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A lost culinary paradise
Hannes Grassegger
In China people commonly greet each other with a question: “Have you eaten already?” Drawn-out multicourse meals are an important part of daily life. But foods are becoming increasingly contaminated. A visit to the Zhang family in the heart of Shanghai shows how people are coping.
©Yun Long Song

If you take a look at the social media profiles of Chinese young people, you’ll mainly find photos of food. They convey different mind-sets – for you are what you eat. Traditional dishes have names that work like wishes. A dish of sweet corn and pine nuts is called “Gold and Silver for the Home”. It is served at almost every wedding. The colours in the dish – white and yellow – symbolize wealth and good health. In China, all important affairs are settled over a meal. And hosts try to outdo one another. Nobody asks how you are in China, but instead whether you’ve eaten already. The country defines itself in terms of “culinary culture”. It is a bit like Italy: it can be best understood by its cuisine.

Yet people’s pleasure in food has been spoiled: since the start of the new millennium, reports in China about poisoned, contaminated, faked or expired goods persistently on the market have increased dramatically. It has become difficult to eat healthily – because of factors like the ever-present “gutter oil” that is skimmed off sewer drains and grease traps, and then sold as cooking oil. There are also other horrifying reports, such as those about pork that contains so many strange substances it glows in the dark; or about cadmium in rice and heavy metals in ginger.

As the Wall Street Journal noted recently, due to a series of increasingly macabre food incidents, the label “Made in China” now makes the Chinese fear for their lives. 

I take a lesson in how to prepare a healthy home-cooked meal from Mrs Zhang, a retired teacher. She lives with her husband in Shanghai’s city centre. The petite woman in her late 60s, with chin-length, almost completely black hair, is wearing a blue flowered dress. In her hand, she has a green cloth bag and a small fake Nokia phone. Thunder rumbles. The sky is brown. Night and day resemble one another in Shanghai.

“Come with me.” Mrs Zhang scurries along next to me through the neighbourhood. “For two years now, I’ve bought my vegetables fresh from the cooperative’s vendor who sets up his stand here every other morning. But at this hour we’ll have to go to the supermarket.” As we’re about to cross the street, she protectively takes my hand.

The small Lianhua branch store is on the ground floor of a 30-storey block of flats. It resembles a village supermarket. Prices are printed directly on the packages; there is no indication of their origins. At the fruit stand next door we buy enormous grapes.

Mrs Zhang cooks daily for about five hours. “An hour for breakfast. Two at noon and two in the evening. I’m afraid my cooking talents are very modest.”

We walk through the inner yard of her housing complex. A drink water dispenser with a slot for coins supplies four blocks of 22 storeys each. On the second floor, Mrs Zhang opens a metal grate door. Behind it, a wooden door opens onto her 60-m2 three-room flat. 

We put the vegetables in the kitchen, off to the right. There’s Chinese technology everywhere. A ventilator above the stove, next to it a microwave, a small electric stove, an electric rice cooker – and a bread machine. A big fridge is in the living room. Mrs Zhang shows me a Chinese cookbook with bread recipes from Germany. I try a piece of “Bavarian wheat bread”. It’s as sweet as Christmas cake.

“I love bread,” says Mrs Zhang. She takes a jug and pours water into one of two metal basins. “Wash the rice first. But use filtered water!” She raises a warning finger. “The water’s contaminated by pharmaceutical and agricultural substances.”

We begin making dinner. Her husband joins us. The three of us chop vegetables. Chinese cuisine is modular: preparation is everything. To fry the ingredients, a typical two-burner stove is all that is needed. The entire kitchen is covered with a thin layer of grease. Mrs Zhang’s husband, a tall, slender man with medium-long grey hair, takes charge of the stove. “About ten years ago, we started filtering the water. That’s when people in the yard began talking about cancer. It wasn’t long till we were washing all the fruits we bought. We used to eat them directly from the vendors. Today we peel nearly everything.” 

Her husband puts a whole row of little bowls next to the stove, soaks mu-err mushrooms, gets the tofu ready, and then gets out a piece of pork rind. He puts on a pot of water to boil a few chicken wings. Chinese meals always include soup.

It has become almost unbearably muggy in the kitchen. On the left the sautéed pork simmers in a leek broth. On the right something is sizzling in a big round pan. At the back the rice cooker’s steaming. “We like to boil, stew and roast. Deep frying is unhealthy,” he says. The cooker costs almost as much as it would in a pricey country like Switzerland. The couple lives on a monthly pension of about 3000 renminbis (360 euros). Sometimes their only child helps out. 

All of a sudden, everything’s done. We carry the dongpo, a bowl with chicken wings, tofu with carrots, peas and bell peppers, as well as the broth, brown rice and sliced cucumbers, to the table. The peanut dip is placed there too. Mr Zhang turns on the air conditioner. He smacks his lips happily and spits bones onto a platter now and then. The thick peanut dip goes well with everything. It is salty, sweet, sour and very creamy. Mrs Zhang brings in the grapes. “I love sweet things,” says her husband. “I rinsed the grapes with toothpaste and filtered water, so you can eat them without peeling them,” Mrs Zhang explains with a friendly smile. “By the way, I washed the vegetables in salt water. That neutralizes acidic pesticides.” The skins of the huge grapes taste artificial. I copy her husband, slurping the flesh out of the skins. “I don’t like grapes any more. In recent years they’ve become so sweet. And so big.” Mrs Zhang makes a face. 

As I say goodbye, Mr Zhang shakes my hand, European style. “Do you know the famous saying every Chinese knows? ‘To the people, food is heaven.’” And he laughs.

Based on an article from "Die Zeit", 15 November 2013.
Hannes Grassegger

Journalist, Author, Editor

Hannes Grassegger studied economics in Berlin und Zurich. He is now not only head editor of REPORTAGEN magazine, but also writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, Die Zeit and Das Magazin.

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