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.