For most, this year's September moon festival in China was a time to add something 'exotic' such as pork to the staple diet of rice and vegetables. But for those of means, luxury eating encompassed such truly exotic delights such as bear’s paw, camel’s nose, monkey's brain and the popular bird’s nest soup.

However, the SARS outbreak has proved to be singularly effective at frightening some people into dietary change.

"Thanks to SARS", explains Xu Hongfa of TRAFFIC, an international animal conservation group, "people stopped eating a large number of animals, particularly wild animals, as links were made between them and the disease."

The anteater's off

Animals like the civet, a cat-like creature that is particularly popular in Southern China, the pangolin, a type of scaly anteater, and snakes were quickly discarded from restaurant menus as popular fear turned into government law.

"The recent laws on taking animals from the wild have yet to prove their value … what we really need to do is address some of the attitudes behind eating certain foods. At present men will...eat tortoise because they believe its longevity will help their own life span. This kind of attitude does not help us in protecting rare animals who also have their own perceived qualities."

Xu Hongfa also suggested that a need to impress, or give face, was partly responsible for the devouring of wild animals.

"People, particularly at a business dinner, will look for something special on a menu in order to show off to their business partners or colleagues. This is a very common aspect of Chinese culture." 
 

Shark's fin soup - still a favourite
War on starch

However, a new preoccupation with healthy eating has meant that some of the stereotypes of the Chinese gourmet are being eroded.

"Our customers, who are mostly high end, will come in and say, I don’t care about the price but I want something healthy. For example, they don’t want so much rice as this contains both sugar and starch … this did not happen before," says Eric Lau, a restaurant manager at Summer Palace, one of Beijing’s leading Cantonese restaurants.

Doing a brisk trade in such specialties as shark’s fin soup, he has noticed how people now stress the health effects of their meal.

"We always knew shark's fin soup was good for the body – it is full of important minerals – now our customers are aware of this too."

A greater awareness of dietary effects on the body has become one of the side effects improved education is bringing.

"I don’t eat bird’s nest too often," said one customer who introduced himself as Mr Yang, "as it contains too much protein for regular consumption."

Bird’s nest soup, a delicacy reputedly brought to China by the Zheng He during the Qing Dynasty is believed by some to be extremely beneficial for the body.

"After falling sick, eat the soup to internally cleanse your body," says Stanley Yuen, head chef at Summer Palace, "it will wash your organs and remove any traces of disease."

"Like the West, people are eating more and exercising less."

Professor Chen Junshi,
Chinese Centre for Disease Control

Some are not convinced.

"There is no science in such logic," cautions Professor Chen Junshi of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control (CDC). "It is true people are looking more at their diet but this kind of traditional logic should not be relied upon."

Folklore under scrutiny

Referring to the opinion of Chef Yuen who bases his opinions on centuries of culinary and medicinal experience rather than modern day science, Chen prefers to look at facts as they appear under a microscope.

"There is much in traditional Chinese dietary history that works but we do need to prove it scientifically, then as scientists, we can talk about progress," he says.

One area of interest is the notion of “hot” and “cold” foods.

Often referred to as yin and yang, a good chef aims to balance both throughout the course of a meal.

An imbalance of yang, often characterised by hot, spicy foods can result in spotty skin, sore throat and poor digestion whereas too much yin leads to low blood pressure – a naturally occurring condition in women during menstruation.

"For example, if you have a cold or fever, you should take ginger as part of a soup. We do not know the exact science for this but it has been proved to work. It is a kind of belief but without scientific justification," says Chen.

Diseases of affluence

Greater knowledge about the scientifically dubious qualities of Chinese food is one aspect of how people are taking a greater interest in what they eat.

But according to Chen, people’s diets are changing in other less healthy ways, caused in part by Western culinary influences.

"People are eating more food, especially more animal products. This is leading to problems of obesity, heart disease and cancer … what we in China call diseases of affluence."

As meat has become affordable and cooked in ever-increasing amounts of oil, the effects are noticeable.

Western eating habits threaten to plump up Chinese children

"Children are defiantly getting fatter … with only one child in a family how can a family refuse their only child’s wish to have an ice-cream, especially when they can afford it," said Chen.

In Beijing, according to the CDC, over 20% of adults are obese, including 50% of women over 40. "Like the West, people are eating more and exercising less," added Chen.

For the CDC, such changes are unwelcome.

"The current plant-based diet is much healthier … what we need is better education aimed at introducing the dangers of heavy meat and sugar consumption to children … we need to overcome generations of Chinese that have equated meat with luxury … the problem is, there are so many aspects of health education to deal with; AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis - diet and nutrition are very minor topics compared with these issues."

While SARS may have brought some reduction in the eating of wild animals, the full impact of health awareness on people’s diets has yet to be felt.

One thing is clear - last year’s revelation that a restaurant in central China was using human breast milk as a sauce base for a popular dish, certainly shows that when it comes to the unusual, Chinese chefs can put a price on almost anything.