Friday 20 November 2009

Asian food for thought

On the remarkable malleability of the human palate

Growing up in India, I ate meat only a handful of times until I left home for college. My mother, a moderately pious Hindu, had a deep aversion to eating animals and wouldn’t allow meat in her kitchen (I also remember her kindness and sympathy towards the ragged animals that shared our city streets: cows, dogs, horses, goats, cats, donkeys, and even occasional elephants and camels). My father was vegetarian for the most part, except when, on rare occasions, he pretended to enjoy a few morsels of meat. I think he did this despite himself, mostly to project the public image of an adventurous, cosmopolitan man. If no one were looking, I’m sure he would have picked a vegetarian option ten times out of ten.

The only times I ate meat was when my older sister brought home a chicken or mutton (goat meat) dish from a friend’s place, or cooked it herself on a Sunday morning on a kerosene stove in our courtyard. When she cooked, my task was to procure the meat. I would bike up to the butcher’s shop and await my turn, squeamishly eyeing the goat carcasses hanging on hooks, and gallantly ask the man for ‘the best cuts,’ to which he always replied, ‘only the best for you, son.’ Washing and cleaning the meat, I felt a strange exhilaration—I saw it not as food but as the flesh and bone of a dead animal, hacked to bits just hours ago. Mother allowed my sister to use only the most beaten down utensils from her kitchen and later instructed the maid to scrub them clean thrice as long.

Still, my parents encouraged us, holding meat to be salutary for growing kids. Their attitude later struck me as similar to Gandhi’s own during his early struggle and experimentation with eating animals. Gandhi saw meat as a contributor to the enviable vigor, material progress, and sturdier physiques of people from the West, while battling his own and his society’s traditional dispositions against it.

I was introduced to eating fish and prawns in college. Thereafter, living outside India, I began eating other animals too—cow, pig, turkey, crab, squid, etc. I had non-vegetarian food several times a week and it became a key part of my cooking repertoire—I acquired a bevy of fans for my spicy lamb curry and barbequed chicken. On my travels, I even sampled lobster, shark, snail, venison, guinea pig, and wild boar. But in the ensuing years my meat intake began to decline. I came to relish it less and less. About eight years ago, I gave up eating mammals, and now almost always choose vegetarian. Long live tofu, beans, lentils, and the huge range of Indian vegetarian cuisine.

Most Indians are far less ‘experienced’ than me, owing to dispositions against eating animals that have existed in India since at least the Jains, Buddhists, and some Hindus 2,500 years ago. Such views arose out of the dominant Indian conception of nature, in which man was not a privileged creation of God but an actor in a vast, ceaselessly unfolding divine play (lila), with its countless veils of illusion (maya) that duped us into seeing reality in dualistic terms: mind/body, self/other, good/evil, etc. The natural world was not something apart from us; it was inseparable from us. John Muir expressed this poetically, ‘I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.’ Many Indians saw their moods and passions reflected in the phenomenal world, which came to bear on the deepest concerns of human life, woven as it was into an intricate web of life.

This view was also reflected in the Indian idea of reincarnation, where humans are seen as just one type, albeit a coveted type, of creature that a soul may inhabit as it migrates from life to life. Not surprisingly, then, the Indian approach to nature promoted a kinship with and respect for all life, furthering non-violence and vegetarianism, and making the ancient Indians perhaps the first people from whom animals received a de facto right to life. Of course, even before the spread of Islam, India had many regional and caste-based divergences, and attitudes are even more mixed for modern Hindus in a globalisng India.


It is no small wonder then, that in neighbouring China things are so different. What mainstream restaurants serve on the other side of the Himalayas would make many a hardy Indian stomach churn. Below are some selections from a typical and popular restaurant I visited in Beijing.

• Traditional Peking style boiled sheep’s head
• Duck blood in a spicy Chongqing style
• Royal duck tongue / Marinated duck head
• Braised donkey meat in superior soup
• Spicy bullfrog
• Braised pork treasures [sic]
• Hot duck viscera w/ sunny egg
• Young frog in bamboo
• Pig bellies with garlic
• Hot tasting chicken feet / Duck web [feet] with mustard
• Stir-fried duck gizzard
• Chicken claw with pepper
• Dry fried ass meat in Xiang style
• Braised pork trotter tendon and sea cucumber

Many Cantonese push the limits even for other Chinese, with their taste for dogs, cats, raccoons, monkeys, lizards, rats, and more, all usually raised as food. In the Guangzhou province in south China, I have walked down a meat market with glistening, skinned dog carcasses hanging on both sides of the street. Chinese cuisine is perhaps the most popular ethnic cuisine in the world but none of this stuff is commonly available outside East Asia. Conversely, international staples like kung-pao and sweet-and-sour chicken are hard to find in China.

In Beijing, I encountered another gastronomical spectacle near the Forbidden City—a fast-food market with some very unusual items, deep-fried on skewers while you wait: scorpions, snakes, silkworms, beetles, centipedes, emu, starfish, eel, octopus, grasshoppers, etc. Though this isn’t everyday food, the locals were chomping it down. Entrails and obscure body parts of farm animals, which are more widely consumed, were also on offer. Foreigners might sample something on a dare, or for bragging rights back home. Reactions vary of course: a haggis eating Scot may hardly flinch; likewise an American eater of warm pig brain in gravy, or an Italian consumer of pig eye balls or testicles, and so on.

I wondered: is it really true that the Chinese will eat any part of just about anything that moves? How did they turn out this way? How can two neighbouring Asian countries have such divergent approaches to what they consider food?

A common explanation is that the Chinese, in times of famine, were forced to seek out alternate sources of nutrition, which later weren’t abandoned. But can this be the primary reason? The Indians have suffered famines too. Also worth considering are environmental constraints, climate, and economic factors, but none of these come close to explaining the differences that arose between India and China. After all, both had sub-tropical agricultural economies, villages on fertile river plains, a full stable of farm animals, and similarly dense urban centers.

More significant to my mind is that unlike in India, the Confucian tradition is humanistic, ie, centred on humans. It is also notably short on speculative wonder about the origin of life and the universe, nature of mind and matter, or death and beyond. According to Confucius, trying to understand the forces of heaven and the realm of the spirits is a waste of time; humans should instead concentrate on themselves and their society—that is, on personal conduct and social harmony, honed via education and character development. Animal welfare seems not to have concerned him at all. Indeed, the average Confucian gent’s obligation to honor and respect his ancestors included rites involving animal sacrifices. The ‘Analects of Confucius’ suggests that the sage himself carried out such sacrifices, attended sacrificial rites, and also ate animals. Mencius, his most notable successor, did advocate kindness towards animals, but he too ate meat and supported animal sacrifices.

Animals therefore remained categorically distinct from and subservient to humans in China, and consequently, readily dispensable for human interests and desires. The moral compass of Confucianism helps explain its dearth of injunctions against treating animals as means to human ends. (Needless to say, the historical Western view of animals is scarcely better, whether Greek, Christian, or Modern, but that, and the morality of eating animals today, are topics for another essay.)

It is true that Chinese Buddhism, and to some extent Taoism, took up the cause of animals, but they were like islands in the vast Confucian ocean. Eight or nine centuries ago, a resurgent Neo-Confucianism marginalised Buddhism—a millennium after its arrival from India—partly under the pretext that it was a ‘foreign faith.’ This reflected their built-in conflicts: despite their shared agnosticism and focus on this world, the Buddhist emphasis on the individual spiritual quest, detachment, and monasticism represented a threat to Confucian ideals. What survived in China was a ‘Confucianised’ Buddhism; most lay Chinese Buddhists are meat eaters; most Japanese Buddhist sects conveniently believe that the Buddha himself ate meat. In modern China, vegetarian diets are associated with poverty, inferior social standing, and Buddhist monks. Many locals have trouble understanding why seemingly prosperous foreigners visiting China should opt for vegetarian food, even though the Chinese still get far fewer calories from meat than their Western counterparts.

It is easy to see that the ‘innate’ revulsion we so often feel towards certain foods that others eat, whether a species or a body part, is simply an acquired taste. Unlike a tiger cub, the human child does not require meat for survival or good health (especially with today’s alternatives), but in the right (wrong?) milieu, isn’t she capable of relishing just about anything her body won’t reject? India and China offer a striking illustration of the vast range and malleability of the human palate, and the power of ideas in shaping it.

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