Meat is big news amongst foodies these days. It is conceptualised as alternatively a luxury item and a problem. Although pork is the most widely consumed meat in China (followed by chicken), beef has been gaining in popularity. The increases in overall meat consumption by the Chinese have cause some food scholars and activist to raise the alarm because of the potential impacts this will have with regard to diet related public health and on the environment. In this post, I want to argue that the diet related concerns need a closer investigation that pays attention not just to the volume of beef consumed but also the ways that meat is being incorporated into the diet of many Chinese.
Those hypothesising a link between the demographic transition, diet and public health, or what is sometimes referred to as the nutrition transition, argue that as less economically well off countries (like China) develop there is an increased demand for western foodstuffs (e.g., processed and refined foods) and foodways (e.g., increased demand for european style restaurants and fast food). Linked to this is an increase in the amount of meat consumed in proportion to grains (such as rice) and fruits and vegetables. It is the case that there are increases in diet related illness in China that are linked to the greater consumption of western style diets, including beef. However, the nutrition transition research uses national level consumption data set against national level health statistics. There is an implicit assumption that the foods being consumed are being consumed in the same way that they are in the west. To some degree this is true (e.g. pre-made foods and fast foods) but not always. Beef consumed as steak, for example, is still mostly consumed by the wealthy; more frequently it is found as part of a Hot Pot.
Hot pot is kind of a chinese fondue, but not really. Like fondue, it is a dish that involves both cooking at eating at the same time and it is communal. The typical procedure involves placing a pot of not quite boiling broth in the center of the table and providing plates of condiments that are then put into the broth for a short amount of time to cook. These items include vegetables, fish, dumplings, and more frequently recently, very thin slices of beef (because it cooks quickly). Each person selects what they would like to eat, places it into the broth and then fishes it out with their chopsticks once it has cooked. These cooked items are then dipped into sauces. Once this stage of the meal is finished, noodles may be added and the broth, which has absorbed all the flavours of what has come before, and is served to everyone.
The beauty of Hot Pot is that it is accommodating of both place and income. It can be cooked almost anywhere with little infrastructure–I have had it in restaurants and on boat trips and have seen it being cooked by campers. All that is required is a large pot, some chopsticks and a cooking ring or gas stand. The foods included also are flexible according to income. Thus a hot pot might include expensive beef and fish or not. Likewise, the volume of the meat elements in relation to the vegetables, dumplings, and noodles will vary depending on the resources available to those offering the meal. The communal nature of the cooking also means that the best items could be offered to guests or honoured family members. If there was not enough to go around the obviousness of forgoing by the host or lower status householders is diminished, yet because the broth is consumed by all at the end everyone has some of the benefit. As such, it is a meal that for some time was understood as definitely traditional, and perhaps a bit backward, though today in places like Hong Kong these traditional cuisines are being reinvented and revalued, and this revaluing is partly due to the community afforded by the mode of cooking and eating.
Some argue that the beef should be frozen and then sliced as this prevents it from curling in the pot as it is cooked. Others argue that because of the short cooking time all ingredients, including the beef, must be very fresh (not just because of health but also because fresh food is said to taste sweeter). I suspect that, given that hot pot is traditionally a winter dish originating in Mongolia, those who initially developed the dish are in the frozen camp. Conversely those in southern China who have adopted the dish, and have traditionally relied on (and demanded) very fresh food are in the very fresh camp. Thus it is likely that these are regional preferences based on regional foodway values and practices. What seems evident, however is that while more people are eating beef, and thereby increasing beef consumption overall, the way they are eating that beef (typically in small quantities), is more nutritious and different than a straightforward adoption of a western diet as suggested by the research.
This discussion is not to diminish the environmental problems associated with beef production of which there are a multitude. Regardless of how the meat is eaten, increases in the impact due to beef production are likely to arise from Chinese beef consumption. However, the finger pointing at the Chinese for wanting to eat more beef reminds me of the finger pointing that happened in the 1980’s with regard to the cutting down rain forests in Brazil and the underlying presumption by western nations that while they had cut down their forests to develop, developing nations had no right to do so. According to this chart, which uses UN data to compare rates of per capita beef consumption by country, the big eaters are Americans followed by the Australians.
While the recent efforts of the Chinese to purchase Smithfield (a producer of pork) has caused a flurry of anxiety in the US, Beef producers see China as an opportunity for expansion according to this web site.
McDonald gains only 3% of its operating income from China, whereas KFC and Yum! because of their Chicken based menus are more popular. See this post for a comparison between McD’s and Yum!
Hot Pot has increased in popularity in Hong Kong recently and there are a number of excellent restaurants where one can go for the experience. I like New Sam Tak restaurant in Kowloon City. It is at 57-59 Hau Wong Road and is open from 6pm until 3am. (phone +852 2718 3987). They also have wonderful sashimi. Bear in mind, Hot Pot works better if you have a group of 6-12.
This post is part of WordPress’s Weekly Photo Challenge. The theme is fresh. You can find it here.
The photo of the man selling pork is mine. The picture of the cows in the header I must attribute to to my husband.
- Everything on 4 legs, except the gable (GeoFoodie.org)
- Boiling Point (everydayisafoodday.com)
- With big U.S. pork buy and diet shift, China now asks: ‘Where’s the beef?’ (uk.reuters.com)
- Singapore Stories: All-You-Can-Eat Steamboat Buffet (Chinese Hot Pot) (seriouseats.com)
- From kabobs to baozi: An inside look at Chinese cuisine (isahighschool.wordpress.com)
- Pots of flavour (thehindu.com)
- Hot pot – (globehugblog.wordpress.com)
- Morning reflection (GeoFoodie.org)
- Integrity, Honesty, and Orientalist Food Discourse (GeoFoodie.org)