issue 225 - November 1991
dog meat is
The Chinese are not vegetarians but they don’t feed their
soybeans to animals, as we do in the West. In Guangzhou (Canton)
Jane Parry talks to Kenny and to Mr Lau about the beneficent bean.
‘Soya: what a wonderful food!’ mocks Kenny, a young Cantonese man, euphemistically labelled by the Government as ‘a youth waiting for work’.
‘No, but seriously, it’s a great thing. You name one other plant that you can make so many things from. We Chinese don’t eat much meat, that’s why we are so healthy!’ he says with a grin. ‘It’s everybody’s food, beancurd, no matter whether you are rich or poor. Even the emperor ate it.’
Though poor, in 1990s Guangzhou, Kenny is in a position to demand a more varied diet and he finds the taste of plain dofu is boring. ‘I prefer it fried. First it’s dried, then steamed and fried in oil. The only problem is that in the summer it’s too yang (yin and yang: believed to stimulate the body’s cool and hot humours respectively). So it’s better to cook it in soup with a little salt-dried fish head and a pork knuckle. This is a very popular dish in the summer in Guangzhou and it’s not quite so yang that way,’ he explains.
Bean-curd is available in many forms at the markets. Red and white dofu are preserved and sold in little jars; chou dofu (literally ‘stinking bean-curd’) is a winter food often used as a snack; while dofuhua – sweetened bean-curd – is very yin and therefore refreshing in summer. And it’s cheap: a portion for one person costs just over one yuan (about 20 US cents).
People like Kenny buy their vegetables in the Qingping market. The market has become a tourist attraction for Western visitors, as it provides evidence of the maxim that the Cantonese eat everything with four legs except a table, and everything with wings except an aeroplane.
You walk through a long covered lane of stalls selling ginseng and other Chinese medicinal herbs, as well as dried goods, including beetles and wasps – not to mention the lizards, dried, flattened and tied in pairs to sticks. Near the meat market there is a strong smell of droppings and blood from the freshly killed animals, intensified by the steamy humid air.
In the winter the tourists can find what they are looking for: dogs, a breed similar to Staffordshire bull terriers, crammed into cages, or freshly slaughtered for a favourite southern Chinese delicacy. It is said that if Western squeamishness about animals as pets can be overcome, dog has a taste that is so good it is addictive.
In the summer dog meat is considered to be too yang, and goes off the market. Still, there is a range of endangered species and cuddly animals on offer instead: raccoons from Guangxi province, selling for 45 yuan each ($9). There is one already skinned, waiting for a buyer. Another is shivering and staring from its cage with listless eyes. One of its front legs is missing.
Most shoppers are regular buyers from particular stalls, like that of Mr Lau, the beansprout seller. ‘Today, business is OK, not too bad, not too good,’ says Mr Lau. ‘On a good day I can sell 10 barrels of bean sprouts – each one holds 30 jin (15 kilos).’
Mr Lau is very shy and speaks in soft halting country Cantonese. Like most Cantonese, he can’t or doesn’t choose to understand Putonhgua (Mandarin, the official dialect of China) and even in his own dialect he takes time to warm to the subject of his business. Too many people in China ask too many nosey questions.
Still, the presence of a foreigner (even a nosey one) is good for business – people come over to see what’s going on and some leave with a bag of bean sprouts.
Tanned and lean, Mr Lau’s physique shows that sitting at a market stall is only one part of his life. He lives in Tianhe, where the suburbs meet the countryside. ‘I get up at four, load up the bicycle with barrels and then it takes just over an hour to cycle into town. I stay here until I’m all sold out, usually around eight or nine at night, earlier on a good day.’
He lives in a small house together with his family who are also his helpers. When not at market himselfmMr Lau’s time is taken up with nurturing the beans and buying fresh supplies. Without any hi-tech temperature or humidity control equipment, the beans require a lot of attention during their five-day gestation period. If the beans are not sold, they cannot be kept because the Laus do not have refrigeration facilities – unsold beans will be eaten by the family or sold to the neighbours as food for pigs.
‘I buy a few sacks a month. All the beans I use come from the north and I buy them privately. It’s cheaper to buy them through a private network than at the government grain store.
‘It’s hard work, but it’s OK. I make enough to get by,’ he adds with another shy smile, unwilling to reveal amidst an audience of customers how much he makes. A buyer comes along, the conversation breaks off. Lau expertly weighs the quantity of beans in his hands. None of his customers insist that he use the scales.
Mr Lau settles back on his makeshift seat – an upturned barrel. He is wearing a thin, cheap cotton shirt and old but smart rolled-up trousers. He has an open sore on his foot and wears broken plastic slippers. His appearance might indicate that he is living in poverty but by peasant Chinese standards Mr Lau, like so many of his Cantonese counterparts, is probably doing very nicely.
Since the Government moved away from central planning and opened the economy up to the market, he has been able to enter the world of private enterprise. It is more unstable, with no state work unit to provide an ‘iron rice-bowl’ (a Chinese expression for job security), but if business goes well the benefits make it worthwhile.
No-one will be in a position to tell him when he can get married, for instance, or when he can try for his first child, or force him to adhere to the one-child policy. If he makes enough money and he wants to have a second child, he will be rich enough to pay any fines imposed by the Government.
At 38, however, Mr Lau remains single. ‘Where’s the missus? You tell me – I’m too busy making a living to go looking for a wife!’ he laughs.
All the same, lucrative possibilities have occasionally loomed on the horizon. ‘Once an American guy came by. He said he wanted to set up a wholesale business. Flying my bean sprouts out to the United States. But it didn’t work out. Those Americans are crazy, they’re so bloody picky. He told me the sprouts weren’t up to American standards.’
He picks up a handful of beansprouts, turning and tapping them gently until they all sit the same way up. ‘This guy said in America everything has to be the same size, all neat and tidy like this. You see the brown root there? That wouldn’t do, he told me, not nice-looking enough for the Americans.
‘I tried to negotiate and set up a joint venture. But no, in the end he went to a bigger supplier. Crazy though, wanting them all the same size. They don’t grow like that.
‘And you know what else he told me? That you Westerners like to cut off the bean and just eat the sprout! Don’t you know it’s the bean that’s got all the taste and the goodness?’ Little does he know that soya beans in the West are only really considered fit to be fed to the animals that will become our steak or our ham.
Jane Parry is a journalist based in Hong Kong.
The Ford Soybean
Journalists couldn’t believe their eyes as they watched car magnate Henry Ford seize an axe and hack away at a brand new automobile. High jinks and public-relations flair came together in November 1940 as Ford demonstrated the toughness of a car body made from soya-based plastic.
Ford’s antics were based on his faith in the soybean’s value to industry. Saying that he’d like to ‘grow cars rather than mine them’, by 1935 his assembly lines were pumping a bushel of beans into each automobile – as paint, body materials and oils.
Oil-derived chemicals were to elbow soybeans off industry’s research agenda, but after World War Two beans were back with a new role in the West as farm crops.
In Asia of course soybeans have a rather longer history, stretching back perhaps 5,000 years. So vital were they in China that they were elevated to become one of the five ‘sacred grains’ along with rice, wheat, barley and millet. Farmers value them highly because they not only are rich in protein but also feed nutrients into the soil as they grow. As a result the different varieties have names like Great Treasure, Brings Happiness and Yellow Jewel.
As dofu, soya milk, miso paste, tempeh (bean cakes), soy sauce and bean sprouts, soybeans become a variety of foods in the East. But today the US is the world’s biggest producer and consumer, while Brazil and Argentina are the leading exporters, growing beans to feed rich-world animals. Other developing countries, such as Zambia, Nigeria and India, are beginning to grow soya to feed their people.
Hectare for hectare, soybeans yield more protein than meat – 162 kilograms compared with just 9 kilos for beef – yet they are not a major part of human diets in rich countries. In the West beans are grown mainly to feed animals, with the oil by-product used as margarine, vegetable oil, mayonnaise and other dressings. In the US, the amount of land given over to soybeans has tripled since 1960 but most of this is converted to animal feed – even though it takes 16 kilos of grain and soya feed to produce one kilo of beef.
Lately, though, another Chinese first has been catching on fast in the US: there are about 45 brands of soya ice cream on the market and sales are booming. Maybe the West will be won after all.