“In Guangxi we eat everything with 4 legs but tables and chairs, everything in the ocean but submarines, and anything in the sky but airplanes,” a giddy student told me when I asked about local dishes. It turned out that this was much closer to the truth than I had imagined at the time.
In my four years here in China, I have been introduced to a variety of foods: roast dog, snake soup, chicken ovaries, duck stomach, goose intestines, a variety of fowl flippers, and pig arteries, brain, and even urethra (my previous post on dog meat). I’ve seen so many animals served up that I doubt that there is even a Chinese word for kosher.
Behind many of these strange dishes are concepts from TCM. It’s actually hard to get through a trip to a Chinese barbecue without being told that X is good for your health.
Many local cuisines feature flavors and spices that attempt to ward off illnesses caused by the climate. According to TCM theories, Sichuan is very damp, so the overload of chilies is to prevent “damp” related illnesses.
Another example is dog meat, which is considered to be very “yang” or “hot” (this usually implies it is good for male virility). So dog meat tends to be a winter food to protect your body from “cold” illnesses. As a result I have been told by countless students, that if I have a cold (actually a “hot” illness) eating dog could aggravate the symptoms, and possibly kill me.
As I mentioned yesterday, many other TCM beliefs are based on sympathetic magic. The powers of many rare or powerful animals are absorbed through their organs, or by drinking special alcoholic tonics that have been improved with real bits of animal.
In Jonathan Watts’ book “When A Billion Chinese Jump” (which I will be reviewing soon), he points out the wider ecological impact of China’s culinary pursuits. Perhaps the most disturbing is his account of a tiger farm, where the park’s restaurant serves up “secret” dishes prepared with tiger meat for 500RMB. Watts also reported last year that the Beijing zoo had been selling various wild animal dishes too. For now he said the most common Chinese reaction to seeing a new animal is “how does it taste?”
He also notes that pangolins, which used to be common in my former home of Guangxi, are now exceptionally rare due to poaching. Because of the high prices that often come with TCM treatments, their populations have also declined in Malaysia and Indonesia. TCM claims that their flesh improves blood circulation (so does aspirin).
Watts says that the Chinese gov’t is willing to protect TCM at the cost of China’s biodiversity. Considering the governments condemnation of religion as anti-science, this seems a bit hypocritical.
In many cases though this is a false choice, TCM and China’s animals do not have to be at odds. The best case for this is bear bile.
In China TCM pharmaceutical companies currently run bear farms. These practices have not only been exposed as being disgustingly barbaric, but threaten the popularity of TCM as Chinese people are slowly becoming more opposed to animal abuse.
The problem is that bear bile actually does contain a chemical that has some health benefits (ursodeoxycholic acid). TCM treatments insist on whole bear bile. To collect this, thousands of Asiatic black bears are kept in cages so small they cannot move, and in some cases have permanent catheters inserted directly into their gall bladders to allow easier collection. Current estimates place total production at over 7,000kg/year even though there is only demand for 500kg. This has led to it being added to an increasing number of TCM based products that are completely inconsistent with tradition.
This savagery however is entirely unnecessary because this active ingredient can be synthesized. If TCM practitioners would accept this as the valid substitute that it is, we could stop the suffering of these animals.
The problem is that the gov’t media portrays this option as an assault on culture, instead of acknowledging that modern medicine has actually endorsed an active ingredient from TCM.
If you are interested in learning more about bear farming, and the efforts being made to stop this practice, please visit Animals Asia
An example that I was surprised not to see in Watts’ book was shark fin soup. Widely believed to be an excellent booster of Qi, but actually contains no additional nutrition beyond vegetable stew. You can learn more about this destructive practice here
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the future of TCM