Pork – the meat from domesticated pigs — is Chinese cuisine’s ubiquitous signature meat, the form of animal protein most widely consumed in China since ancient times. So basic is pork to Chinese food that it is the default meaning of the word ‘meat’ (ròu, 肉), when nothing else is specified. Beef is cow meat (níu ròu, 牛肉); mutton is sheep meat (yáng ròu, 羊肉), but ‘meat’ (ròu, 肉), always means pork when used by itself. The ideograph for home and family, jīa (家), even depicts a pig beneath a roof. No other flesh food approaches pork’s central place in the language of food—or on the Chinese table. China’s more than 21 million Muslims do eschew pork, in accordance with their faith, and have developed a sub-cuisine emphasizing lamb and beef for their 1.6% of the population (see Chinese Islamic Cuisine)—but among the Han Chinese majority, pork is number one.

Pigs were domesticated as a food source in China as early as 5,000 BCE; excavations of the Yangshao culture in North China, reaching back to that era, pinpoint pork as a principal source of meat. Cattle, sheep, and goats are not thought to have been widely domesticated until the time of the Lungshan culture, 2-3,000 years later, and, according to some interpretations of oracle bone inscriptions, were bred for ritual purposes at first, not as a protein source. Pork was always food.

Through the millennia that followed, pork remained the prime source of animal protein, followed by aquatic life in areas near water, and fowl everyplace else. Pigs are efficient converters of feed into protein, can be raised on the marginal land ringing a farm or household, and provide high-grade fertilizer via manure. Indeed, pigs, fowl, and fish grown in ponds comprise a sort of farm archetype that has endured throughout Chinese history.

Pork’s central position in Chinese food has led to millennia of pork preservation techniques, which permit meat to be kept for long period without refrigeration. A Song Dynasty cookbook attributed to one Madame Wu directs the reader to pound slices of freshly roasted pork, blanch them in boiling water, then dry them off and pack with salt, vinegar, oil, pepper and cardamom. Today, traditional pork preservation techniques are still used, and vary from province to province. In Yunnan, hams are salted and hung. In Fujian, pork is dried with spices, sugar, sugar, soy sauce, and salt. The Hunanese smoke pork, creating là ròu, 臘肉, a bacon-flavored ingredient. The technique of the Tibetans is especially impressive; they gut and debone the animal, stuff its cavities with dried chiles and salt, and then dry the pig flat, turning it into a thick, hard tabletop. The salty flavor is super-concentrated, and one dried pig can last a household a half year or more. Throughout China, every part of the pig is eaten or used; nothing is wasted.

Pork may have always been the most common meat, yet through most of China’s history, it remained something of a luxury. A Qing Dynasty laborer earned 100 cash a day in the late eighteenth century; a pound of pork was 50. A chicken was 100. A goose was 500. A pound of rice was 24. In the early modern period (1911-1949), pork was still a food of privilege; Chinese farmers, who did (and still do) comprise most of the population, received only 1% of their energy from meat in that era. By the late 1970s, when China re-opened its doors to the West after three decades of isolation—and a major famine in which 31,000,000 starved to death—that percentage had barely improved, with the average Chinese eating only 8 KG of pork a year.

Now, that per capita consumption level has skyrocketed to 39 KG per year, and half of the more than 100 million tons of pork eaten worldwide every year are consumed in China. When the economy roared back, the food industry privatized immediately. Restaurants bloomed. Even before people could buy cell phones, and then later cars and apartments, they could eat more pork, and they did.   In fact, in recent decades, the ratio of fàn, 飯 (staple food, grain food) to cài, 菜 (flavored food such as vegetables and meat to eat with the fàn, 飯) has gradually reversed. In the 70s, most calories came from fàn, 飯. Indeed, the grain ticket, the last ration coupon, the one that guaranteed a basic measure of staple food to all, endured until 1991. When it was finally abolished, many old folks felt nervous about losing their coupon for fàn, 飯, but by then the ratio had shifted, and everyone was eating more cài, 菜, including pork. Indeed, pork is now such a critical component of China’s Consumer Price Index that serious price fluctuations can affect the economy. The Chinese government subsidizes pork production, spending $47 per pig in 2012.

Pork production in China today is big agribusiness. The pig’s role as the natural recycler of the small farm (food waste>protein>manure for crops) is finished. Now, instead of inedible food scraps, swine are raised on imported corn and soy, needing so much that China is on track to be consuming half of the world’s cereal crops by the 2020s. Large scale pig farming is also a strain on the environment, in terms of both greenhouse gases (the animals are epic producers), and overuse of antibiotics (inbreeding has lowered disease resistance). Pork is now plentiful, but it comes with a price.

Nevertheless, Chinese culinary tradition has long treated pork as a costly ingredient, one to be added in modest quantity to many dishes, generally in combination with vegetables. It is less common for pork to be served on its own, as a feature protein dish. There are exceptions to this, of course, from the long-braised pork knuckle of Shanghai, to the barbecued spareribs of Wuhan, to Chairman Mao’s favorite “red-cooked pork,” to the Cantonese suckling pig—still, pork rarely stars as the big, impressive protein platter that climaxes a traditional Chinese banquet. More often, that honor goes to a whole fish or duck.

Do not imagine that pork is treated lightly. Chinese gastronomic principles dictate that pork should be prepared so that its delicate, natural, “straw-mat” flavor is presented in a clear, clean frame. Pork should be light and tender, fragrant and sweet. Ginger, spring onion, black pepper, and Sichuan pepper are examples of ingredients used with pork to restrain rank flavors and render it sweet. Cornstarch or tapioca starch is used to bind seasonings to the meat. Slicing the meat with the grain reduces shrinkage. These are some of the techniques behind creating a clean, natural pork flavor.

Even more specialized attention is given to the preparation of solid pork fat, adored by Chinese gourmets. When properly prepared, pork fat is as smooth as custard, with a taste as clean and sweet as farm-fresh butter. Yet this “natural” flavor is also the product of careful labor. The meat and fat must be rubbed with salt to pull out juices, blanched to remove scum, stewed at a low temperature, and then steamed for hours, to clarify the flavor and tenderize the fat. Serious Chinese diners moan and cry out in happiness when such a dish is borne to the table. The perfection of solid fat is its own gustatory experience.

Whether fatty or lean, pork holds its place at the common table and the refined gourmet banquet. Sometimes the two extremes meet, as in a foodie trend that celebrates simplicity for decades on end. This famously happened in the eighteenth century, when Chinese gourmets declared that the highest possible incarnation of food was actually the simple and the rustic—which leads one straight back to pork. As the iconic food writer Yuan Mei (1715-1797) put it, “I always say that chicken, pork, fish and duck are the original geniuses of the board, each with a flavor of its own, each with its distinctive style; whereas sea-slug and swallows-nest (despite their costliness) are commonplace fellows, with no character – in fact, mere hangers-on.”