Taken down a peg: Not as good a cook as I thought I was?

On no account put it to an Italian your gastronomic skills are within walking distance of his, especially if he is a kitchen maestro who has a passion for creating delicious food.

And so it was: A Skype Chat..

Niall:        I hate to ruin your day but

Niall:         …………….

Niall:        well your son mentioned last night.. that my cooking was “like my father’s“…..

Niall:        I take that as a huge accolade 😉

Mr. U (C’s father): I told him to be very polite, gentle, educated and even if he doesn’t like something, always say that was excellent.

That’s how a friend of 24 years humbles an Irishman who hitherto retained a high opinion, albeit short-lived, of his culinary dexterity. Oh well!

[There is a bit of history here: The June 1989 Beijing Food Massacre.

On June 6th I was cooking an Irish stew on a small electric stove in  Room 1106 at the Beijing Language Institute (ak.a. Beijing Language and Culture University).  A telephone call from an unflustered Noel Kilkenny, First Secretary of the Irish Embassy in Beijing, diverted my attention. The city was in lock-down mode, rumours of civil war and further crackdown swirling. He put me in the picture and soon I was running down ten flights of stairs to meet him, having instinctively unplugged the stove and grabbed my toothbrush.

Four months later, I unlocked the door of 1106… Ah the stew still there on the stove… rotten, slimy and mouldy…. And then my roommate Mr. U, the kitchen maestro, arrived!]

Putrid Smily Rotten

China – Under The Hood: A Dog’s Life in China – To Stroke or to Stir Fry?

To Stroke Or To Stir-Fry  - Dog For Food Breeding in China
This ill-fated mongrel dog, horribly compressed into a tiny wire-mesh cage, knows it’s destined for the wok – to be stir-fried! #stopyulin2015

Man’s Best Friend?

Dog lovers will have no problem telling you why the dog is regarded as man’s best friend: Faithfulness, unqualified love, friendship and laughs. By convincing us to be more active, having a dog simply makes our lives better and makes us healthier.

No matter how lethargic we may feel, who can resist Muffin or Flossy or Toby or Buster or Coco when they saunter up to us pleading to go for a walk? Or maybe that wagging tail is an appeal for a gentle rub?

Not only can dogs be incredible friends, but they also give us humans much needed support, as well as affection and companionship: From guiding the blind, to warning the deaf that something needs their attention, to being there for the lonely, dogs are remarkable creatures!

Man’s best friend? Well not for everyone. The photograph above, which I snapped in Du’an in South West China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is particularly upsetting. Typical of the street-wise dogs commonly seen roaming around rural villages and towns the length and breath of China, this bewildered mongrel, compressed into a tiny wire-mesh cage, is destined for a wok – to be stir-fried, or perhaps slow-cooked as a soup or stew, seasoned with spring onion, spices, rice wine and ginger.  The terror in its eyes says everything: This abused dog knows its fate. All dog lovers should be revolted by this image.

The Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is infamous for its annual Summer Solstice Yulin Dog Meat Festival 玉林狗肉节 (#stopyulin2015), the most cold-blooded and barbaric festival in the world, where every year 1,000’s of dogs are savagely killed and eaten, the run up to which involves a nefarious trade by dog peddlers in abducted stray and domestic dogs covering the length and breath of China.

What’s wrong with eating dog meat?

Before I start ranting on about the obvious cruelty, it is only fair to point out what I would imagine is the viewpoint of ‘dog for food’ farmers and dog-eaters across China, Korea, the Philippines, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

In China, dogs have been reared for their meat since Neolithic times. Farmers see no difference between pig eating and dog eating. The degree of objection lies in the means of rearing, transport, killing and cooking rather than in the choice of animal species. With respect to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival 玉林狗肉节 (#stopyulin2015) locals assert their right to eat dog meat based on traditional custom, stating if they are cruel then what about those who eat pork, beef and chicken?

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), dog meat is considered a health food coordinating Yin and Yang. With the Yin character it is considered warming to the body, which is why Chinese tend to eat more dog meat in winter. In Korea the opposite happens, dog meat is eaten mainly during the hot summer months.

The popularity of dog eating is increasing at an explosive rate – evolving rapidly from its traditions as a cottage industry.  While considered expensive compared to other meats, in northern and southern parts of China dog is an exotic banquet dish to be savoured on special occasions, especially when trying to impress your guests. The most recent information available through Google shows 43% of respondents in a Shanghai and Beijing lifestyles survey confirming they eaten dog meat, at least once.

Dog eating is big business

Now it is no longer a case of a few peasant farmers breeding a female dog once a year and taking the grown puppies to the market for a little extra pocket money.

With official local government approval, huge dog farms are being set up across the north and south China using modern scientific factory farming principles.  Faster growing methods and more submissive breeds of dog are being introduced (for example, Saint Bernard mountain dogs) and the whole business is being scaled up with modern distribution and marketing techniques.

Here are the English translations from various websites regarding two Saint Bernard breeding centres in China:

1. Breeding base of Meat-producing Breeding St. Bernard of Lin Xing Raising and Propagating Company of Shanxi, Datong Coal Mining Administration

“For a local coal mine owner faced with financial problems and mine safety issues the production of Saint Bernard mountain dog was a ‘no brainer: In comparison to chicken and pig farming breeders of Saint Bernard mountain dogs can expect to earn three to four times more income”

2. Shenyang Food Dog Research Institute, Shenyang City, Liaoning, China

“The Shenyang Food Dog Research Institute has created over 50 sites with over 6,000 Saint Bernard dogs, which are considered both tender and tasty to eat”

#StopYulin2015
Yulin Dog Meat Festival – The most barbaric festival in the world. #StopYulin2015

What’s been done in China to put an end to this?

Unfortunately, much of the anti-dog meat campaigning is tainted by racial discrimination, as is the resistance to the anti-dog meat campaigning.

Dog for food’ farmers and eaters view anti-dog eating campaign as another example of the conflict between Oriental and Western cultures, arguing that dog eating has gone on for thousands of years. Such campaigns actually cause resentment and ill will among people who have the potential to actually see the “man’s best friend” side of the argument, rather than the protein side, and stop eating them.

The good news is more and more people in China believe that dogs have earned their place in society as companions and helpers – they want the eating of dog meat to end. In May 2011, animal rights activists stopped a truck in Beijing containing 500 dogs destined for the dinner table. Following a stand-off involving over 200 people and a toothless police contingent by the roadside the animal rights activists purchased the dogs from the dog peddling lorry driver for US$18,000. More recently, in the summer of 2014 a dog lover noticed a truck full of dogs packed in open air cages along the Jingha Expressway (Beijing-Harbin Expressway) he alerted netizens on Weibo, China’s leading micro-blogging app. Volunteers quickly coordinated rescue organisations and citizens in many cars and vehicles to encircle the truck. The truck contained 400 dogs; together with four more trucks that were subsequently captured, 2,400 dogs were rescued, the most rescued dogs ever. Most were adopted, while the remainder, after receiving emergency treatment, were sent on to dog shelters in Hebei province. Unfortunately one truck escaped.

While an outright ban on the traditional custom of dog eating, especially with respect to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival 玉林狗肉节 (#stopyulin2015), is unlikely to be effective, as a first step authorities should enforce rigorous controls aimed at ensuring the source of the dog meat is legal and safe. A concentrated effort against those who steal and abuse domestic and stray dogs must also be imposed.

Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Taiwan have already banned the practice – this is the example for China to follow.

Stop eating dogs! Stop the Yulin Dog Festival 2015!

Note: Original article was written on June 20, 2011. Latest revisions to this article are dated February 4, 2015

China – Under The Hood: The Curious Incident Of The Dissolving Peach

No, I’m not being self-absorbed, and it’s not as if loads of locals around me are succumbing to nasty, mysterious illnesses (anyway the local tabloids always tone down the numbers). Nevertheless, of late in conversations with Hangzhouers I’ve noticed three questions coming up again and again in a tone verging on alarm.

-What are we eating?

-What are we drinking?

-and…. What the hell are we breathing?

-and I’ll toss in another issue…. How can one of the two peaches I bought in the local fruit shop last Sunday turn from unripe into a liquefied mush within 36 hours of purchase? That toxic peach dissolved right before my eyes!

[Anecdote:  A couple of weeks ago having enjoyed a second Kelloggs Nutri-Grain bar (courtesy of a Red-Cross parcel from my mother back home in Ireland, also filled with a critical supply of Barry’s Tea bags) I found myself checking out the nutritional label on the back of the wrapper. Clueless as to what I was reading, it suddenly dawned on me what I was reading wasn’t anything about food.  Why did I just eat a load of preservatives which are of zero benefit to my body? Why indeed..]

If you want to participate in a live laboratory in which the food – [and air-we-breath] – chain(s) are “unintentionally” (yeah right! the expressions of innocence on the faces of those perpetrators regularly showcased to the media are as fake as the vile products they have been caught tainting) exposed to poisonous industrial chemicals with the potential to totally wreck our bodily processes, then all roads lead to China.

I’d never even heard of most of these chemicals by name. Sure I can hardly pronounce them:

  • Watermelons overdosing (exploding melons of mass destruction) on forchlorfenuron growth hormones (May 2011)

  • Sports and fruit drinks laced with “particularly damaging to a young male’s fertility” dioctyl phthalate (imported from Taiwan, June 2011)
  • The “high blood pressure” yielding heavy metal cadmium in rice (February 2011); toxic “kidney failure” conducive melamine in milk (ongoing?)
  • Arsenic in soy sauce (ongoing?)
  • Copper in coffee (imported from Japan, 2008)
  • Bleach in mushrooms (December 2010)
  • The detergent borax in pork (added to make it resemble beef, April 2011)
  • and a whole host of fruit and vegetables smeared in deltamethrin, a synthetic insecticide, and preservatives with extremely long names!

Sure it only seems like yesterday when my buddy Umberto, who being Italian takes his cooking very seriously, watched a pot of fresh tomatoes turn white in a boiling confusion of red artificial colouring (2006).

Here in Hangzhou, affectionately known as “The Pond”, on account of its scenic West Lake,  so far (and counting…)we have:

  • Lead in the air (a lot of it apparently, courtesy of the local battery manufacturing industry)
  • Phenol in the water (courtesy of a tanker driver whose load tipped into the water supply, June 2011)… anyway phenol only causes severe eye damage, and sure what’s 25 tons of the stuff?

Spare a thought for those Harbiners up north whose Songhua River water supply was  contaminated with at least 80 tons of the carcinogen Benzine (ok, so that was back  in 2005 –‘water under the bridge’…so the local officials will tell you, long-term cancer risks notwithstanding).  No doubt, these same faceless apparatchiks will point to Germany’s e-coli cucumbers and bean sprouts (last week), the UK’s Mad Cows (hmmm) and Ireland’s contaminated pig meat (2008) as symptomatic of a global problem not just a China problem   – I’ve noticed they don’t really like talking about the “far worse than governments are revealing to the public” Fukushima nucleur disaster.

The Good News

Yes there is. Multiple the uproar each food scandal outside China receives by 1,000 times and you’ll get a sense of the disgust local Chinese feel about the continuing government incompetence and cynical manipulation of consumers by devious producers. China’s ‘You Are What You Eat’ sensitive generation is becoming increasingly aware of potential hazards of almost everything they eat and drink. What they see all around them are poor public hygiene surveillance and low standards of food quality all of which are cultivated by official incompetence, slapdash law enforcement, corruption and a corner-cutting culture among some businesses. It’s common knowledge that corrupt manufacturers and growers still use bribery and corruption to escape scrutiny.

Which brings me back to the bad news – that peach.

Eat The Peach? Certainly Not!

The facts:

  • Sunday evening in the neighbourhood fruit store

A shop widely considered to trade in Hangzhou’s finest selection of fruits. A large store, open 24×7, all year round, I supposed its popularity was simply down to the fact you are given what you pay for: natural fruit, preservative and pesticide free, as in normal fruit, grown locally… generating visions of suppliers being meticulously selected by a resident ‘Man from Del Monte’, giving his nod of approval to the perfect pineapple or apple… Well not quite, clearly a figment of my imagination.

The shop has a large imported section, offering exotic fruits from all over the world to their bàofā hù (nouveau riche) patrons mad for anything deemed exotic, to know off their knowledge and sophistication.  In my mind best to avoid this part of the shop for the same reason I’d avoid purchasing any ‘fresh’ consumable products from outside China, knowing the length it took to get from source to shelf (Kiwi from New Zealand, Apples from the USA? Bananas from South America? Hmm, imported fruit just looks too perfect and do we really believe they’re all air-freighted in?).

So the local fruit section it is.

  • Discerning shoppers everywhere like pawing their fruit for ripeness and the masses here are no different

However, in a big fruit shop that can make for a lot of grubby paws feeling up the goods: ‘The greener the fruit, the less manhandled its likely to be; let it ripen at home’, so the prevailing wisdom goes.

Two curvy, still hard, peaches caught my attention. I reckoned after being stored at an average room temperature of about 22 Celsius they’d be perfect to eat in three days. Back in the apartment, I left them on the table in their open plastic bag and went about my business, as in business trip to another city.

36 hours later I noticed a damp blot on the table cloth under the plastic bag and lifted it up. Liquid is seeping right through the plastic bag, and while one of the peaches looks exactly like it did when purchased, the other has simply dissolved into a gooey toxic mush.

  • And the upshot of this morbid tale about defiled peaches?

Yesterday, still incredulous, I recounted the story to the wife of Umberto, who, Umberto often complains, is overly preoccupied by a fear of preservatives, toxic chemicals, phony foods, and corrupt practices. Mother of three, Wu Bei wasn’t in the least bit surprised offering me the following prudent advice the next time I go fruit hunting in China:

“.. pick the fruit that’s looks somewhat chewed  and scarred by insects, because if  it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for you…. The most flawless delicious looking fruit is the most dangerous of all”.

A slightly more resigned Umberto quips that perhaps the best rule of thumb is to keep changing your poisons.

Seeing is believing…

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Fast forward to March 2013

– Rivers of blood: the dead pigs rotting in China’s water supply

“Shanghai’s drinking water is under threat after 16,000 diseased pig carcasses are found in tributaries of the Huangpu river…” Source / read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/29/dead-pigs-china-water-supply?guni=Article:in%20body%20link

The reason why 16,000 pigs ended up in the Huangpu River was never fully explained by the authorities.

Fast forward to April 2013

– Bottled water scandal highlights food safety challenges

“The quality “..criteria Zhejiang’s Nongfu Spring uses are looser than national tap water standards in terms of the amount of arsenic and cadmium allowed in its products…. Nongfu Spring uses criteria that were set by the government of east China’s Zhejiang Province in 2005. National standards were upgraded in 2007…. Nongfu Spring was the only drinking water company to participate in drafting the Zhejiang provincial standards….. enterprises are only allowed to adopt local standards in exceptional cases when there are no relevant national standards….Nongfu Spring’s products do not meet the requirements for such an exception… China has formulated nearly 5,000 compulsory food safety criteria due to its excessive number of government departments….”

” Source / read more: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-04/12/c_132304484.htm

Fast forward to May 2013

– Forget mutton: in China, it’s rat, fox and mink dressed as lamb

Sold in thinly sliced rolls for consumption in hotpots  the “…”lamb” was mixed with rat, fox and mink with additives including gelatin. The meat was sold to farmers’ markets in the two cities…” Source / read more: http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20130505000018&cid=1103

Fast forward to October 2013

– China’s Gutter Oil Scandal: 1/10 Of China’s Cooking Oil May Be Recycled From Garbage

“… In our current society everybody tries to swindle everybody else there’s nothing we can do about it.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kne4PL5uH7c

….. and this food scandal concerning the cat meat trade…

“.. selling cat meat to butchers who then repackaged it and sold it as rabbit…” Source / read more: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10417032/Chinese-police-find-slaughterhouse-selling-cat-meat.html

China – Under The Hood: New KFC China advertising campaign promotes Ireland to huge domestic audience

Finger lickin’ good news for Tourism Ireland’s efforts in China to draw attention to Ireland‘s natural beauty. KFC China has recently launched a really creative advertising campaign which markets Ireland and Bailey’s fried chicken flavour to China-wide TV / social media audiences and customers in 3,800 outlets throughout China.

Judging from the coverage on LCD TV displays in office and apartment complexes here in Hangzhou, the exposure of Ireland’s natural beauty to China’s urban fast food consuming masses is far and wide.

Wondering if this campaign was an initiative of Tourism Ireland, or Baileys (Diageo), or solely a KFC (Yum! Brands) initiative?

No matter. KFC is widely acclaimed as the most successful foreign company operating in China, its success widely attributed to the adaption of its menus to local tastes following extensive research. That KFC China appreciates the revenue generating potential of the Ireland brand in China provides a clear indication of the opportunities for our tourism, food and education sectors, if properly promoted and coordinated. Just look at the success New Zealand enjoys with respect to China market access!

Check this video out (Youku is China’s equivalent of Youtube)

http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMjYyOTg4MjA0.html

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Noodle Shop sneezing fit: A really nauseating experience!

So I was hungry, needed an emergency pit-stop, and what better place to refuel than at the local noodle shop I’ve been frequenting for over a year? Or so I thought.

I am eating my bowl of noodles, minding my own business, watching the cook stirring his noodle soup pot, and the pedestrian traffic outside on the street …. when all of a sudden yer man the cook has a sneezing fit, and then again and again…

Suddenly he has his fingers on his nose to defecate, but he is still sneezing, and it’s all over his hand…. he flips his hand and splat right into the soup the clingy  mucous goes, following which he wipes his nose with the grubby sleeve of his white jacket and continues stirring his stock soup…

I mean how totally gross is that?!!!

…Oh and I didn’t finish my noodles.

Chinese sneezing fit  noodle chef

Local Chinese advice (1):

“If he (the cook) brought the soup to a boil, then there’s nothing to worry about”

Local Chinese advice (2):

“…there is a Chinese saying: ‘It’s clean if you do not see it’…… Oh and never try to ask them to make a new dish for you .  The cook probably would spit in the dish before remaking the dish and giving it back to you. He’ll get really upset as you give his boss a chance to punish him and he loses face. You could ask for a discount, much safer”.

Local foreigner advice (1):

“At least you can see the noodle guys preparing the food.  Imagine what they would do if you couldn’t see them.

Local foreigner advice (2):

“I am always super-cool to the noodle guys at my local noodle shop… they all know me, and they always seem to show me a little extra love when I order a bowl. However, I have made a point of NOT paying close attention to how they knock out my order. Ignorance is bliss”.

A craving from the far side: An Irishman in Hangzhou and a Chinese lady in Dublin.

HIMSELF: Ah the things I still miss most from Ireland make me realise I can be very one-dimensional in my ways.  Sad to say but seriously a day without a mug of golden coloured Barry’s tea , with its warming aroma, is just a day incomplete. Call it a caffeine addiction of whatever you like, but this deep-rooted cornerstone of my life brings habit and sense of purpose to the day…..

…..And you haven’t had a real bag of crisps (or what the Americans call ‘chips’) until you’ve gorged your way through a bag of Tayto, and not just one pungent crisp at a time, but a whole handful (as much as you can cram into your mouth in one go), and not one bag at a time, but quickly followed up by a second bag as well….. finger licking good, deadly! (Irish speak for brilliant)…..

…and then there’s Guinness, Ireland’s black beer. I miss the smooth creamy fresh taste of a Dublin pint… I have, to the point of despair, like more than once, watched yer man down in our “Sham” of a pseudo Irish pub here in Hangzhou, the Shamrock….. pouring a pint with all the finesse of a donkey .  No skill level whatsoever, non comprendo that pull is directly related to quality, creaminess and smoothness. “Don’t pour it in one pull” I silently beseech him, “what’s the rush?“. But, then again he likely knows that Guinness just doesn’t travel well.  Maybe it’s the potholes on some of the more rural roads between Dublin and Hangzhou, or the swirling about in the kegs, but by the time it appears in China .. Well, put it like this there is nothing quite so awful to drink as Guinness gone bad! 

HERSELF: Curious about what locals from Hangzhou crave for when they go to Ireland? I have been pondering the answer to this question for years….. Well, read no further.  I just received the following phone messages from WJ, one of the Hangzhou Municipal Government’s finest and brightest, who is in Dublin for a training course that will keep her there for the whole summer.

Date: 17th July:  Location: Dublin to Cork inter-city train:

09.15 hrs (Dublin time):

If it is not too much trouble please bring me some sunflower seeds, dried beef, packed preserved eggs , and most importantly vacumn-packed sweet and sour Wuxi pork ribs. Thank you very much”.

After a few minutes to ponder the order and ogle out the window Irish landscape rolling by… a second message………

09.31 hrs:

haha, maybe don’t bother with the eggs and the beef. Make up with more ribs!”

and then a third message…

09.45 hrs:

” 无锡酱排骨 卤鸡蛋 .真空包装的熏鱼干. You may show the shop assistant the above names”

Who is the more desperate? And we hadn’t even begun to compare the heat of a Hangzhou summer to the cold of an Irish “summer”!

And the mention of heat has me thinking WJ will be sending me another message….. Surely no self-respecting Chinese spice addict can survive in Ireland for long periods at a time without a fresh supply of 辣椒 pronounced “la jiao” (red peppers)?