Abstract: Nearly ubiquitous in China today, beef was not always so popular. Unlike pork, beef was traditionally a highly regional taste. While people in northern cities like Beijing consumed large amounts of beef, those in many other areas considered the idea of eating beef to be disgusting and even immoral. As beef consumption grew during the twentieth century, cooks continued to develop techniques to accentuate and balance the natural qualities of the meat.

Keywords: beef; meat; restricted foods; northern cuisine; Beijing cuisine; fast food (McDonalds)

Citation: Cheung et al. (2022). Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

DOI:  To come

Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.

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Beef (Níu ròu 牛肉)

Thomas David DUBOIS, Beijing Normal University

While China today is one of the foremost consumers of beef in the world, the taste for this meat developed only over time and by exposure to regional cuisine, as well as by improvements in production methods and distribution.

Beef in Ancient and Imperial China

Beef first appears in Chinese sources as a ceremonial offering. Ancient texts such as the Zuozhuan, a work of historical commentary completed around 300 bce, mention cattle among the “six creatures” 六畜 that serve man (the others being horses, sheep, dogs, pigs, and chickens), and that would be slaughtered for a formal ritual occasion. Sometime later, a sacrifice of a cow, sheep, and pig, known as tàiláo 太牢, would become a standard way of arranging the highest-value temple offering. Just as ancient grain sacrifices aimed to express gratitude for the bounty of agriculture, the practice of offering these animals in cooked form indicates that ancient peoples themselves consumed the meat.

These same ritual texts also suggest how beef was eaten. A text called the Rituals of Zhou (Zhou li) pairs each of the meats with a specific grain. Beef, mentioned first, was paired with sticky rice, sheep with broomcorn millet, pork with millet, dog with sorghum, goose with wheat, and fish with mushrooms. Rather than culinary, the reason for this pairing is medical; each of the various grains was seen to complement or counteract the good or bad characteristics of each type of meat.

Medicinal and culinary texts simultaneously developed ideas about the specific nature of meats. Beef was considered to be a “warming” and strengthening food. It was often prescribed for the elderly, for new mothers, and for those recovering from illness. Ming dynasty (1368–1644) medical texts mention a strengthening medicine (xiátiān gāo 霞天膏) that consisted of cow meat that had been cooked down into a highly concentrated paste. But one did not want too much of a good thing. Consuming “warming” foods such as beef (among others) in excess, or at the wrong time of year could have adverse medical consequences.

Who in China actually ate beef? Clearly not everyone. Throughout most of Chinese history, beef was a very regional taste. While people in some areas consumed beef regularly, others found it distasteful, or even disgusting. Writing in 1882, an American missionary who had spent much of his adult life in China, described in fairly absolute terms a revulsion for beef: “Beef is never exposed for sale in the Chinese markets.…There is a strong and almost universal prejudice against eating beef, and the practice of doing so is declaimed against in some of the moral tracts.” The moral argument that he was referring to was the idea that plow oxen worked side-by-side with the farmer, and deserved protection and gratitude in their old age. Even now, many farmers in places like Taiwan regard beef as akin to eating the family pet, and simply release old work cattle into the wild. Beyond custom, law protected cattle from wanton slaughter. For two millennia, successive dynasties enforced some form of the statute “On the killing of horses and cattle” (zaǐshā mă’niú 宰殺馬牛) that banned the slaughter of work animals. Even if these laws were normally not always enforced, they reflect a deep prejudice against eating beef.

Some regions of China consumed prodigious amounts of beef. Cattle were sold and slaughtered freely in certain markets, most notably in urban areas that could quickly absorb large amounts of fresh meat. The Muslim quarters of Beijing, the area now known colloquially as Cow Street (niú jiē 牛街) even had its own slaughtering grounds. A nineteenth-century guide to Beijing described the scene: “each day after noon, hundreds of cattle and sheep are slaughtered. The blood flows like a river. All sorts of people clamor about…there are dozens of specialized trades.” Beijing was also the terminus of numerous trade networks that drove live animals over long distances. Many of the cattle slaughtered in northern cities like Beijing had been raised hundreds of miles away on the Mongolian grassland.

Local beef consumption was also a matter of taste. Some places were known for their high-quality beef cattle. A mid-nineteenth century British diplomat described the quality of the beef he had eaten in Canton, as “nearly as good and well fatted as it is in England.” Quite possibly he was consuming meat from nearby Shantou, which is still famous for producing excellent beef. Beef was also made into a variety of local specialty products. Many of these traditional products, such as the various forms of dried, brined, and spiced beef made in Yunnan, Sichuan, and Shanxi have recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.

Changes Since 1900

Beef production became more common during the twentieth century. Industrial slaughtering and the construction of railroads and mechanical cooling facilities turned cities like Harbin, Ji’nan, Nanjing, and Qingdao into major producers of fresh beef. Much of this new production was for export to places like Japan and the Russian Far East. Chinese taste for beef increased overall, even as availability remained highly regional. In cities like Shantou or Qingdao, beef was prized and relatively expensive. In others, it was far cheaper than other meats like pork or mutton.

Beef production increased sharply during the first decades of the People’s Republic. During the 1950s, cities like Lanzhou and Hailar developed large slaughtering industries to make good use of the large herds of cattle and sheep that grazed on nearby pastures. Although much of the meat produced was sent for sale abroad, especially to the Middle East and Soviet Union, a portion was set aside for China’s Muslim population, with the aim that beef in Muslim areas would be at least as available as pork. Even today, cattle and sheep in China are often slaughtered halal. Beef production received a big boost during the early 1980s, as state planners sought to increase the herd of grazing animals as a source of red meat that, unlike pork, did not consume scarce grain supplies.

As economic reforms brought more power and choice to consumers, Chinese beef improved in quality and began appearing in more consumer-friendly forms. During the 1980s, the fresh beef that was sold in markets was often tough and unappealing, suitable only for boiling. By the 1990s, beef was increasingly available in prepared forms. Stores stocked varieties of pre-cooked beef that had been stewed or cooked in sauce, and was sold either loose or vacuum-packed. Often made from cuts like shin, these preparations include tendon and soft connective tissue cooked down into a rich collagen that diners particularly value.

Another new source of beef consumption came in the form of fast food, most notably McDonalds restaurants, which greatly increased the cachet and consumption of beef nationwide. The opening of the Chinese market to new beef imports, especially from South America, has lowered the price of beef and encouraged Chinese producers to compete on quality. The high end of the market still prefers overseas imports. Wealthier consumers have sought out high-quality organic beef from Korea. Online consumers easily avoid restrictions on Japanese or American beef by purchasing meat that was imported to China through third countries, or special administrative regions, a fact that explains the unrealistically high statistics of per capita beef imports to places like Hong Kong.

Preparation and Cooking Methods

Traditional and contemporary methods of cooking beef aim to accentuate and balance the natural qualities of the meat. The late eighteenthcentury gastro-medical compendium, Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (Suíyuán shí dān 隨園食單), included instructions for preparing all manner of meat, fish, and game. On the topic of cooking beef, it advised the buyer to:

Choose pieces of leg meat, neither lean nor fat, from between the tendons.…remove the skin and membrane, mix two parts water and three parts wine and braise until the meat is extremely soft, adding soy sauce to the remaining liquid. Since beef has a distinct taste, no other ingredients should be added.

There are various methods that are popular in China today to prepare and cook beef, depending on the cut and quality of the meat. Common preparations include:

  • Soup and stewing: This method softens the beef, while retaining its nutrients. Beef (especially a cut such as brisket) is cut into chunks, ideally including both meat and connective tissue in each piece. It is then cooked slowly in clear soup, along with the bones, and often with flavors such as ginger, star anise, cinnamon, and bay leaves that enhance the strong flavor of the meat. The cooked beef can then be added to a more concentrated soup based on tomato, or curry. Both versions are commonly used as a basis for beef noodle soup. Cuts like shank can also be braised and served sliced thin and drizzled with vinegar as a cold dish.
  • Quick boiling: Unlike stewing, this method lightly cooks thinly sliced beef by parboiling it in hot liquid. This method is commonly seen in hot pot, where frozen beef is shaved into thin rolls, or cut fresh from meat of higher quality, and dunked by the diner into a pot of flavored broth. It is also the basis for the popular Sichuan dish often translated as “boiled beef” (shuĭzhŭ niúròu 水煮牛肉), which features thin slices of marinated beef quick-boiled in a chili-based broth, and then topped by a layer of intensely flavored oil.
  • Stir-fry and dry-fry: Cooks prepare beef by marinating the cut slices with ginger and cooking wine, and vigorously mixing to break down the fibers. This is essential even for the softer cuts. The marinated beef is then deep fried to remove some or all of the water, and then stir-fried with items like chilis, bamboo shoots, or rice noodles. Beef is often paired with strong tastes like celery, onion, fresh or dried chilies, or cumin.
  • Dumplings and dim sum: Beef is made into filling for a variety of dumplings and breads. Unlike ground beef, the meat is chopped into a completely smooth paste, removing any fibers. It can then be mixed uncooked with finely chopped onions, celery, carrots, or cabbage to make dumpling filling, or mixed with alkaline water (to produce the characteristically bouncy texture) and different combinations of spices, water chestnuts, starch, and egg white to make meatballs for soup or steaming.
  • Western methods: Western food has had limited influence on how Chinese cooks prepare beef. Flavors like curry made their way via Hong Kong, melding with Chinese tastes along the way. Mass-market tastes like McDonalds hamburgers already somewhat resembled the “meat between bread” concept of Chinese street foods like xiànbǐng (餡餅). The immense popularity of these fast food restaurants was as much a matter of convenience and clever marketing as taste. Roast beef and steak enjoy a certain appeal as archetypical “Western” dishes, and chains of steakhouses, often serving imported meat, can be found in larger Chinese cities, especially near tourist areas.
  • Chuan串: These lamb and beef skewers are roasted over charcoal fires and sold as a street food. They are commonly sprinkled with cumin and chili powder and sold with flat breads. This method is Central Asian in origin, and chuan are often sold by Muslim vendors.

In recent years, China has significantly upgraded its beef imports and its domestic cattle industries. Although still far behind pork and chicken in popularity, beef will undoubtedly remain an important part of the Chinese diet for years to come.

Further Reading

  • DuBois, Thomas David. (2019). “Many roads from pasture to plate: A commodity chain approach to China’s beef trade, 1732-1931” Journal of Global History, 14 (1): 22-43. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1740022818000335
  • DuBois, Thomas David and Alisha Gao. “Big Meat: The rise and impact of mega-farming in China’s beef, sheep and dairy industries.” The Asia-Pacific Journal | Japan Focus, 15 (17) 1, September 1, 2017. https://apjjf.org/2017/17/DuBois.html
  • Goossaert, Vincent. (2005). Linterdit du boeuf en Chine: agriculture, éthique et sacrifice, Paris: Collège de France, Institut des Hautes Etudes Chinoises.
  • Yuan Mei 袁枚. (2017). Recipes from the garden of contentment: Yuan Mei’s manual of gastronomy (Sean J.S. Chen, Trans.). Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.