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Beef: Ancient and Important
Fall Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(3) page(s): 7, 8, 9, and 10
Meat is meat is meat, is it not? Say meat in the United States and listeners assume you are referring to the flesh of cows. Say that in China and the meat in question is thought to be the flesh of a pig. Meat of cows and other bovine animals was more popular in years past than now, so the term meat and its popularity have changed.
In Chinese, the word beef, yak, and water buffalo are translated by some, and similarly called murou or niurou. While water buffalo and yak and related animals have been referred to as beef, technically they are not even though they are used interchangeably in preparing main course and other dishes in the kitchens of the Middle Kingdom. All of them were domesticated thousands of years ago. The males are called bulls, the females simply called cows. All were found in central China and throughout early dynastic reigns and most of China’s emperors deemed them very important and very good.
Bones of all three of these animals were found near the mouth of the Yangtze River as well as in the provinces of Zhekiang and Kiangsu. Their remains were also found near Han dynasty tombs in and around Homutu and Machiapeng. Historians believe some were used for ploughing and other field work, some for ritual purposes, and all were used for food. Radiocarbon dating of their remains puts their use at least as early as the Yangshao era, circa 5000 to 3200 BCE. What is not known is if any or all of these animals were domesticated then or how they specifically were used. In the fourth century BCE, they were found and used in several areas including in and around Shanghai.
There are very few pictures of these animals other then some heads and tails; and they look as expected. However, not known is whether any of them had one, two, or no humps. If they had two humps, the probability is they were introduced from India. While historians have not answered all specific question, they assure us that their meat was in greater demand than was that of pigs and their related brethren. Writings indicate adequate beef was available for the rich and the elderly, and only a little pork was there for most poor peasants.
Several hundred years after the Han Dynasty, interest in beef diminished. The most important reason given is that it became shameful to consume cows because of serious shortages due to beef use as a major sacrificial food. Thus it was needed and reserved for ritual purposes, as was meat from oxen and lambs.
Bones of cows, water buffalo, and yaks were major sources, as were turtle bones; all used for oracle-bone use. Many were found with prayerful words of hope written on them. Where they cracked was considered a heavenly sign foretelling the future. If people wished for a food item such as wheat, millet, rice, chestnuts, mulberries, apricots, or jujubes and the bones cracked on or near one or more of these words, the Chinese believed their wishes would be granted.
By the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), food use for bovine animals decreased even more, probably due to greater adherence to Buddhism. In addition, pharmacologists singled out beef as inappropriate to eat. Religious leaders and rulers said proper use of these animals was agricultural, and they caused illness. Eating black oxen was to avoided altogether.
Long before the reductions in bovine use took hold, a Shang ancestor, called Wang Hai, declared and emperors reiterated that cows and oxen were among six important domesticated animals. The others were sheep, pigs, horses, dogs, and chickens. These animals were raised in large herds. In the Book of Rites called the Li Ji also spelled Li Chi, they were reported as staple foods.
One recipe in the above-mentioned volume says beef should be steeped in wine for twenty-four hours, then eaten with pickles, vinegar, and the juice of prunes. Another says to grill it and make it into balls made of beef, sheep, and pork mixed together with rice, and used in soup. This formula indicates one part meat and two parts rice, and it goes on to say they can be used in more than soups and can be fried and eaten hot or cold. All six of the domesticated animals were mentioned among eight delicacies, and mentioned in thirteen poems in the Shi Qing, the Chu Li, and other early written works.
In the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), beef's popularity continued to decline. By then, it was no longer listed on banquet menus and rarely considered an important restaurant food. During these times, emperors declared cattle should be praised as contributors to human life. Thus, their use as offerings declined as did the use of their tallow in temple candles. Another dictum contributing to their decline was the then belief that eating beef contributed to infanticide.
These considerable changes of thought, from early Confucian times when cows were venerated and wanted for agricultural purposes and when many were eaten, was readily accepted. Buddhists aided in the reduction of their use as did scholars who said that those who raise them were more evil and cruel than tigers.
Common folk readily accepted these thoughts even though many regarded cows as members of the family, akin to the way dogs are adored today. Nonetheless, they accepted this thinking reserving these so-called family members as workers in the fields, there to help raise more food for personal consumption. So beef remained somewhat off-limits and aversions to killing them escalated. Only the poor and China's Muslims felt and acted differently.
During Qing Dynasty times (1644 - 1911 CE), aversions to beef at the highest levels remained. The imperial court suggested that if families abstained from beef, their members could more easily pass examinations for higher office. Many Chinese believed the royals. They also thought of beef as strong-tasting akin to lamb. While many did like beef and continued to eat some; and there was more conspicuous consumption in the north, less in the south. What with huge increases in the population and decreases in land for grazing, these were reasons to eat less beef. Despite these thoughts, in Guangzhou, beef made with oyster sauce remained a favorite. Northern preferences continued with people there continuing to grill beef on skewers eating it as a snack.
In the yin/yang dichotomy, as in consumption of these four-legged animals, there was and still are mixed thoughts about eating beef. Overall, these foods are thought to philosophically be hot foods. Therefore, serving them to pregnant women makes sense because the 'condition of pregnancy' is considered cold.
There are some reports that indicate beef is warm; one source called it neutral. All agree that this meat, when made with leeks and onions, is good for spleen deficiency. The Chinese medical practitioners we spoke to advised that beef has a propensity for stomach and spleen channels, invigorates qi, enriches yin, strengthens bones, and improves blood. A few sources told us that concentrated beef soup relieves diarrhea.
Other than in dishes, early consumption of beef was more than simply serving it cooked one way or another. Beef and other bovine foods then were fermented and made into sauces, not unlike oyster sauce. They were made from finely chopped meat, salt, and a ferment or starter. These jiangs or sauces were used to flavor fresh meat, fresh or dried fish and shellfish, and vegetable dishes. With good understandings of problems associated with fresh meats, the early Chinese knew enough to trim as much fat as possible from the animal flesh to reduce the possibility of producing a rancid sauce.
An early Zhou sauce recipe, also found in the Book of Rites or Li Ji, was probably written as early as the second century BCE. It calls for ten parts meat, five parts ferment powder, two parts salt, and one part yellow mold. This mixture was to be put in a jar, buried under a pile of cereal husks, and left there for two weeks. At that time, it was to be smelled and looked at. If the aroma of fermentation was gone, then it could be used. If not, it was to be covered again and smelled and viewed a few days later.
Another ancient use of beef was drying it. Called fu, this was originally reserved for ceremonial and festive use; after which it was to be eaten. Popular then was making dry meat slices with the same spices used in today’s five-flavor powder. The flesh was cut with the grain and in small pieces. Some slices were smoked then dried. To dry them, the north side of a building was considered a good location; they were to be hung on strings there. Sometimes meats were covered with paper, a technique that kept insects at bay.
Bones were dried, too. They could be chopped before or after drying, and preserved in order to use them in soups and stocks when fresh bones were unavailable. Such bones were found at the neolithic village of Ban Po, near Xian. Also found there were dried fish, many fried in beef fat, called tallow.
Today, beef is used in greater quantities in the north than in the south, and the Chinese Muslim population wherever they live use beef. It is often dipped in egg white or whole eggs, alone or as a batter, mixed with soy, spices, and sauce, and cooked. In the south, beef with strong vegetables is still popular.
Here are some recipes that use beef in common and less common ways. Try them all and enjoy!
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