The Chinese have the reputation for eating anything that moves, and most things that don’t. Well, my lunch today only served to promote that stereotype. Actually, many cultures eat forms of blood, so it is really not that unusual. Many people who live in rural Louisiana (my home state) eat blood sausage, and blood dishes are common enough in the UK (their famous black pudding) and in France (le boudin noir). In fact, one of the top ten dishes of my life was wild boar cooked in a blood sauce, in San Gimignano, Italy. But to perhaps the majority of Westerners, eating blood is rather taboo. So when I noticed that a new restaurant had just opened here in Kunming, and that it offers congealed pig’s blood, well, how could I resist?
Blood has been traditionally viewed since ancient times as the source of the life of animals and humans. The Bible forbids eating blood for this reason. Yet this interdiction has not stopped many Christian nations (especially European) from using blood as a culinary thickening agent and a flavoring, as well as a source of vitamins and minerals. Moreover, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that the wine they drink during the Mass is transformed into the actual blood of Jesus.
Despite a general global taboo against eating or drinking blood, some cultures, such as those of the Maasai people of East Africa, and the Inuit people of the Arctic, drink blood directly from animals. The Inuit will kill a seal and immediately drink its blood, while the Masai will pierce the side of a living cow and drink its blood fresh (without killing or even really harming the animal). Both peoples believe that blood imparts strength and vitality to the drinker, a belief that can be traced throughout history.
Mixian (米线), or rice noodles, are extremely popular in Kunming and Yunnan Province in general. They are habitually served in a brothy soup, with any number of meats, and usually with green onions, garlic, chili peppers, and other garnishes. So as you can imagine, you cannot throw a rice ball in Kunming without hitting a mixian shop. In my own experience, some of the best noodles can be found in some of the smallest, shabbiest holes-in-the-wall. So when a large, shiny new restaurant opened recently on a prominent corner in town, I felt a bit wary about the mixian. But, being one to give anything culinary a try, a friend and I went there for lunch.
My friend ordered lu er si (卤饵丝), a type of thick, pasty noodles. I ordered my bloody mixian, and we shared a plate of stir-fried pig’s stomach. My soup was a very large bowl of medium-width rice noodles in pork broth, mixed with: cubes of congealed pig’s blood, large pieces of pig’s skin, bits of pork meat, some thin sheets of tofu skin, garlic, green onions, and — I am sure — several other spices and seasonings. As is my custom, I also added a couple of heaping spoonfuls of hot chili paste.
My soup was an earthy, musky, pungent (but pleasant) assault on the senses. The noodles were rich and imparted the flavor of rice to the rich pork broth. I could tell that the broth, or stock, had been made with pork bones, because I could taste the luscious creaminess of the marrow. The skin was fatty and salty, and carried the other flavors of the soup to all regions of the taste buds. The green onions and garlic added a more acute, sharp pungency to the flavor profile.
But let’s be honest: the blood was the star of this show. I have eaten blood before in various dishes. While I appreciate and enjoy it in some culinary contexts, I usually find the taste of iron to be quite overwhelming over all of the other flavors in the dish. But this blood was milder in flavor. It gave out a noticeable mineral taste, but it notably lacked the telltale iron flavor. It did, however, carry that characteristic rich, gamey, musky flavor of blood, that piercing, animalistic primal tint of gustatory brilliance. And while blood is high in certain vitamins and minerals, to me, it is that organic flavor that is the real point of eating it.
You see, I believe that we meat eaters should be more closely attached to the source of our nutrition. Buying prepackaged tenderloins of chicken breasts off of sterile grocery store shelves makes the meat seem like it is some sort of manmade product, some sort of plastic or vegetable material. But when we eat meat, we are eating the once-living muscles, the flesh, of real, living animals. Somewhere along the supply chain, someone had to take a warm, breathing animal, and snuff out its life. Someone had to butcher the bloody carcass. Somehow, a living being lost its life in a violent manner so that we may eat.
Eating blood, in my opinion, reconnects us to that reality. It reminds us that, as the life is in the blood, so was that life taken away in order to impart life back to us. It places us back into the earthly cycle of life that we are a part of, just as much as are the animals. Like them, we kill, we eat, we live from their death, and one day, we die. Then the creatures of the earth use our death to feed their lives, and the cycle begins again. No matter how we may try to resist these facts by distancing ourselves from our food, we can no more avoid our place in the cycle that can a pig, a cow, or a chicken. We kill to live, and we die to impart life. Food brings us closer to this tragic yet beautiful tale of life.