As I said when I started writing this blog, I’m not a trained cook. I’m just someone who loves good food and I’m feeling my way towards a deeper understanding of the raw materials that I use to try and create authentic Chinese cuisine using the best of Irish ingredients.
I decided to take some time out this month to attend a few cookery courses and demonstrations that might help me improve my basic knowledge and technique. Last night I went along to an evening butchery demonstration in Avoca Food Market Dublin, home to the Dublin branch of James Whelan Butchers.
Over the course of the evening we were shown how to butcher an entire side of pork before turning our attention to a side of beef. A eureka moment for me was realising that there are a whole range of cuts of meat that I could be using instead of the ones I am more familiar with. This gives me the possibility of creating even better flavour and getting value for money from lesser known cuts. It is also in keeping with the Chinese way of doing things where every part of the animal is used. So the next time I cook Shananigans’ Crispy Chilli Beef, for instance, I will use bavette of beef rather than the more expensive fillet or sirloin.
While his young colleague David demonstrated his butchery skills, Pat had plenty of useful tips for the would-be chef but he also spoke passionately about every stage of the butchery process from rearing animals right through to innovative ways of cooking various cuts of meat. He weaved a magical story of how the world of butchery has evolved in Ireland over the years and emphasised the importance of thinking local – eating food from the place prepared by the people of the place.
What was most striking was the respect he feels towards the animals that he rears on his farm, slaughters and delivers to our table in the form of the highest quality meat. As he put it “the animal dies so we may live. It’s the ultimate sacrifice”. To him the animal and the meat it yields are both things of beauty. It reminds me of a story Fuchsia Dunlop tells in her memoir Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper of coming upon an unusual exhibit in the National Palace Museum in Taipei – a perfect sculpture of a chunk of tender cooked pork, carved in agate and one of the most prized imperial treasures spirited away from the Forbidden City when China was consumed by war – meat as art.
Many of us have an uneasy relationship with the food we eat, especially if we are carnivores. We prefer not to think too much about where the meat came from and the living breathing animal it once was. So much so that I winced when Pat told us that the rump of wagyu beef that I had used to make my Shananigans’ slow-cooked wagyu stew came from a frisky wagyu bull that was beginning to be a danger to his 80 year old Dad and a threat to the chastity of his wagyu cows. And yet part of the need I feel to get back to basics and to understand our relationship with the land, compels me to confront this essential part of the process of getting food onto our tables.
The butchery demo brought back vivid memories of an experience in China last summer where I first witnessed the slaughter of an animal and the insight that gave me into the culture of my new in-laws. None of the photos are too graphic but if you are a vegetarian, or squeamish about such matters, you may not want to read on.
We had only spent a day or two in Urumqi visiting Shan’s family when we were invited to visit her “Second Aunt” and husband in their villa in the Tianshan mountains about 2 hours south of the city. We were despatched with a driver in one car with Shane and Shan and little Xuan Xuan and the instruction to collect the lamb for dinner. There was only one catch. No one mentioned the lamb would be still alive…
Now that I know a little more about the nomadic heritage of many of the tribes in Xinjiang province, I realise I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Turkic Kazakhs are great shepherds and choosing a lamb from them at a roadside market is part of the ritual of many a family get-together.
When we had finally cleared the sprawling suburbs of Urumqi, we detoured into a small village in Shuixiguo national park where Kazakhs had set up their yurts and the lambs were held in enclosed trailers. We had to choose between a black and a white one, both about 8 months old, and our driver made the choice by feeding them a leaf each to check how alert they were. The soulful eyes of the black sheep he chose stay with me to this day.
The killing itself was swift and humane, carried out in the grass on the side of the road by a Kazakh with a sharp knife. The lamb was skinned and eviscerated within 20 minutes. It’s skin was retained by the Kazakhs and we loaded the carcass into the boot of the car. Five year old Xuan Xuan had watched the whole proceedings with the relaxed demeanour of one who had seen it all before.
Meanwhile I tried to distract myself from proceedings by wandering into the yurts, astonished by the roomy interiors of these extraordinary tent-like structures and their ability to retain heat in winter and stay cool in summer. In a slightly disconcerting aside, one seem to be kitted out like a disco with flashing lights, a fridge of beer in the corner and a massive flat bed.
When we arrived at the villa, actually a terraced house in a modern resort type development on the edge of a country town at the foot of the mountains, we were greeted warmly by Shan’s Second Aunt, her Fourth Uncle, their respective spouses and other members of the extended family. In a clear division of labour, the women, including Shan’s Mum, were already working together in the kitchen preparing salads, char-grilled aubergine, hand-made noodle dishes, a whole baked lake fish and a black chicken.
The men set to work outside butchering the lamb and cooking the leaner cuts as chuan’r kebabs, simply flavoured with a rub of cumin, chilli and salt, on a charcoal barbecue outside. The liver, heart and kidneys were also barbecued in this way. The bones were passed into the women to be used in a stock which later became a simple soup. The shanks were boiled in water.
In all, the time between encountering the lamb and sitting down to dine on him was less than 3 hours. Lamb soup was served first and the lamb kebabs last. The meat had an earthy flavour reflecting the animal’s diet of mountain grass and melted ice and is considered to be a great delicacy in those parts. To me it seemed to be a bit tough and Pat Whelan explained last night that this was likely to be due to the fact that the meat had not been hung and had no time to settle.
As honoured guests, we were served what are regarded in Xinjiang as the prime cuts – the boiled lamb shanks with the soup, lamb spareribs on skewers, the kidneys and finally ordinary kebabs – chuan’r.
Lunch was very much a family affair , involving many expressions of appreciation for us “honouring” them by coming to visit them from such a long way away. In their culture, our willingness to travel to such a remote part of China to meet Shan’s family before she and Shane married is considered to be a sign of respect. As a result there were lots of “gambei” toasts to us with the lethal spirit bai jiu – literally white wine – which is 48 per cent alcohol. At this point I made the fatal error of knocking back the first two shots of bai jiu I was offered to mask the taste, so I immediately became known as “two bai ju Ju Li” and was pronounced li hai – deadly (or as we Irish might say – good craic). Unfortunately I then had to repeat the process of downing two shots at every subsequent family occasion.
There was also a decent local red wine and lashings of green tea and, for the men, countless cigarettes.
The inquisitiveness we encountered on our arrival in Urumqi continued as we tried to answer accurately every question that was put to us on everything from the state of the Irish economy to family values and they, in turn, were extraordinarily open about their lives. Of course all the conversation was in Mandarin as only Shan spoke English and she bore the brunt of translating in both directions, with help from Shane who was still grappling with the Xinjiang accent.
After lunch we went for a walk on the ski slopes to help the digest the substantial meal before returning to a supper of lamb noodle soup.
Then followed the strange intimacy of sharing compact accommodation with 10 people we barely knew. We all bunked down for the night, with most of the family, including Shane and Shan, lining up to sleep communally on the floor in one room. As honoured guests we got the luxury of a tiny separate bed room and the hardest mattress I have ever experienced.
As I drifted off to sleep that night I reflected on the culture-shock the day had involved and the term which is used to describe animals in China – dongwu which literally translates as “moving thing” rather than “living thing”. Perhaps that contributes to their more matter of fact attitude to the butchery process. Or perhaps it’s that they have retained a connection to the land that we have somehow lost. For me it was all part of stepping outside my comfort zone and embracing the culture of my grandchild to be.