You might think your biggest culinary concern in China would be your hosts serving you a still-alive animal or foul-smelling fungus.
Not so much.
Perhaps you think that by avoiding street vendors in favor of established restaurants you’re more likely to find foods that won’t make you sick.
Though China works hard to suppress news damaging to its image, do a little research and you’ll learn that the biggest health threat in Chinese eateries is “gutter oil,” which, believe it or not, is even fouler than it sounds.
Cooking oil is like gold in China, where virtually every recipe requires a wok full of it, and goes for a premium. In recent years an entire industry trafficking in filthy used, and sometimes fatal oil has emerged. Black market villains dredge up used oil from gutters and sewers around restaurants, selling the putrid but still useable product back to restaurants, who happily buy it dirt-cheap (pun intended here.)
The Wall Street Journal reported that police broke up a criminal network operating in 14 Chinese provinces last month, arresting 32 people and seizing 100 tons of gutter oil. Li Xiang, a prominent Chinese journalist known as “The Gutter Oil Reporter,” was stabbed to death just after the crackdown in what police term “mysterious” circumstances.
The 100 tons seized by authorities didn’t even put a dent in the industry. It’s estimated that two million tons of the potentially toxic mix are consumed by unwitting Chinese diners annually, and gutter oil probably accounts for at least one-tenth of all cooking oil used by restaurants. (The actual figure is presumed to be much higher, but isn’t known. Chinese officials admit privately that detecting gutter oil can be tricky.)
I was so disgusted I determined to eat only raw food the rest of the trip.
So, unsurprisingly, my colleagues took me out for a special treat that night: Chinese “hot pot,” a tradition where food is actually cooked in a pot of bubbling oil right at your table. It’s China’s answer to fondue, and I was utterly convinced that the sludge had been scraped off the streets and brought directly to my table.
My friends thought I was turning green over the blood tofu (literally squares of congealed blood) or the ox intestines. In truth I was just trying to hide my panic over consuming anything fried in their country. But I sucked it up – literally and figuratively — and while Soo fought down vomit I chucked back mouthful after mouthful of tasty but terrifying tidbits, which I assumed would presently kill me.
I survived, but I’m planning to get some shots as soon as I’m home. I don’t even care what shots. I just want my doctor to stick needles in me and tell me everything will be ok.
I may also need a hug.
This is really a tragedy. I’m a big fan of Chinese food, both the authentic stuff and what passes for it in America. But now it’s going to be difficult to eat the real stuff with gusto. The Chinese may well be the most industrious people on earth, but sometimes their very industriousness, when untempered by morality or decency, can be disastrous. The culture has been thus for a millennium, and is unlikely to change anytime soon, so best be careful what you eat.
The drive from dinner to the Green Tree Club was less exciting, but no less fascinating. As we approached the Chengdu Bei Lu and Yan’an Lu intersection, along the soaring Yan’an elevated highway, I remarked on the massive silver and gold pillar, seemingly the only one of its kind in Shanghai, supporting three levels of raised roadways. I’d seen it many times, never giving it much thought, and probably only mentioned it this time as a way to distract myself from thoughts of the toxic waste I just knew was festering in my stomach.
The answer surprised me, and was so engrossing I forgot all thoughts of rotten oil.
Called the Nine Dragons Pillar, this ornate structure supports one of the busiest sections of Shanghai’s highway system, eternally clogged with distracted commuters, most of whom take little notice of the dragons in their midst.
The legend goes that during construction of Shanghai’s raised highway system in the mid-90s all was going swimmingly until they reached the hub at the Chengdu Lu crossing. Defying all explanation, the digging crew’s endless pounding wouldn’t budge the ground beneath the site of its central pillar.
Teams of engineers couldn’t figure out what was preventing them from digging, so a monk was summoned to the site. After extensive meditation and prayer the monk informed the engineers, in all seriousness, of a most troubling problem — a dragon was sleeping beneath their work site, and they were attempting to drill directly into its spine.
The story goes that the dragon, one of nine slumbering beneath Shanghai, wasn’t terribly keen on giving up his cozy abode, so a deal was struck. The dragon required a sacrifice in order to allow the drilling to proceed, which the monk “negotiated” privately.
Whatever he did apparently worked, because he emerged from his private communion with the dragon and advised the engineers to proceed.
Much to their surprise they could, with no further difficulty.
Immediately following construction of the pillar the monk died, fulfilling his end of the bargain by giving his life as payment to the dragon for allowing the workers to dig.
My friends who relayed the tale to me are very intelligent corporate executives not prone to superstition, and they believe every word of this story to be true.
We concluded our night dicing at the Green Tree Club, home to the most inappropriately chummy bathroom attendant on the planet.
Perhaps I tipped him too much on my first trip to the toilet, or maybe he was just amped by an overdose of gutter oil. Whatever the reason, the guy suddenly materialized at my shoulder as I was in mid-pee, grinning toothily and so close his vest actually brushed my sleeve. He piped a cheerful, heavily accented “Hello!” and, before I could respond, shoved a piece of Doublemint chewing gum in my mouth.
All of this while I was in mid-stream.
There are certain things in life which one simply does by one’s self. Most things involving a urinal fall into that category. It takes more poise than I can muster to maintain my composure while suddenly being hyper-attended-to by an uncomfortably happy stranger with chewing gum.
I was so flummoxed that I don’t think I remembered to zip up as I fled the bathroom. (I should probably count myself lucky that the smiling attendant didn’t attempt to do that for me.)
It was yet another fascinating night in Shanghai.