Ships have begun sailing this month from the UK to China with cargoes of pork – or, to be precise, pig’s ears, tails, stomachs and other offal. To British tastes, it is a grisly load. But this new trade – the result of a deal concluded between the Chinese and British governments in May – will open the Chinese market to an estimated £50m-worth of British pig meat every year.
Pork has always been the favourite meat in China. Many rural households still fatten up a pig for the Chinese New Year, and pork is de rigueur on the festive dinner table. The Chinese character for “home” is even composed of the ideogram for a pig under a roof. But while half the world’s pigs live in China, production still struggles to keep up with demand. Between 1978 and 1992, as living standards rose, so did Chinese meat consumption, which increased nearly ninefold. Pork currently accounts for more than three-quarters of the total, with consumption rising by more than 3 per cent a year. The price of pork is so politically sensitive that the Chinese government keeps a pork reserve to cope with sudden fluctuations.
One Hangzhou restaurateur, Dai Jianjun, who specialises in what westerners would call organic, free-range produce, says he often has to deal with customers who are dismayed that he can’t offer plentiful pig’s ears and goose feet every day: “They don’t seem to realise that a pig only has two ears, and a goose only two feet: in the old days, before freezing and factory production, these things were considered rare luxuries. And for us, sourcing from farmers who produce meat in the slow, old-fashioned manner, it’s the same.” In China, pig offal is more expensive than meat, and the high price of pig’s ears was the background to one of the more bizarre of China’s recent food scares: the manufacture of fake ears from sodium oleate and what may have been industrial gelatin.
But while in China there may not be enough pig’s ears to go around, in Britain such offal is regarded as inedible. “In Europe, it’s really only the Portuguese who eat pig’s ears,” says Peter Hardwick, the international manager of the British Pig Executive and one of those involved in negotiating the deal. “And the value of most pig offal is negligible. With some of it we even have to pay for disposal. So from an economic and environmental point of view, it makes sense to ship those parts of the carcass to China, where they are treated as food and can be sold at a very high margin.”
The Chinese are masters of the arts of pork cookery. Think only of the divine Dongpo pork, named after a Song Dynasty poet who loved the meat so much he wrote a poem about it: lazy chunks of slow-braised belly with Shaoxing wine, soy sauce and sugar; or the tender Yangzhou pig’s head, served with fluffy white buns and pickled garlic. And who could resist a Sichuanese twice-cooked pork, with its sizzly, spicy black bean sauce and streaks of green garlic?
Unlike Europeans, the Chinese also take a particular delight in the multifarious textures of the cooked pig. There’s the stickiness of the skin, which may be enjoyed by nibbling on a stewed tail or trotter, and the voluptuousness of slow-cooked belly fat. Kidneys and liver, fast-fried so they don’t become leathery, are considered to have a pleasing crispness to their bite, while stomach is delightfully soft and bouncy. And ears, so disdained by the west, have a gorgeous mouthfeel, their thin sheets of crunchy cartilage nestling between springy layers of skin. Gong zui, the lower part of a pig’s face, including snout and mouth, is also a delicacy: “The Sichuanese are partial to it,” says the editor of Sichuan Cuisine magazine, Wang Xudong. “It is delicious served as a cold dish with a numbing-and-hot sauce laced with chilli and Sichuan pepper.”
Chinese consumers may also welcome imported offal after a spate of local food scares that have included not only fake pig’s ears, but also pork treated with clenbuterol, a toxic chemical that can cause muscle tremors, dizziness, headaches and gastric problems. The risk assessments carried out on British pig producers before their products were approved for export to China are likely to be reassuring. “I suspect that better-off Chinese shoppers will see British pork offal as a good, safe option,” says Wang Xudong.
The new pork deal might appear extravagant with food miles, but, according to Peter Hardwick, “the balance of trade between our two countries is tilted so heavily in China’s favour that there is a huge amount of spare capacity in shipping containers going back in that direction.” In other words, the sea containers that bring our iPhones, kitchen appliances and clothing from China might as well go back full of frozen pig’s ears, rather than empty.
Indeed, the Sino-British agreement has a perfect, Jack Sprat logic to it. The good folk of Britain can go on eating their chops and tenderloins, while the Chinese hoover up the ears, feet and tails they leave behind, laughing, no doubt, at the ignorance of those who discard such treasures.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s latest book, ‘Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking’, is published by Bloomsbury. She was the winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Food Culture and Travel