The pangolin, or scaly ant-eater (chuan shan jia 穿山甲), is an extraordinary creature. Plated in armour-like scales, it looks like a pine cone (or a stylised carp – if you just look at the scales – which is why one of its Chinese names is ling li 鲮鲤). Unfortunately, it’s now being eaten to extinction – and you can guess who is to blame. Yes, it’s the Chinese, along with the Vietnamese. Their relentless appetite not only for the flesh of the pangolin, but for its scales, a traditional medicine, is driving an illegal trade in pangolins from Africa and Asia. According to the newly-updated IUCN List of Threatened Species, the pangolin is now the most illegally-traded mammal in the world, and all eight pangolin species are threatened with extinction. Continue reading…
Chinese food culture, Environment, Shark's Fin, Unusual delicacies / 2 Comments
Environment, Food and health, Food safety, Unusual delicacies / 6 Comments
My piece on the Australian relationship with eating kangaroo meat seems to have stirred up a lot of interest and emotion! It was one of the most read and shared articles on the BBC news website throughout the day it was published, and I received a fair number of tweets, emails and comments about it, roughly divided between people who agreed with what I said and those who didn’t. Continue reading…
Chinese cuisine, Cooking, Environment, Unusual delicacies / 6 Comments
You can read my piece about the Australian hang-up about eating kangaroo meat here, on the BBC website. And if you like, listen to a different version on From Our Own Correspondent here – it’s the last recording, towards the end of the programme.
Of course, Australian’s reluctance to eat their most distinctive local meat is not particularly surprising, given the deep irrationality of human food choices. Most people in the West, for example, will eat shrimps but not insects, pork but not dog, and beef but not horse meat. History is littered with examples of societies that suffered because they wouldn’t change their eating habits, like the mediaeval Norse community on Greenland, who starved to death because they refused to eat fish and seal like the natives, but insisted on maintaining a tradition of cattle farming that was unsuited to their fragile northern habitat.
The interesting question is how much people will be prepared to change their eating habits to accommodate climate change and rising global population. If the UN has its way, we’ll soon by eating insects...
Above, on the right, by the way, you can see my own cooking experiments: Sichuanese kangaroo tail soup; stir-fried wallaby with yellow chives; wallaby with cumin; and mapo tofu with minced wallaby.
Banquets, Chengdu, Chinese food culture, Development, Environment / 6 Comments
Scientists are again urging people in the developed world to eat less meat for environmental reasons. Here’s a quote from a piece on the Guardian website today, which outlined some of the environmental consequences of our addiction to cheap meat:
The answer, [Prof Mark Sutton, lead author of a UN Environment Programme (Unep) study published on Monday] said, was more vegetables on the plate, and less animal protein. “Eat meat, but less often – make it special,” he urged. “Portion size is key. Many portions are too big, more than you want to eat. Think about a change of culture that says, ‘I like the taste, but I don’t need so much of it.’” Continue reading…
Chinese cuisine, Chinese food culture, Development, Environment, Events, People / No Comments
I’m just back from a week in Turin for my first Slow Food Salone Del Gusto and Terra Madre. The Salone Del Gusto centres on a vast ‘Slow Food’ trade fair: two enormous halls filled with vendors of Italian delicacies, and (more interesting), a slightly smaller international hall where you can find extraordinary and wonderful foodstuffs, including ancient varieties of almonds from Uzbekistan, Yak’s milk cheese from the Tibetan Plateau, and dried mulberries and mulberry halva from the Pamir mountains. The simultaneous and adjacent Terra Madre is a gathering of some six thousand delegates from 161 countries, all of whom are in some way involved in sustainable local food production.
Funnily enough, I was a member of the Chinese delegation. Continue reading…
According to this piece in the Los Angeles Times, Greenpeace China estimates that 100 acres of trees need to be felled every 24 hours to keep up with Chinese demand for disposable chopsticks. The article says the Chinese government is so concerned at the waste that it’s trying to clamp down on their use – although with little effect so far. As anyone who has lived in China will know, many Chinese people are becoming obsessed with hygiene – it’s one of the reasons that middle-class parents prefer buying their children packaged snacks in Walmart to old-fashioned street snacks sold by itinerant vendors. Now that everyone expects restaurants to supply either disposable chopsticks (made of wood or bamboo) or those that have been properly sterilised, it’s hard to go back to the old days when many small eateries would simply have a potful of reusable wooden chopsticks on each table.
Perhaps the solution is to revive the old Manchu and Mongolian habit of carrying around a personal set of chopsticks and other implements. The one pictured on left and right, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, is a rather fine ornament that can be attached to a belt, and it contains not only a pair of bone chopsticks, a knife and a file for sharpening, but also (not pictured) a tiny bone toothpick and an ear scoop! Of course the set pictured is rather elaborate and unnecessarily heavy, but imagine a funky, well-designed set of chopsticks in a little holder you could slip into your handbag… (Actually, I remember on my very first trip to China, and indeed to Asia at all, I carried round my own pair of plastic chopsticks because I was paranoid about hygiene, and just rinsed them after use.) Continue reading…
A fascinating piece in the Guardian today about an FAO policy paper on the eating of insects. Apparently, senior figures in the UN and elsewhere are looking for ways to boost consumption of creepy-crawlies as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Rearing livestock such as cows, pigs and sheep guzzles agricultural land and spews out 20% of global greenhouse gases, and so we all need to start eating less meat. Insects, it seems, are a promising alternative, since they are rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, and breeding them produces far less pollution than breeding conventional meat animals. The only problem, according to the experts cited in the article, is the Western taboo on eating insects.
If you are interested in this subject, I heartily recommend this extraordinary book by the Victorian Englishman Vincent Holt, which deploys powerful, rational arguments in favour of eating insects – and offers some recipes that sounds rather interesting. It’s a delightful, amusing and provocative little book. You might also like to read my thoughts on the subject in a piece for the FT a few years ago, which is on this website. The photographs that accompany this post are of some of the ingredients (raw and cooked) on the menu of Zou Haikuan’s restaurant, which is mentioned in my article.
When cooking Chinese food, I have been in the habit of using groundnut oil, which is neutral in flavour, stable at high temperatures and relatively easily available. I’d rather, however, use the traditional Chinese cooking oils, which vary by region, but tend to be rapeseed oil in Sichuan, and camellia oil in some other southern areas, like Hunan – which is why I have been so excited to discover what seems to be a resurgence in the production of artisanal rapeseed oils at home in England. Yesterday, I spent a day experimenting with a Sichuanese chef friend in London, and we used Cotswold Gold extra virgin cold-pressed rapeseed oil to make some homestyle Sichuanese dishes. My friend, Barshu chef Zhang Xiaozhong, confirmed that it was very like the oils traditionally used in Sichuan, and we were both very satisfied by its performance as a cooking oil. So I’ll be using more and more of it, anyway!
Incidentally, I bought the oil at the Wild Beef stall at Broadway Market run by Richard and Lizzie Vines, producers of fantastic grass-fed beef. I’ve been using their meat for a while in Chinese dishes, and I highly recommend it. Their cattle are grass-fed and traditionally reared, and the meat is delicious. Yesterday Zhang Xiaozhong and I used some of their beef shin in a Sichuanese cold meat dish – magnificent. They do mail order as well as market stalls, in case anyone’s interested…
…who have been eating bits of endangered shark (as I think I mentioned once before). According to this piece in the Daily Telegraph, around 20,000 tonnes of spiny dogfish, a.k.a. rock salmon, is eaten in the EU, despite the fact that the species is classified as ‘vulnerable’, and ‘endangered’ in some regions. In Britain, the article says, the meat tends to go into fish and chips.
Fortunately, efforts are underfoot at at CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to restrict trade in the fish.