The ancient art of butchery

Butcher David contemplates a side of beef

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. Continue reading The ancient art of butchery

Shan's Xinjiang Spaghetti with Lamb

When we visited Shan’s family in Urumqi, Xinjiang Region every meal included a lamb dish, whether we were eating at home, in a restaurant or having street food. Indeed Shan’s mother believed that a meal was incomplete without lamb. Typically it was served with noodles rather than rice and with lots of vegetables. The noodles were always freshly made by hand, even at home.

A Uighur woman makes noodles in Turpan, Xinjiang

The prevalence of lamb reflects the easy availability of good quality lamb in that mountainous region and the middle-eastern influences on the cooking carried on by the Muslim Uighur community. Though we ate lamb every day for the 8 days we were in Xinjiang, no two meals tasted the same. Every home and restaurant had its own variation of this ubiquitous dish.
Shan’s recipe below is another of those very easy and quick recipes where you can use whatever vegetables you have to hand and adjust the balance of meat to vegetables and the spiciness of the seasonings to suit your personal taste. This version uses packet noodles or spaghetti and is ideal for a speedy family supper after a long day at work or for easy weekend entertaining.
Shan says: “This is a compromise recipe as I couldn’t make handmade noodles the size of spaghetti, so I just used spaghetti. Chinese pre-made noodles usually get soggy easily but it may be possible to get good quality noodles in an Asian supermarket in Ireland.”
Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti with Lamb – Xinjiang Ban Mian
A typical Xinjiang spaghetti

Serves 4 – 6 people

  • 300 – 800 g of lean lamb (depending on how meaty you want the dish to be)
  • A good handful of string beans
  • 1 fresh green and 1 fresh red chilli (or substitute a red and yellow or green pepper, or a mix of pepper and chillies if you don’t like it too spicy)
  • One medium onion
  • One small head of celery (thin and dark Chinese celery, available in Asian supermarkets is better if you can find it – it has a stronger flavour and a bit more bitterness, if not available use about 4 sticks of ordinary celery)
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • Salt
  • White pepper powder (Hu Jiao Fen, 胡椒粉)
  • Soy sauce
  • Sugar
  • Tomato paste/ puree
  • Cooking oil – groundnut, sunflower or rapeseed oil
  • Spaghetti to serve


  1. Cut the lamb into thin square slices.
  2. Cut the string beans into 2cm long strips.
  3. Cut the chilli/pepper into diamond shapes and the onion into thin slices or square shapes.
  4. If you find thin celery, cut the stalks to the same size as string beans; if it is normal thick celery, then cut to small cubes so its flavour is easier to get out.
  5. Cut the garlic into thin slices.
  6. Cut the tomatoes into wedges.

Cooking Steps:
Noodle/spaghetti: Start by cooking the spaghetti as the main dish only takes few minutes to cook.
Lamb dish:

  1. Note that the entire cooking process for this dish uses high heat.
  2. Start by heating a wok and putting a generous amount (about 3 tbs) of oil in it. Wait until the oil is really hot.
  3. Add the lamb and stir-fry briskly to brown. Add a small amount of soy sauce, salt to taste and about 2/3 tea spoon of pepper powder. Stir-fry to mix and remove the lamb with a strainer or slotted spoon when it is cooked and set aside. This stage should only take a minute or two in all as the oil is very hot. 
  4. Wipe out the wok, reheat it and add about 3 tbs of oil. When it is really hot, add your vegetables and garlic. Stir fry briskly until the tomato juice is cooked out. Add a dash of soy sauce, salt and sugar to taste and a good squeeze of tomato puree (or about half a small can of tomato paste). Taste the sauce to see if the flavour is ok and adjust seasoning if necessary,
  5. Return the lamb to the pan and stir fry for 30 seconds or so, then serve on a dish of spaghetti.

Variations to the dish:
You can replace lamb with beef.
You can use aubergine instead of, or in addition to, the green beans. Aubergine also helps to prevent high blood pressure and protect the cardiovascular system. When preparing the aubergine, wash it but do not peel it as most of the nutrients are in its dark purple skin (especially vitamin E, C and P (bioflavanoid)); Cut the aubergine into thin slices and place into a bowl of clean water to prevent it from becoming oxidised (otherwise it turns to black). Squeeze the water out before cooking it.*
You can also cook it as a vegetarian dish and double the amount of aubergine as it is rich in protein and calcium compared to other vegetables.
If you want it to taste a bit more middle-eastern, add some cumin seeds when cooking the lamb or aubergine..
*Note: The approach suggested by Shan works with Chinese aubergines which can be found in Asian supermarkets. With European aubergines, it is better to sprinkle the slices with salt and leave in a colander to allow excess moisture to drain out and pat therm dry before use.
I love the versatility of this dish which means it can be a handy way of using up left over vegetables and creating a riot of colour on the plate.
See my first attempt to try out this recipe in Exploring China – from Dublin, Ireland. I made it for a second time in late October, substituting mange touts for green beans and using green, red and yellow pepper and a small chilli to create lots of flavour but not too much spice.