The oppressive temperatures of summer had us generally wilting, shedding weight as we battled heat-challenged appetites and dehydration. So it is a relief now that autumn is officially here and the weather is cooling significantly.
Along with the cooling, the melons are growing, and soon the pumpkins, plump and juicy, will decorate our tables with their fall colors.
This is also the time when northern Chinese start cooking heartwarming stews and braised meats full of nutrition in an annual culinary ritual called tieqiubiao, roughly translated into “autumn preparations” or “priming in autumn”.
This officially starts from the first solar term of autumn, liqiu, the “beginning of autumn”, which coincides with the first week of August. However, the fattening up lasts throughout the season.
In what is still largely an agrarian society, Chinese have lived by the solar terms for thousands of years. These terms remind them of the changing seasons and predict the best times for tilling the soil, sowing seeds, weeding the land, watering the crops, and harvesting and storing grain.
In addition, culinary customs and rites have evolved around these solar terms, especially in how to eat and what to eat.
As autumn progresses, people are reminded that the harshest season is imminent, and it is time to prime the body for the coming demands of winter.
Meat, lots of it, will start it all off.
Throughout autumn, home chefs will start featuring more meat on the menu, compared with the lighter diets of summer.
Barbecues are popular and marinated meats, skewered or sliced, will celebrate the cooling weather, often with an outdoor meal. All over the country, young and old will enjoy a meal outdoors, with the fragrant smoke wafting upward with the autumn breezes.
Indoors, braised meat and stews, too, will be cooked more often. Meaty soups, heavily seasoned with spices, will be brought steaming hot to the table.
These days, entire families will make an effort to eat out, enjoying roasted ducks or roasted whole fish, as well as baked and roasted seafood such as oysters, prawns, crabs and clams. This is also the best season to enjoy these delicacies, as the shellfish and crustaceans, too, are fattening up for winter.
In Beijing, various eateries offering rich autumn specialties will be gearing up, after a summer of sparse patronage.
The famous Beijing roast duck restaurants will see a boom, as well as restaurants offering whole roast lamb. Finally, with appetites returning, diners are more prepared to feast.
In the hutong alleys, little pop-up shops offering cumin-crusted Xinjiang meat skewers will make their presence felt, advertising their wares with the unmistakable aroma of roasting spices that smell like musky armpits.
They will normally set up their barbecue stations with little wooden tables and stools al fresco, after sundown, catering to the more relaxed dinner and supper crowd.
For Beijing folks of a certain vintage, nothing says tieqiubiao better than a soy-braised pork hock from the old Beijing stores like Tianfuhao, also famous for their pressed head cheeses, hearty meat sausages, jellied pig skin cakes, hams with pine nuts, braised whole livers, braised chickens and cordyceps duck.
Of course, there will also be the regular jiaozi or dumplings eaten at home, with subtle adjustments to the meat and vegetable ratio. More fatty mince will be paired with shredded zucchini, pumpkins, carrots and other seasonal root crops for heartier fillings.
In autumn, the Inner Mongolian lamb from the Great Green Mountain will also find its way to the Forbidden City, just in time for the most famous autumnal feast of all times — the mutton hot pot.
Well-marbled lamb will be shaved into pink and white curls and dipped into the copper pots with their fiery funnels full of coal. As the meat cooks, it will be picked up and then dipped into fermented red beancurd flavored with sesame paste and pickled chive flowers. This is the taste of old Beijing.
Another very popular mutton hot pot during autumn and winter is lamb shanks braised in a thick, heavily seasoned broth which Beijingers call yangxiezi, or “scorpion bones”.
Do not worry, there are no exotic insects in the dish, and the name simply describes the shape of the lamb shanks. Yangxiezi used to be a cheap dish popular only among menial workers, but now it is enjoyed by everyone.
In autumn, everyone needs to beef up on hearty food.