Earlier this year I bought a kilo of pork belly in order to make some zhajiang – a satisfyingly salty pork-based sauce that’s popular served with noodles in Beijing. As I unwrapped the slab of meat that lay on my kitchen counter I got a shock; pigs, apparently, have nipples. With the benefit of hindsight, I realise, this sounds silly – of course pigs have nipples. I just didn’t expect to see three of them on my pork belly, and very human-looking they were too.
I have a short and chequered past when it comes to meat. I was completely vegetarian until the age of 18, and while I now eat almost anything when I’m travelling, I seldom cook meat at home. However, briefly inspired by Jen Lin-Liu’s book, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China, I decided to try and round out my Chinese cooking repertoire with a few meat dishes, which set me on the path to my benippled zhajiang sauce. That piece of pork belly reminded me that, as flexible as I might try to be, I’m still not completely comfortable with cooking and eating meat. So I decided to stick to cooking things that I really enjoy eating – vegetarian dishes, basically, hence the alarming frequency with which I blog about tofu.
China has had a long relationship with vegetarianism, and temporary abstinence from meat was used as a purification ritual even before the introduction of Buddhism to the country. China’s Buddhist monks have been largely vegetarian ever since the vegetarian Emperor Liang Wudi fabricated a sutra to drum up support for his unpopular proposal that Buddhist monks refrain from eating meat in the 6th century – a wonderful (if apocryphal) example of China’s early intellectual property infringements.
For much of recorded history, China’s common people (the ‘old hundred surnames’, or lǎobǎixìng 老百姓) could only afford to eat meat on special occasions, which led to the development of the typical stir-fry, where a little meat is padded out with vegetables, as beautifully documented in Fuschia Dunlop’s latest cookbook. Meat and fish have a special place in people’s hearts here, evoking feelings of celebration and plenty – as they do in many places. (As a vegetarian child, I was most often asked what we ate for Christmas lunch, the other 364 days of the year apparently being of lesser concern.)
Meanwhile, Buddhist vegetarian restaurants in China developed a rich array of mock meats, usually gluten or tofu in disguise, to sate this need for protein and desire for meat. Many restaurants also adhere to Buddhist dietary rules in excluding onions, garlic, leeks, chives and shallots, their pungent flavours being considered too ‘arousing’. The result is a cuisine full of interesting dishes – mock duck, fake steak – but also one that is difficult for the home cook to recreate and excludes some fantastic ingredients.
Today’s rising incomes have seen meat consumption in China increase dramatically – from 14kg per person per year in 1980 to 60kg in 2005, a stunning 430 per cent increase in 25 years.* Wherever you are, industrial agriculture takes a heavy toll on the environment, particularly when it comes to rearing livestock, which uses many times more grain and water than growing plant crops.
There’s no need for everyone to become vegetarian, but we could probably all do with eating more vegetables, for our own health, as well as the environment’s. Finding and sharing delicious, easy vegetarian recipes seems to be a good way to do this, so for now I’ll carry on with my experiments in Chinese homestyle cooking, just without the nipples…
* Per capita consumption of meat in developed countries averaged 95kg per year in 2005. Statistics from the FAO.