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Bear’s paws (熊掌) have always been considered a rare delicacy in China and they still are today. Even in ancient times, when there were more bears roaming the wilds in China, bear’s paws were a food for the elite, not for the commoner.

The Chinese philosopher Mencius said, “If I cannot have bear’s paws and fish, then I would prefer bear’s paws.” This is evidence that fish were highly prized food in the olden days, and that bear’s paws ranked right up there with fish.

The dish is one of the Eight Rarities - in ancient China bear’s paws were ranked in a class of rare foods called the Eight Rarities and were served by the wealthy at banquets, along with foods like shark’s fin and bird’s nest.

Today, despite their reputation and status in traditional Chinese cuisine, it is rare to see the dish featured on the menu of a banquet in China as bears are now classed as endangered.

Bear’s bile is an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine and bear's paws and bear meat are a by-product of the bear bile industry. Bears no longer produce bile after a few years. They are then often killed for their paws and meat.

China has signed international agreements to protect animal species and avoid cruel treatment of animals. As a result bear’s meat and paws have disappeared from markets and menus, at least on the surface.

Behind the scenes, there are still Chinese gourmets who will go to great lengths to get their hands on bear’s paws. They are also involved in supplying bear meat as well as bear bile to the Chinese market.

One continues to read news about contraband bear’s paws which have been smuggled into China from overseas. There are bear bile industries in several of the neighboring Southeast Asian countries which are obviously also interested in supplying bear meat as well as bile to the Chinese market.

The illegal trade in brown bear’s paws continues. In May 2013, Chinese customs reported stopping a van crossing from Russia to Inner Mongolia with a cargo of 213 bear’s paws, worth nearly half a million dollars. The paws likely would have been sold as rare cooking ingredients or expensive gifts. Mother Jones magazine carried a remarkable picture of the confiscated cargo.

It is hard to answer the question of what bear's paws taste like because the paw meat must be cooked. This cooking is a lengthy and employs a complex technique. It involves other ingredients whose flavors affect the taste of the bear paw by the time the meal is served.

There are even old recipes which call for curing the meat of bear’s paws for as long as two years before cooking it. So by the time it reaches the table its taste will be totally transformed.

Bear meat was highly prized in China from a very early era. It was on the menu in the Imperial Palace during the reign of King Xiang of the Zhou dynasty. The dynasty lasted from 1122 to 256 BCE; Xiang ruled from 651 to 618 BCE.

There is a story from ancient China that shows both the high prestige of bear’s paws and also how long the cooking process took. During the Warring States Period (221 to 277 AD), Prince Chen of the State of Chu was eager to ascend the throne. So he rebelled and attached his father, King Chang of Chu. Chen’s troops had surrounded the palace and he ordered his commander, General Peng Sui to lead troops into the palace and kill his father.

Knowing there was no escape, King Chang pleaded, “I’ve already ordered the cook to prepare bear’s paw. Wait till I’ve eaten it, and then kill me. I can then die in peace.”

General Peng Sui angrily replied, “Bear’s paw is not easy to cook. Are you just trying to delay until fresh troops get here?” The King of Chu had no way out but to hang himself.

This story shows what a good thing it was to eat bear’s paw and also how long it took to prepare it to eat. The king knew it would take several days for the cook to finish his job, and no doubt hoped fresh soldiers would have arrived by the time the meal was ready.

To prepare the bear meat, the cook must first remove the fur on the paw. The classic method is to plaster the paw with mud and then bake it in an oven.

After a while, when it is taken out, the paw will be clear of the fur. Next, the furless paw must be placed in boiling water. Then, when it is removed, it should be soaked in water for one or two more days.

During this time, its bulk will increase almost threefold. It will also be softened. After this procedure, the paw is skinned and the bones are removed, ending up with just the paw meat.

After skinning it and obtaining the paw flesh, the cooking method depends on the master chef. Besides roasted bear’s paw, there are several other ways to cook it, such as stewing or steaming and slicing.

Stewed Bear’s Paw: For stewing, place the paw meat in a pot, and hen, using a very slow fire, cook until tender and juicy. Then remove from the fire and cool completely.

Next, cook it again,repeating the process three or four times. Then add some chicken or pork as desired, and stew again with the paw meat, stewing together for eight or nine hours. The paw flesh will be almost liquified. Its mouth-feel will be like that of very gelatinous fat pork.

Steamed and Sliced Bear’s Paw — prepared in much the same way. First, slice the paw flesh, then add ham, winter melon and chicken, and stew them together.

Roasted Bear’s Paw: When roasting bear’s paw, it is necessary to be fussy about the fire. Naturally, the flame must be a low one, but one must also know how to use the fire. If it is used the wrong way, the outside of the paw will be scorched, and the inside will not be tender and juicy. This will cause it to lose its proper flavor.

“Bear’s paw is sweet and fat, even better than shark’s fin.

— Xi Feng

Chinese gourmet Xi Feng says, “When people ask what is the flavor of bear’s paw? I can reply that its taste is sweet and far, even better than shark’s fin.

“It is like pork cooked at the right time and temperature, but smooth and soft, but not as greasy as fat pork. At first-class Cantonese banquets, they only have shark’s fin but don’t serve bear’s paw these days. Bear’s paw, however, is still prized in the cuisine of Beijing, the Old Capital.”

Nutritional Aspects: According to Chinese gourmets, bear’s paw is said to be nutritius. Xi Feng says, “If you eat it several times when the autumn winds begin to blow, it will protect you so that you can go about in wintertime with one or two fewer layers of quilted robes.”

Xi Feng adds, “It is also said that those who are fussy about their bear’s paws prefer the front paws and will pay more tor them. The reason is that when our Elder Brother the Bear is hibernating, he licks his left front paw. His salivary secretions are concentrated on the left front paw, so it’s the most nutritious.”

Geography of Bear’ s Paws: Bear’s paws from the North of China are thought to be of the best quality. The colder the region of origin, the better quality. However, bear’s paws from the region of Yunnan Province near the Himalayas are also well known and expensive, when you can get them.

Further reading[]

Eight Rarities: A traditional grouping of gourmet’s treats, which has varied from time to time. According to one listing from the Mongol Dynasty, 1206 — 1333 AD, it included “oil of butter” (a kind of dark wine), deer’s throat, wild horses’ feet, deer’s lips, camel’s udder, roast snow goose, purple jade sauce, and black jade sauce. A later list given in the standard Chinese lexicon Ci Hai (Ocean of Phrases) includes dragon liver, phoenix marrow, leopard embryo, carp tails, roasted owl, yellow haired ape’s lips, bear’s paw and crisp locust cakes.

Story of Prince Chen’s rebellion From the Chun Chiu ((Spring and Autumn Annals), the last of the Five Classics, as at present constituted. It is a chronological record of the chief events in the State of Lu between the years of 722 — 484 BC, and generally regarded as the work of Confucius.

Xi Feng, “Xun Jang (Bear’s Paws),” originally printed in Shing Dao Daily News, Hong Kong, September 26, 1961. From Xi Feng’;s essay: “Bear’s paw is something that ordinary people can not afford to eat. Formerly only the very rich enjoyed a standard of living that permitted them to eat it. Furthermore, bear’s paw is very difficult to cook. It must be cooked over a slow fire, and the cooking time required is something an entire day and night.”

“Body Snatchers,” Mother Jones, September-October 2013, page 6. Short report on confiscation of contraband bear’s paws with photograph.

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