When I was first learning Chinese in Taiwan, I remember being told that one of the teachers (who I didn’t know) had become gravely ill because of “wind.” This of course put my imagination on edge – was it pollution? extreme flatulence? They couldn’t explain, and I couldn’t ask.
I discovered the answer some years later, when I went to teach English at a school of Chinese medicine in Shandong. “Wind” in fact has many specific meanings in Chinese medicine, as do other ideas like “lethargy” or “heat.”
People often talk about “rising heat” (上火), which is not so much an affliction as a condition, specifically one of imbalance, often (but not always) caused by eating too many “hot” foods. These would include meat, especially sheep, but also some fruits like lychees. Rising heat will give you pimples, sore throat and shortness of breath, and the way to get rid of it is dissipate the heat. Some foods like ginger are very good for this, which is why ginger tea is so good for an oncoming cold.
My reason for bringing all this up is that like all food, Chinese people think about meat in a specific nutritional context. Beef (we knew we would get there eventually!) is a warming food. That’s why it is good for the elderly or ill. It’s also why it is often paired with ginger, not just for the taste, but to balance out the excess.
I knew that Cantonese food included a lot beef, but I have been surprised at how common, and how good the beef is in Shenzhen. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised, since this whole area has a long history of trading beef cows.
The taste is clearly different than the beef I had in Hulunbuir, though I can’t really explain how, especially since it is cooked so differently. Yesterday I had hot pot, which is of course the most common way to eat beef or lamb, but what was interesting was the way the meat itself was prepared. In most places, you get meat that’s been frozen and thinly sliced, which produces a kind of melting effect. Here, it’s all fresh meat that is hanging up in the front entrance, you point to the piece you like and they prepare it for you. It’s still very thin, and very soft, but has a much meatier quality.
Today I went looking for lunch, and saw this giant boiling bowl of beef bones, and inside saw a big crowd all eating rice noodle soup.
I wasn’t passing that up, and as soon as I walked in, they asked “20, 25 or 30?” Having no idea, I said 30, which worked out well, because 30 (yes, they did mean price) meant that I got soup with three items: sliced raw beef, braised intestines and beef balls. You often see this combination in pho restaurants, but the taste was different, among much else, the soup clearly had cinnamon and ginger.
And you know what it did not have? MSG! Boy did that made for a much nicer afternoon.