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Beef: Ancient and Important

by Jacqueline M. Newman


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.

By Han Dynasty times (206 BCE - 220 CE), all three of these animals (beef--at far left, yak--with slight line above, and water buffalo-- at the right) were in great demand for field work. With ample remains in and near the above-mentioned Han tombs, it is almost certain many were consumed; and from the written word on oracle bones and bamboo slips, they were popular at royal feasts. Later writings on silk and paper referring to Han times concur with these findings.

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!
Fujianese Beef Fried Rice
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 pound flank steak
2 eggs, beaten well
3 cups cooked short-grain white rice
1 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 dry scallop, soaked for half hour, then shredded by hand
2 ounces whole shrimp, shells and veins removed, cut in half, head to tail
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 Tablespoon fermented red rice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1/4 cup sugar snap peas, sliced in half-inch pieces, on an angle
1/4 cup roast duck meat, cut into thin strips (optional)
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with an equal amount of cold water
1 Heat wok, add oil and then the beef, fry it for one minute and remove to a plate.
2. Scramble the eggs just until they start to set. Then add rice and fry for two minutes before removing setting these aside in a bowl.
3. Heat stock and add all the remaining ingredients except for the beef, egg mixture, and the cornstarch mixture. Simmer this for three minutes, then add the beef and the egg-rice mixture and simmer another two minutes before adding the cornstarch mixture. Stir-fry this one minute until thick, then serve.
Beef on Greens, Southern Style
1 pound coarsely ground beef
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons lard
1 two-inch square of tangerine peel, fresh or dried and soaked, then minced
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 scallion, minced well
1/2 pound mustard greens
1. Stir beef, salt, sesame oil, sugar, and lard for about two minutes (the Chinese indicate doing so only in one direction).
2. Add tangerine peel, cornstarch, and scallions, and continue mixing just until well-blended. Then shape the meat into one-inch balls and set on a deep heat-proof plate Put plate in steamer over boiling water and steam for seven minutes, then remove the beef balls to a hot plate and cover them with another plate, to keep them warm.
3 Heat a wok, add the liquid remaining from the steamed beef balls, and add the mustard greens. Stir fry about three minutes or until wilted.
4. Remove the greens to a serving platter, and reduce the sauce in the wok to about three tablespoons after putting the beef balls on top of the greens. Pour the reduced sauce on top, and serve.
Noodles Soup, Sichuan Style
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
8 scallions, cut into one-inch lengths
8 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half the long way
8 slices fresh ginger, cut each slice in half the long way
1 teaspoon chili paste with garlic
2 sticks Chinese cinnamon
3 star anise
1/2 cup thin soy sauce
1 pound boneless beef chuck, cut into one-inch cubes
6 ounces rice noodles, soaked for half an hour
1/4 pound spinach, stems removed
1. Heat wok, add oil and stir-fry scallions, garlic, ginger, and chili sauce for one minute, then remove to a pot and add the cinnamon, star anise, and the soy sauce, and let rest for fifteen minutes.
2. Reheat the wok, and stir-fry the beef on very high heat for two minutes, then add it to the pot along with eight cups of water. Bring this to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Then remove the cinnamon sticks and star anise, and discard. Add the spinach and rice noodles, and serve directly into individual soup bowls.
Beef and Thousand Year Eggs, Taiwanese Style
1/2 pound sirloin steak, cut into one-eighth by three inch strips
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
16 thousand-year pigeon eggs
2 iron eggs or thousand-year duck eggs, each cut into eighths
3 slices fresh ginger, peeler and cut into thin strips
1. Mix steak strips, mushroom soy, rice wine, cornstarch, and sesame oil. Set aside for fifteen minutes.
2. Heat a wok to medium and stir-fry the sesame seeds in this dry wok just until they are golden brown. Remove them to a plate until needed. Use a spatter shield between stirs as the seeds can pop all over the place.
3. Heat vegetable oil and stir-fry the meat mixture for half a minute; the meat will be very pink inside, brown on the outside. Then add both types of preserved eggs and one tablespoon of water. Stir-fry another half minute before adding the ginger. Stir well this for yet another half minute, add the sesame seeds, stir once, and serve.
Hot-pot, Northern Style
1 pound sirloin steak cut into thin one by three-inch slices
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon and one tablespoon sesame oil, used separately
1 Chinese cabbage, cut in two-inch widths
3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut into three or four slices each
3 quarts chicken stock, more if needed to add to the hotpot later
1 or 2 ounces of bean thread noodles, soaked for ten minutes, then drained, and using a scissor, cut into four-inch-length sections, then put into a serving bowl
20 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked, stems removed, then boiled for five minutes, drained, and mushrooms put in a separate serving bowl, mushroom water put into a hotpot or a large pot that can come to the table
1 pound Chinese spinach, stems removed, put on a serving plate
1 pound baby carrots or large ones cut that size, boiled for two minutes, drained and put into a serving bowl
10 raw eggs in their shells
Four small bowls set on a tray, one each for sauces such as soy sauce, chili paste, hoisin sauce, Chinese black vinegar etc.
1. Mix beef, soy sauce, half the rice wine, and one teaspoon of the sesame oil, and set this into a large shallow sering bowl or a deep platter.
2. Heat wok, add the one tablespoon of sesame oil, and stir-fry the Chinese cabbage, the garlic, and the remaining rice wine for one minute, remove and put in a hot pot or a large pot that can come to the table, or a deep electric frypan.
3. Set the hot-pot, large pot on a heater, or the electric frypan in the center of the table on top of a large metal tray. Put the platter of marinated meat and the bowls of of bean threads, Chinese mushrooms, spinach, and carrots on the table around the tray with the hot pot, not on it.
4. Pour the chicken stock into the hot pot and add heat it to just under the boiling point, reduce the heat to simmering. Add about one quarter of the Chinese cabbage mixture to the stock and put the rest into a serving bowl.
5. Give each person at the table an empty rice bowl and let them make their own sauce from the four different sauces passed around. Also give them a raw egg to use later.
6. Each person at the table put one or two slices of meat, or a like amount of mushrooms or cabbage their own individual strainer basket and put that wire basket into the almost boiling broth to cook until their own desired doneness. They then remove it and using chopsticks dip the hot meat or vegetables into their own sauce mixture and eat these foods. Then they take others and cook them the same way.
7. Partway through the cooking, they can add spinach, noodles and cabbage directly into the hot broth and take these out with their chopsticks or the wire mesh basket putting them into their own sauce bowl.
8. If the broth seems too reduced, add more, as needed.
9. At the end, raise the heat so that the soup boils, ladle some of it into people’s almost empty soup/sauce bowl. Immediately break one egg into each bowl, stir well, and then people eat this broth mixture as a soup.
Yunnan Beef
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound boneless beef sirloin, cut into thin two-inches long strips
1 fresh red chili pepper, minced
3 Tablespoons fried shallots
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
6 stalks Chinese celery, washed and cut into two-inch lengths
5 Tablespoons of the celery leaves, coarsely minced
1. Heat wok and add oil, then add beef and stir-fry about one minute until it separates and is brown on the outside, raw on the inside. Drain and set aside.
2. Reheat wok, then add chili powder , shallots, and cumin and stir-fry for one minute before adding the celery pieces. Stir fry for two minutes, the liquid should mostly evaporate, then return the beef to the wok and stir-fry another minute before adding salt, sugar, and the celery leaves. Stir-fry a half minute, then put in a bowl and serve.

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