting savoury tastes associated with meat.

For the ethnic Han majority in China, ‘meat’ means pork unless otherwise stated. Lamb and mutton are sometimes eaten in the north, with its proximity to nomadic pasturelands, and are strongly associated with the Muslim and Mongolian minorities. In the south they are traditionally disdained for their ‘muttony taste’ and generally eaten infrequently. Beef plays a minor role in traditional Chinese cooking: in the past oxen were primarily regarded as beasts of burden and there were periodic bans on their slaughter for meat. Other kinds of flesh – including goat, rabbit, venison and other game – are eaten in some regions and on some occasions.

Pork, the mainstay of Chinese meat cooking, is eaten fresh, brined, smoked, salt-cured and, in some areas, pickled. And, frankly, I don’t know anyone who does pork better than the Chinese, with their marvellous hams and bacons, their sumptuous roasts and slow braises, and their skilful use of just a little meat to bring magic to a whole potful of vegetables.

The recipes that follow, which include some of the most delicious Chinese meat dishes I know, are designed to be eaten with vegetable dishes as part of a Chinese meal. A dish of twice-cooked pork uses a relatively small amount of meat and will feed four or more people when served with other dishes. Red-braised pork or beef will go further if you add vegetables or tofu to the pot. Lamb may be used as a substitute for beef in some recipes, and either lamb, beef or chicken for pork, especially in stir-fries (Muslim restaurants in China usually serve beef or mutton versions of classic pork dishes). But whatever meat you choose, I recommend putting the expense into quality rather than quantity and buying the best you can afford.

Recipes in this Chapter

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