Is Beef Taboo for Chinese New Year?
By Jade Hu - Thursday, Jan 30, 2014
In our grandparents’ days, the most crucial item on the dinner table during Chinese New Year would be meat (unless you are vegetarian) – it’s an endearing childhood memory. Grandpa and ma would buy a live chicken, slaughter it, and then turn it into white poached chicken. It would first be offered to our ancestors at the altar before we can heartily devour it at the dinner table. This consumption of meat, once a luxury food item, signifies having arrived after a whole year of toil, joy, sorrow and hardship. The chicken, complete with the head and feet, symbolizes family togetherness and prosperity. Nowadays it is a festive staple. Besides chicken, pork, duck and fish are also eaten to celebrate its symbolisms of abundant blessing and wealth, and fertility even.
But what about beef?
Traditionally, the Chinese do not eat beef because the cow is considered a sacred animal and a holy incarnation of the Goddess of Mercy. Much like the Hindus, they believe that the cow is a gift from the gods, providing life nourishing milk, clothing from its hide and a partner to help toil and till the land. The animal symbolizes wealth, abundance and selfless giving, and is well-loved and protected by the people. There is also a socio-economic theory which suggests that historically, the Chinese eat little or no beef because if they had chosen to use the limited land resources to rear cows for food instead of growing rice, it could lead to food shortage. In our Singaporean context, this is not applicable since we neither breed cows nor cultivate our own crops for food. Yet many people have never eaten beef in their lives, born into a belief where the cow is an object of worship and reverence. For those who pray to the Goddess of Mercy and devout Hindus and practice deeds that generate good karma, luck, health and fortune, not eating beef (or to be precise becoming vegetarian) is part of the cleansing process that a devotee commits to. In other words, eating beef would be seen as blasphemous. Nowadays many Chinese, regardless of whether they subscribe to a particular belief, do not eat beef. Could it be a matter of cost? Beef may be slightly more expensive than chicken or pork, but rising disposable incomes here can disarm this theory. You won’t easily find beef in the set menus of traditional Chinese restaurants and even cze cha places, even if it is a pricey menu.
During the Chinese New Year period, most Chinese people are highly aware and sensitive about the need to perform good deeds and auspicious acts because they believe that the positive energy and accumulated karma is a prelude to a smooth-sailing year ahead. Not eating beef, which stands for benevolence and mercy, is one of those deeds. Since this custom is heavily embedded in the cultural DNA of some Chinese people, and taught to them as part of their heritage, it is therefore significant for them to adhere, in order to gain social recognition. A butcher in his late 40s at Foodie Market Place thinks that this tradition of shunning beef is passed down from the older generation, some of whom are Buddhist or devotees of the Goddess of Mercy. For him, it is only the first day (chu yi) of Chinese New Year when no beef is consumed in his family. While he practices festival traditions, he is a beef lover, who started out working as a butcher since he was 16. Tony, a postdoctoral fellow in his late 20s, believes that even though it is perfectly fine for himself to eat beef during Chinese New Year, since it is also the occasion where he visits friends and extended family (which include those who do not eat beef), he would respect and follow the practices of the host, in order not to offend anyone. Conversely, Edwin, who teaches at a local university and in his early 30s, thinks that there is nothing taboo about eating beef, but acknowledges that it is indeed not a common dish you can find at a Chinese New Year meal. Yingxuan Ang, a 20-year-old sociology student, says that she has not heard of any restrictions against eating beef during Chinese New Year. In the same vein, a Chinese beef seller in her 50s at Tiong Bahru Market, does not follow any particular religion or customs, enjoys a good steak herself. This suggests that the no-beef-zone is not necessarily restricted to the older age groups, as some would like to believe. At a time when Singaporean taste buds are shifting towards international cuisines and adopting more Westernized palates, there are an increasing number of people who are not inclined to practice such customs, and crave a stronger presence of beef in their dishes. Only a handful is abstaining out of tradition and respect for their seniors. When it comes to eating beef, it seems that it is not about affluence, but influence. Many Hainanese, known for cattle breeding skills back in China, are beef lovers and it features in their festive menus, like a beef hotpot or noodles.
While we cannot be sure whether eating beef during this auspicious season would cause a social faux pas, a word of advice is not to serve beef at any festive meals without asking in advance. If you find that not eating beef is a good way to reconnect with your Chinese roots and heritage, then perhaps this Chinese New Year is the occasion to lay low from the hamburger joints, and eventually lay off the meat altogether. Otherwise, go ahead and enjoy that medium-rare steak on your own. At the end of the day, feasting is really about meaning and togetherness, not about quality, variety or taboos.