Monday, 18 April 2011

Dogmeat and Rock-Ear Fungus Stew Anybody?

There have been reports in today’s papers of animal-rights protestors in China stopping a lorry full of stolen canines (dare I say “hot dogs”?) headed for the pot. In typical Chinese fashion, the protestors had to buy the animals’ release. This reminded me of an ancient Buddhist tradition called fangsheng 放生, in which the faithful pay to be given a trapped animal, often a turtle, and then release it into the wild. Chinese towns to this day often have a street named Fangsheng Pool Street or something similar, where this once happened. The tradition has crept back in recent years, often attached to Buddhist temples, where you can see elderly peasants sitting beside a cage of small mammals they’ve trapped out in the fields. You pay them a few kuai for the karmic privilege of setting a ground squirrel free (presumably to be recaptured the same night. The circle of life and all that...).
The Telegraph notes that the Chinese have been eating dog for centuries - it’s millennia, in fact, as I discovered in Pei County 沛县, up in Jiangsu Province, when I was travelling the Grand Canal of China for The Emperor’s River. Pei is where Liu Bang, founder of the Western Han dynasty, grew up, and legend has it that “turtle sauce dog meat” was accidentally invented by a local dog-meat butcher called Fan Kuai who was trying to stop Liu Bang from stealing his dog stew, which he’d only been able to do by crossing a river on the back of a giant turtle from heaven. I didn’t say it was plausible...
Anyhow, to get to my point, there are records in Chinese literature from at least the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC) of recipes for dog, but it seems to have been the imperial patronage of Liu Bang which made dog stew one of the vogue dishes of the Han dynasty (the Heston Blumenthal “snail porridge” of its day, as it were). In a short piece by the Han scholar Mei Cheng 枚乘, there’s mention of a recipe which you can all try at home (if you’re willing to break countless laws on animal welfare, not to mention hygiene and health and safety, and good taste). 
Dogmeat stew with rock-ear fungus
Rock-ear fungus (shi’er 石耳, aka shanfu 山肤 or Umbilicaria esculenta) is a rare and valuable Asian lichen. You can harvest it by being lowered down in a basket to the vertical mountainous rock-faces where it grows. As for dogs, well, they’re Canis lupus familiaris, a domesticated form of the wolf, and can be found on any high street.
Take chunks of dogmeat on the bone from a plump, well-fed dog, and poach until cooked through. Discard the bones and chop the meat finely. Meanwhile, wash the rock-ears to get rid of any dirt and leave to soak. Combine the meat and fungus in a pot and add water and seasoning and bring to a boil. Take some rice flour, add a little water to make a paste, and pour into the soup to thicken. When the dish is ready, put the dog-meat into a serving dish and garnish with the fungus. Enjoy a true taste of the Han dynasty!

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