Ask any Chinese chef in England what they think of British pork, and they will almost invariably reply that it has a xing wei (腥 味 ), or ‘nasty fishy taste’. Xing wei is one of those Chinese culinary terms that has no English equivalent, although there are similar concepts in many other food traditions, including the Indian and Persian. It refers to the unpleasant, rank aspects of the flavours of meat, fish and poultry, aspects which must be dispelled or minimised in the kitchen.
If you want to be really precise, you can use more specific terms: xing wei for the ‘fishy’ taste of fish, eels and other water creatures, and also of raw meat; shan wei (膻 味 ) for ‘muttony tastes’; sao wei (臊 味 ) for foul, offally tastes like that found lingering in kidneys. Yi wei (异 味‘ ) peculiar taste or smell’) like xing wei, can be used to describe off-tastes in general. Once you have identified the off-tastes in your raw ingredients, you will want to address them: by blanching and marinating, and by the judicious use of seasonings like Shaoxing wine, ginger, spring onions and coriander. These techniques are second nature to almost all Chinese cooks.
Some ingredients have stronger xing wei than others: beef, for example, is ‘fishier’ than pork, and freshwater eels are ‘fishier’ than, say, a Mandarin fish. Chinese chefs I’ve met tend to give two different explanations for the relative ‘fishiness’ of British pork. One is that British slaughterhouses don’t bleed their pigs properly, so some blood lingers in their meat and taints it (in China, the traditional method is to slit the pig’s throat and allow all its blood to drain away). The other is that British pigs are not castrated. Whichever, I do see what they mean, when I eat pork in a normal, run-of-the-mill British restaurant – it often has a perceptible xing wei that is a little unpleasant from a Chinese point of view.
I thought about all this during lunch last week at one of my favourite London restaurants, St John Bread and Wine. One of the dishes we had was pig’s cheeks with chicory and red onion – and those fat slices of pig’s cheek were possibly the most sublimely delicious pork I have ever tasted. I found myself wishing that I had brought a few Chinese chefs along with me – surely they would have agreed that the meat was fragrant (香 xiang), luxuriously fat without being greasy (肥 而 不 腻 fei er bu ni ), and utterly devoid of any nasty fishiness.
(Incidentally, I recently discovered the films on the St John website – don’t miss them!)
P.S. The photograph is of a pig-slaughterer I met in China in September. He is one of three brothers who work as a team. They are the fourth generation of their family to do this work.