So why does it taste so good?
The second time I lived in China, I had just transferred from SOAS to Nottingham University, going straight to China as part of my year abroad. I didn’t know a single person, so I was keen to make friends quickly.
Given I was the only one of the overseas students that had ever been to China, I figured I would use my China knowledge as my way in. We were all at this market in the city centre and I was telling people how in order to get the ‘real’ China experience, you need to find the tiniest, hole-in-the-wall restaurant that only has a few things on the menu and eat whatever they’re selling. I could sell cheese to a moon-man, so I soon had a group of 20 or so people following me into the city to find a slice of ‘real’ China. And boy, did we find it.
Items on menu: 1
Health inspection grade: D
Cat in the kitchen: you bet
We each ordered a bowl of miscellaneous meat in noodle soup, whacked a healthy dose of 辣椒 (chilli oil) into the mix and chowed down. Everyone agreed the food was amazing and soon people were talking about making a regular thing of going out into the city to find a new food. I’d previously lived a year in China, and it had been another year of living back in the UK since. I guess I had forgotten exactly what it was like to foray into unknown Chinese restaurants for the first time. Everyone was violently, and I mean violently, ill. Everyone, of course, except me. Way to make friends, Laurie… Luckily this was university, so all it really took to find a crowd was my bodyweight in free booze (yeah, it’s usually free for foreigners; that’s another story) and a few nights out.
But this article is not about how to make the most of your uni experience (the answer is alcohol and modafinil, by the way, not mixed together), it’s about the deleterious effects of consuming food in China. You may or may not have heard of the term ‘sewer oil’. It’s literally what it sounds like so, if that term makes you feel queasy, go read my previous article about preserved lemons. It’s SFW.
If you like retching, Google ‘sewer oil’ and enjoy some stomach-turning videos of people reaching into the sewers with a ladle, pulling the ‘fatbergs’ out of the mix and depositing it into a container. There’s even a video of a woman doing this whilst claiming she has a license…
Other internet delights include high-end restaurants straining the oil out of customers’ bowls to use it in the next person’s meal, and instructional videos on how to render useable oil out of the sewage you’ve just pulled from the ground. There is apparently a 10% disparity between the total amount of oil China produced and imports, and how much it uses. Meaning 10% of all cooking oil used in China is ‘recycled’ in this way. Besides it being gross, it’s not mould that’s poisonous to humans, it’s the chemicals they produce. That’s why you can’t just cook rotten meat and be fine. The poison is chemical, not biological.
And it doesn’t stop at rancid oil. China is filled with fake food scandals. From squid that dissolves when you boil it, to a fake milk scandal that caused serious illness in nearly 300,000 children, the food in China has zero regulation and, more often than not, poses a genuine risk to your health. I once had a Chinese friend tell me how to tell if the chicken I’m eating is rat (it’s in the texture). Then there was the street food vendor outside my university in Ningbo who used to hang a whole pig up and cut bits off as needed. That pig would hang there for days, the local dogs nibbling on its hooves when the cooks weren’t looking. When I was given access to a restaurant’s kitchen in Gansu to cook a Christmas dinner, I saw more cockroaches than I care to recount. I was 18 though so honestly it didn’t stop me eating there.
Now, if you’ve managed to make it this far and haven’t run to the toilet or fallen down a YouTube rabbit hole, I’m going to tell you the confounding truth. The food in China is the best food I’ve ever eaten. It might have dangerous amounts of pesticides in it, and get any restaurant in the UK permanently shut down, but it is simply, invariably amazing to eat. Now I’ve eaten in some fancy establishments in China. I’ve eaten red-braised pork cooked so the fat is infused with the sauce and melts like jelly. I’ve eaten meatballs on a bed of pickled cabbage and covered in strips of fatty beef. Being a foreigner in a remote province of China, you got invited to a lot of nice places and treated to a lot of nice food. Those high-end places generally hide their own abominable food safety practices anyway, and they aren’t even the ones I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the street food vendors where you pick up a bunch of skewered food that’s sat outside for days and have them cook it in the same gutter oil they’ve been using all night right before your eyes. I’m talking about the tiny back-alley restaurants that gave all my classmates severe food poisoning. I know the truth about the cooking practices in China. I’ve seen the videos of fatbergs being pulled out the gutter and rendered back into oil, and I’ve seen first-hand cats lap soup from a cooking pot. I know all this, and I still think with longing back to the late-night trips to get Malatang (numbing and spicy meat and veg cooked in oily sauces and eaten on the street), and the steamed pork buns right outside the school I used to teach at.
Admittedly, I’m not the squeamish kind. I once ate a whole plate of duck heads, eyeballs and all. I’ve eaten 4 kinds of brain – duck, chicken, pig and sheep. I’ve even eaten dog meat, at a time when I owned a dog. All the same, a man has his limits, and thinking about the food practices in China does absolutely make me feel sick.
For political reasons, I won’t be going back to China any time soon. If a street vendor teleported from the streets of Zhangye and appeared right in front of me however, knowing what I know, I would absolutely eat until my heart explodes.
Struggling with writer’s block? Me too, let’s work it out together.
If you’re anything like me, writer’s block tends to play out like this. You’re writing away, immersed in the world you’re creating, happy as a chicken in a flying machine, when you hit a moment in your story that you hadn’t fully thought through.
Maybe it’s an argument between a couple who’ve just bought that first place.
Your notes say ‘Bill and Bob argue about whether Bob’s mum can live in the attic’.
You already know that Bob has a co-dependent relationship with his mum and Bill loves Bob but can’t stand what his mother turns him into. Seems pretty simple, right?
But then you start writing and you quickly realise there’s a million things you hadn’t thought about. What tactics do they use to argue their case? What are they doing while they argue? Where’s the mum in all of this? Who’s Bob?
You sit for a few minutes contemplating this new dilemma, before getting up to make a tea, hoping the 3 minutes it’ll take will be enough time for some inspired solution to percolate down into your fingers.
You give up and do something else, but the next time you sit down to write, you’re at the same moment in the story and now the problem is like a plug in your brain, stopping any and all creativity from flowing. From then on, every time you try to write, you feel a wash of lethargy come over you and your motivation drains away like bi-carb down the sink.
Well, I’ve been there, obviously. I’m there quite often, in fact. So often, that I’ve had more than enough time to figure out a few solutions that work for me.
So, without further algorithm-hacking ado, here’s 5 ways to break your writer’s block:
Disclaimer: These work for me. You’re not me. Shocker.
1. Write about the problem.
Enough stalling, I’m coming in hot with my most effective method. This works for me 90% of the time, so try this first and, if you’re still stuck, come back and look at the rest.
The idea is very simple. Get a pen and pad (I find this slows my thoughts down which gives my brain time to come up with ideas), and start describing the problem. Actually, I usually start by writing a nonsense sentence. “Hello my invertebrated pencil-pushers. It’s find to get wrote at”.
Lovely. Now write about the problem. This is stream-of-consciousness writing, so literally write the words that come into your head, even if half of it is just curse words. Describe what you’re struggling with and why it’s hard to overcome.
If you’re anything like me, you’re maybe half a paragraph in and you’ve come up with a really stupid solution that you hate.
NO! Don’t stop. You’ve thought it, so you have to write it.
Write out your stupid solution and then write why it doesn’t work. Then write another solution. Or maybe write about a new reason as to why you’re struggling that you’ve just thought of. The key is to not stop writing.
In my experience, by the time you’ve reached two-thirds of the way down the page, you’ve got a solution in mind and you’re planning it out. Keep writing, including as much detail as you possibly can. Once you’re happy with your solution, write a neat version of your new plan, expletives excluded, and dive back into your script.
2. Skip that scene
You’re still reading so the previous solution hasn’t worked. That’s a shame, that was my best idea…
Not to worry, four less-good-but-still-great ideas to go.
My next tactic is simply to skip this scene and keep writing. Provided you weren’t hoping to figure out key details that you’ll need to know for the rest of the story (if that’s the case, that’s why you’re stuck, dummy), then you should be able to just push ahead with the story you have planned.
Once you get to know your characters better, and have a better sense of where everything is going, you may well find it’s much easier to write the scene you’re stuck on because you have so much more character information to work with.
This can, however, be a double-edged sword. If this is a scene that you truly don’t know what to do with, you don’t want to find you’re still stuck on it once everything else is finished. That can be very demoralising and stories, let’s be honest, are written as much on the back of morale as they are inspiration.
Best keep reading and see if any of the other ideas appeal to you more.
3. Write a standalone scene with those characters
This works similarly to the previous idea, but without the risk of the last thing you have to write being the thing you’ve been dreading writing for the last 90 pages.
Plonk your characters in a random location with random wants, and make them interact. It can be something that makes sense for the story and characters if you want, but I would actually warn against that. You’re not trying to write anything you’re actually going to use and, by placing it close to the story you’re telling, you may feel an urge to actually use it, which adds pressure, which removes inspiration. Best to make Bill an assassin sent to kill Bob’s mum and let Bob try to convince Bill to show mercy.
It doesn’t need to be funny. It doesn’t need to be good. No one ever needs to see it and you don’t even need to spell-check it at the end, so have fun! Once you’re done, you’ll have a better idea of how your characters deal with problems, what matters to them, what they struggle with. Flesh out your characters so you have more character to mine.
4. Go back to the plan
Honestly, this can be difficult to hear, but if you’re struggling to write a scene, you probably didn’t plan it in enough detail. I have only ever in my life written a half-baked plan and glided the whole way through the writing process. Admittedly, it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but that’s “inspiration” for you – amazing when it’s there, crushing when it’s not. If you only ever write when you’re inspired, you’ll barely write.
You want to make writing as easy as possible for yourself, and that means planning. If you take the time to come up with every beat of a story before you even write the first word, you never have to sit and think about what happens next, you just read the next line on the plan and keep writing.
Of course, you’ve already started writing. Sucks to be you. But don’t despair, because you can still go back to the planning stage.
The first thing you have to do, however, is delete the scene you’re struggling with. Don’t worry, you remember all the good bits, and you need the freedom to come up with a brand new approach. Maybe Bob’s mum is waiting outside their new home and says she’s been evicted. She asks if she can stay with them and Bob says yes before Bill can say anything. Now Bill has to have this conversation with Bob, conscious he might be overhead and aware they’re already in too deep.
The point is, you can start from scratch and find a brand new way to approach the problem. Without a half-written scene hanging over you and a new, detailed plan in-hand, you can get bash that scene out in no time.
5. Work on another script
You’re STILL stuck? (So needy)
I have one more solution, but it comes with risks. Give up.
If you’ve managed to get tied up in so many mental knots that nothing seems to help you make sense of this story, you probably need some space from it. Go do something fun, or some housework, or your job. When you get back to writing, don’t sit and dwell on your shameful writing failure of a scene that nothing in the world seems to make any better. Instead, work on that other idea you’ve been having. You know, the one you’ve been avoiding working on because you just want to see one project through to the end, dammit! I’ve got 4 stories on the go, all at different stages, all very different from each other in style and content. If you were writing a depressing drama about loss and heartbreak, try writing an overtly homo-erotic action or cheesy romance or anything that puts you into a different mental space.
Get inspired about something else, and you might just find one day, when you’ve not thought about the story that started all for weeks, that a solution pops into your head when you’re doing your calisthenics to WAP.
Now, truth be told, you might find that this kills your ability to ever finish this story. If in 6 months’ time you still feel that sinking feeling every time you open the writing software and look at your stuck scene, then you might need to think about radical solutions. I had a 3-minute short that I turned into a 90-minute feature and then into a 20-minute short, and I’m still not happy with it. It’s a great concept though that I’m not willing to give up on thought, so I’m going to keep coming back to it every couple of months to see if I can reformat it into something that works.
Writing is tough, and mental blocks can feel debilitating. If you’re trying to make a career out of writing, it can feel like a death knell. It’s not, you just need to keep looking for novel solutions.
6. Talk it out
There’s 6 tips, I lied. Hahahaha, on this page, I am GOD.
Sometimes it helps to just talk the problem out. It’s like writing it out, but the page can talk back. Maybe you have writer friends you can turn to, maybe your dad is a supportive hero that will patiently sit and pretend he cares. Verbalising things can help you organise your thoughts and other people can bring ideas that you, with your narrow slice of experience in this complex world, never would have thought of.
Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes can bring a new perspective.
Bob’s mum is dead. She’s a poltergeist. It was obvious all along.
A love letter to Belazu Beldi Preserved Lemons
I've never followed a recipe.
Before I left home at 18, I'd done little more than boil eggs and fry bacon. Then I moved to China, where I couldn't read the writing on the packaging, let alone any recipes that used them. I was also earning pittance meaning I couldn't eat out for every meal, even if I wanted to.
So, I learnt to cook by smell. I'd buy a packet of some unknown seasoning, crack it open and give it a whiff. I'd then try and figure out which other packets of unknown substances it would go with, by smell. I made some disasters, for sure. So salty, it burnt my tongue, or so spicy it made me hack and cough. Nevertheless, by the end of the year, using nothing more than my nose, an electric hotplate and a rice cooker, I was cooking some truly amazing food - and every last one was an original creation.
I've been back in my home country for years now, but I still refuse to cook any other way. I don't measure with scales but with emotion. I don't use recipes other than to get inspired by new ingredients to pair. I do, occasionally, still cook uneatable abominations, but that's a price I'm willing to pay for the fever dream, mad scientist joy I find in creating weird new flavours that surprise and delight.
Despite this attitude, I've actually long been afraid of the oven. In China, I had a wok and that's all I needed. Sure, you can burn the food, but you see it burning, so fate is in your hands. I always heard people say things like "put it in for 40 minutes at 200 degrees" and the like. Far too exact and scientific for my 'mess around and find out' approach.
That is, until I was given a jar of Belazu Beldi Preserved Lemons - teeny tiny lemons that smell amazing but taste like sulfuric acid. If you pan fry them, they'll still be bitter and disgusting by the time your food is cooked. You could fry them separately, but then a lot of the flavours you're trying to bring out will be lost. Can't go under it, can't go over it, have to go through it.
What followed can only be described as a culinary seizure. I went to the supermarket with only a vague plan to make something that included my lemons. I left with 600 grams of chicken thighs, an aubergine, a courgette, a potato, a dozen dried dates, a packet of whole chestnuts, rocket, garlic and a tin of chopped tomatoes.
I chopped and parboiled the potato and covered the bottom of my Pyrex dish with rocket and some potato noodles I had lying around. I then threw all my ingredients, chopped, into the dish together, including my beloved lemons and some walnuts I found at the back of the cupboard. I poured the tomatoes into a bowl and mixed with dried herbs, dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and Tabasco. Poured that over my food and covered it in tin foil. I then bunged it in the oven at 200 degrees for about an hour, taking the foil off in the last 15 minutes to let the top get all crispy.
Eugh, it was amazing. I cooked enough for an army and divvied the leftovers into old takeaway tubs which I lived off for a week. The lemons were still very sour, for sure, but the bitterness was gone, and besides, I like strong flavours. They infused the chicken with lemony goodness and I ate them whole along with everything else.
All this to say, thank you, Belazu Beldi. You kickstarted my new love affair with the oven. You taught me that it takes time to draw the flavours out of certain foods and that oven cooking need not be the exacting science cookbooks and food blogs make it out to be.
And if you, dear reader, are currently shaking your fists at the screen and shouting "but how much soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and Tabasco did you use?", I have only this to say. Throw out your scales, your measuring cups and your crippling self-doubt. Take a breath, sniff the ingredients, and measure by emotion.