I've spent six years in this wondrous, enchanting country, an ancient land whose cuisine has deservedly become one of the most famous in the world. Among other things it's been an amazing culinary journey as I've learned some of the art and craft of Chinese food.
Some of this getting of wisdom has come as I've wandered the dusty, history-steeped alleys, nooks and crannies of Beijing, from the street vendors who help give this dirty ol' town it's flavours and aromas. Other parts have come from reading news reports and police charge sheets, which touch on some more recent innovations in Chinese food production.
Today I want to share with you some of these experiences with a collection of some noteworthy recipes gleaned in China. Try them at home and hopefully you too will feel the splendour and joy of gastronomy from the often inspiring, sometimes baffling, sometimes spine-tingling Middle Kingdom.
1. Lamb sticks
Ingredients: pork, beef, dog, cat, rat, lamb (optional).
Method: take little bits of things and put them on skewers, cook over a barbeque whilst sprinkling herbs, fanning coals and trying to stop some drunken idiot from knocking the whole thing over.
Lamb sticks barbecued on the street at night provide some of the most characteristic sights, sounds, smells and tastes of after-dark Beijing. You might not be aware of it now, but If you've ever staggered out of a nightclub here at four in the morning, then you've eaten lamb sticks. This is an innovative little number, as you can make them using any number of animals. As Deng Xiaoping famously said "Black cat, white cat, it doesn't matter as long as you cover in with cumin." Then again, one investigation showed vendors had taken cat meat and made it taste more lamby by soaking it in sheep’s urine. As for what happens with the sticks, where they come from and whether or not they’re recycled, the folklore is littered with tales.
2. Melamine milk
Ingredients: milk, melamine.
Method: blend, package, distribute, go to jail.
Don't you hate going to a neighbour's house for tea only to discover that her milk has more protein than yours? Or perhaps you’re a large-scale milk producer looking to list more nutrients on the side of your carton than your rivals? This little short-cut emerged from southern China five years ago, when someone had an epiphany upon discovering that there was protein in melamine. Sure it was a chemical agent used in plastics, but should that mean we can’t use it in food and drink? Well, the courts said it should, actually. A lot of people went to jail.
3. Fish-flavoured pork
Yu Xiang Ruo Si is one of the most popular Chinese dishes around. Take some pork, shred it, add some fish-tasting flavouring, onions and fungus, and cook in a hot wok. Some restaurants use chicken instead of pork as it is cheaper. Serve with rice.
4. Beef-flavoured pork
Beef-flavoured pork is a dish which took off about six years ago but has now become less trendy for reasons which aren’t immediately obvious, but which may involve a frightened public and efficacious police force. The idea is that you take a quantity of pork, which is very common here, and make it seem more like beef by simply adding borax. Most of you will have some borax lying around the home. Unfortunately it’s usually lying around in boxes of washing detergent. And it causes cancer.
5. Glow-in-the-dark pork
Chinese menus abound with dishes with quirky names that tell a story, like “Explode the stomach dumplings” and “Government abuse chicken”. Glow-in-the-dark pork is, however, just pork that glows in the dark. Simply take some pork and blend thoroughly with a phosphorescent bacterial additive which makes it glow blue on the plate, for God’s sake. This was pioneered in some restaurants in China in 2011. It made the papers, government officials insisted we had nothing to worry about, so we all said “fair enough, then!” and went right on eating. This dish is from the same culinary family as “Radiant popcorn and mushrooms”, except the magic ingredient there is fluorescent bleach.
|The lamb stick stand - where|
"mmmm" meets "hmmm?"
|Some Chinese milk industry innovators as the country|
remembers them best - facing charges in a court of law.
|This photo from Chinasmack.com shows some of that good|
old phosphorescent pork, and what happens to your fingers
if you touch it.
6. Illusion eggs
Eggs are eggs, aren’t they? No they aren’t! In this land of unending food surprises, they’re sometimes little egg-shaped things that are made out of chemicals, gelatin and paraffin. Not related to the equally-scary sounding “Hundred-year-old eggs”, their discovery in China in 2009 stunned the food world – mostly because after you go to all this trouble to take the chicken and health concerns out of the equation, you still end up with an egg that’s about two US cents cheaper to produce than a real one. Still, they don’t go off. They also assuage fears that eggs are a bit yucky because they come out of a chicken’s butt.
7. Twice-cooked buns
Again, not a rough translation, but buns which are made by taking a bunch of stale old buns which are past their use-by date, throwing them into a vat with water and flour, and making a batch of new buns with them. It’s a technique pioneered by a Shanghai Shenglu Food Company in 2011. Or at least that’s when it became public knowledge. It might have been going on for years.
8. A-hundred-times-cooked oil
Perhaps you’re not content to have your cooking oil imbued with merely one flavour? Perhaps you just don’t like spending money? Well, after you’ve cooked with oil, simply gather it up and use it again. Sometimes this may involve a bit of work, say, going to the drains behind or underneath restaurants to scavenge the used oil and re-bottle it. Like many a good recipe, this method appears to be a zealously guarded secret, as few people admit to using it. However, an undercover investigation by a university team in the city of Wuhan in 2010 estimated one in 10 of all meals in China were cooked with such recycled oil. The State Food and Drug Administration then issued a nationwide emergency ordering an investigation into this so-called ‘sewer’ oil scandal. Meanwhile a group of around 100 food industry representatives in the city of Zhejiang last month emerged into the public eye for taking a strong stand in opposition to this sewer method. Instead they were found to be making cooking oil by squeezing it out of rotten, maggot-infested meat offcuts thrown away by abattoirs. Then they got arrested.
9. Off-the-top-of-your-head sauce
Add a twist to the world’s most popular flavouring – soy sauce – by making it from human hair! Ingenuitive, frugal sauciers from a factory in Hubei province were found to have pioneered this technique in 2005, using hair clippings swept up from barber’s floors to distill an amino acid to put into soy sauce. We all wince together.
10. Aromatic, cheeky pigs’ ears
Want to eat something resembling pigs’ ears but can’t get the real thing? Really? Well OK, you might try this: Take some gelatin and some common household sodium oleate and hand-craft them out of that. You’ll have sodium oleate if you have soap. This is what some canny retailers in the eastern province of Jiangxi were found to be up to last month when a shopper complained that the ears she bought smelled funny when she cooked them. Pigs’ ear experts pointed out these substitute ears were easily identifiable because the real ones usually come with blood vessels and hair, which sounds a lot more appetising.
11. Shiny radiance cabbage
Take cabbage and combine with an ingredient widely consumed by people in China, formaldehyde. Apply the latter liberally to your cabbage, thus keeping it looking fresh and shiny for the market. Influences for this dish include Mao Zedong, who had several bottles of formaldehyde poured down his throat to preserve him just after he died in 1976. Not to be confused with other shiny vegetable standards such as “Pesticide Bean Sprouts” and “6-benzyladenine beans”.
|A still shot from the undercover sting which uncovered|
the so-called "Recycled bun calamity". China is the
acknowledged world leader in food scandals, but has
announced a five-year-plan to reduce them to no more
than 500 a month by 2017.
|Police in Jiangxi confiscate an amount of artificial pigs'|
ears. Police estimate mobsters from Hong Kong now control
more than 90 per cent of the counterfeit pig ear market.
* We have to put warnings on everything these days, so here goes: Please don’t really try any of this at home, even if you’re a certified lunatic.