China, a Nation of Pork Eaters

Throughout history, Chinese have been dedicated eaters of swine flesh. Pigs, along with dogs, were among the first animals domesticated for food in ancient Chinese times.

Today 8,000 years later, China still consumes far more pork than any other country, and not surprisingly, has the world 's largest pig population (800 million head says one source). While other meat types are rapidly gaining in popularity , consumption of pork still accounts for a whopping 70 percent of all meat eaten in China. Although these figures sound impressive, it is worth remembering that until recent, relatively more aff luent times, the average individual never got to eat much meat of any kind.

The importance of the pig in the Chinese diet is reflected very strongly in language. In days past, and still today, to some extent, any family home of the slightest substance would quarter at least one animal. The pig was such an integral part of normal family life that writing the Chinese character for roof wr itten above the one for pig, creates the word meaning "home/family."

Compared to grazing animals like sheep or cattle, the omnivorous pig is a super-efficient meat producer, one that can be tethered in a small space or left to scavenge by itself. In a crowded environment the pig is perfectly suited to life among a rural family. Pigs eat nearly anything remotely resembling food, including stuff that humans choose not to ingest or cannot digest – picture the classic image of the slop bucket and you get the basic idea. They can even derive nutrition from human excrement, eliminating a sanitary problem for their masters in the process (the pig's own manure is quickly turned into fertiliser for the vegetable garden).

The character for meat is a synonym for pork. In other words, when the meat of a dish is not specified, you can be almost certain that it is pork. As an example, let's take a dish everyone knows; fried rice. Pork fried rice in Chinese would read "meat fried rice," with everyone understanding that "meat" refers to pork. All other meats, being less common are always identified thus: "chicken fried rice" or "beef fried rice."

Almost all parts of the pig are used for food and any reasonably comprehensive list of dishes would be vast. Liver, kidney, and intestines are all commonly used, as is skin. Lard is still an important cooking oil in some regions. Chinese produce ham, turn pork into sausages, and preserved pork belly has a bacon-like taste. Braised pig's trotters and knuckles are popular dishes. Slabs of congealed pig's blood are cut into cubes and used like tofu in soup. The pig is a symbol of virility, and so pork is used as a strengthening food for pregnant woman and new mothers.

For an interesting appetiser, try pig's ear. The ear is cooked, then sliced very thinly, and perhaps served with slivers of young ginger and soy sauce. The texture is a slightly gnarly combination of skin and cartilage.

Despite its great usefulness to humans, the Chinese pig like its European cousin is often denigrated as lazy, greedy, dirty and stupid. In China, if you wish to question somebody's intellectual capacity you would call the person a "pig's head."