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.