It was a chilly day in Beijing. After my calligraphy exhibition, my friends enthusiastically invited me to have a hearty meal of instant-boiled mutton or mutton hotpot, saying, “What a pleasure to have a friend come from afar! How better to celebrate than a meal of instant-boiled mutton?” And so, I ate instant-boiled mutton a couple of days in a row.
Beijing’s instant-boiled mutton is exquisite — it is fresh, tasty, and most importantly, not too gamey. “Where’s the sheep from?” I curiously asked. “Inner Mongolia,” they replied, quick to add, “Not from the supermarket. But not from the wet market either.”
One friend got the mutton by “pulling strings” — it was specially delivered to him by his relatives and friends from Inner Mongolia. Another friend who is on close terms with a halal butcher shop at Niujie (literally “Ox Street” and a Muslim quarter of sorts in Beijing) got his supply of mutton from a specialised and reliable dealer of Halal beef and mutton. All of his animals were prayed over and slaughtered in the appropriate way.
They’re not like the “Inner Mongolia” mutton you see at the markets. Those are dubious — you never know which “Inner Mongolia” (Neimenggu) they came from: the inner part of Nevada, which was previously used as a nuclear test site? Or Nebraska’s waste landfill that’s deep in the wilderness? In any case, they are all smuggled frozen meat cleverly rebranded as “air-flown from Inner Mongolia” in hopes of duping us all. This kind of meat can’t be eaten — they stink. And not forgetting the worst of them all: butchers who take expired frozen pork, duck, and heaven knows what other dead animal’s meat, mix them with mutton fat, and add loads of god knows what flavouring spices, and then present it to you as being “100% mutton”. They even have the cheek to shove it under your nose and say it’s the speciality of Alxa League and Alxa Left Banner (Inner Mongolia is divided into leagues and banners, which are much like prefectures and counties), or the most premium mutton from Xilingol League and West Ujimqin Banner. Would you dare to believe them?
If you were to ask the butcher, of course they’ll swear to god, “I dare use my second child as a guarantee. If any word I say is false, my second child will be born without a behind. What is there to doubt, sir? The tax audit officers patronise my shop every other day. I’m the supplier of the food inspection agency’s canteen. They always buy over ten catties of meat from me. This is the mutton I eat at home! We’re all fine and there’s nothing to worry about. Let me tell you, the Inner Mongolia mutton I sell here is even more reliable than the one you buy from Inner Mongolia itself!”
Sighing, my friend said, “People have changed. It’s no longer like in the olden days. The honesty and sincerity of Old Beijing is long gone. It has vanished together with the city walls of Beijing, it’s all over already. Look, if the butchers really put their heart and mind into it, they can easily be more eloquent than any crosstalk comedian. Thankfully, they’re selling mutton at the markets. Would Guo Degang (famous Chinese crosstalk comedian) still have a place to stand if the crosstalk stage became the butcher’s playground?”
While he continued to reminisce about the good old days, he beckoned me to try some of the mutton. “This mutton didn’t come by easily”, he said. “I was invited by the Inner Mongolia Writers’ Association to be a judge last time, and this mutton came from the sheep that one of the fellow judges’ in-laws personally reared. They even tasked someone to send it over here. It’s definitely going to be delicious.”
And my friend was right. Delicious it really was. It even melts in your mouth. It’s like Japan’s Kobe beef or Matsusaka beef, only much tastier. I can’t help but think about the sheep wandering about the fields of Inner Mongolia before they ended up on the chopping board: they must be carefree as they were slowly chewing grass on the vast green pastures? “Oh behold the boundless blue sky and vast wilderness. Oh how the wind blows, the grass bends, and cattle and sheep graze.” How poetic and lovely are the sights of the vast wilderness, painting a magnificent picture of nature’s harmony.
Zhuangzi (庄子, a leading philosopher in the Taoist tradition) was once crossing the Hao River (濠河) and watching fish. He felt that the fish were enjoying themselves, swimming about freely in the water. Fellow philosopher Huizi doubtfully asked Zhuangzi, “You’re not a fish. How would you know if they are happy?” Zhuangzi rebutted, “You’re not me. How would you know that I don’t know if they’re happy?”
Here I am enjoying my instant-boiled mutton, thinking about the flocks of sheep dancing around the plains of Inner Mongolia, soaking up the sun and enjoying the spring breeze. I completely disregarded how they must have felt during the harsh winter, or even worse, just as they were about to be slaughtered. I guess I haven’t reached Zhuangzi’s level yet. I can’t help but reflect: am I lacking an all-encompassing love for people and things? Am I absent of the spirit of “the universe and I are one”? Perhaps I treated sheep as “them” — I lacked empathy for them and only cared about satisfying my taste buds.
When I was little, we used to have instant-boiled mutton during winter in Taiwan as well. I recall a Shanxi restaurant across from Taipei’s Zhongshan Hall that sold exceptional instant-boiled mutton. Winter in Taipei was especially gloomy and damp. We didn’t have a heating system at home by then, and our hands and legs would grow stiff from the cold. “We want steamboat! We want instant-boiled mutton,” we would yell and whine. When our father was free and in a good mood, the entire family would be on the move, and we would be rewarded with a hearty meal of mutton shabu-shabu.
The steamboat pot was made of brass and had its own chimney for the burning of charcoal. The fiery hot charcoal boiled the broth and made sizzling sounds. It was a sight that chased the chilly winter blues away and deeply warmed our hearts. Plates of thinly sliced and perfectly marbled mutton slices would then be served, neatly placed atop porcelain plates, each plate completely filled. The sight before my eyes was abundant and heartwarming — an outpouring of the simple joys of family. I couldn’t remember what the mutton tasted like. I also didn’t know if the mutton was local Taiwan produce or “radioactive mutton” from Nevada. I simply ate happily. All I could remember was the look of affection in my parents’ eyes, the sound of my siblings’ hearty laughter, and the simple childhood bliss that would always be experienced in the harsh winter.
Perhaps because of this beautiful childhood memory, I would always think of instant-boiled mutton every winter, and be reminded of the look of warmth and love in my parents’ eyes.