Category Archives: food news & issues

Vegetarians need not visit Cantonese Uncle (表叔)

I may have mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: Cantonese and vegetarian don’t mix. Cantonese food, compared with probably all the other regional cuisines in China, is terribly vegetarian-unfriendly. Sure, there are the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, but outside of those you are basically screwed. Tonight, the second time I’ve gone for Cantonese cha canting-style food since going off meat, was a disheartening reminder of that fact.

It used to be that whenever I was face-to-face with a menu at any Cantonese/Hong Kong style diner, my head would reel with indecision because everything looked so appealing: Char siu on rice? Greasy beef chow fun? Fujian fried rice? Soy sauce chicken? Hainanese chicken? Chicken congee? Curry beef brisket? One of each, please!

And that boring, overpriced plate of blanched lettuce/kai lan/choi sum that’s kind of a chore to eat but the only green item on the menu? I can go without if you can.

I grew up with this food (along with non-cha canting Canto cuisine), first as a tot in Hong Kong, then as an immigrant in uber-Cantonesey Vancouver, and then back in HK before I headed to Philadelphia for college, where I was able to get this stuff on the occasional trip to Chinatown (thank you Sang Kee). This food is a taste of home, a reminder of family, a source of comfort. It’s in my blood (perhaps literally).

I was brought up steeped in the food culture of one of the meat-lovingest regions on the planet, where roast duck and pork are ubiquitous but snake and cat and scorpion are all fair game, and the joy of eating revolves around meat. So it makes me very uneasy that my desire to positively contribute to the environment by rejecting meat necessitates a breaking away from this culture. Tonight at Uncle (表叔), a Guangzhou cha canting chain that recently made it to Shanghai (complete with Cantonese-speaking servers), I was faced with an inner conflict: the rational-ideological, that dutifully reminded me why I stopped eating meat, versus the cultural-emotional, that said HEY! This is home, this is what you love and crave. Are you sure you can give it up forever? Look, don’t these dishes all sound familiar and delicious?

They sounded familiar alright, but tonight I couldn’t dwell on their pleasurable properties. My eyes did not linger on the chicken and duck hanging by the window. Sean and I first scoured the extensive menu for savoury meatless dishes, which led us to a whopping three items under “Vegetables” and a plain cheung fun with hoisin/sesame suace. Then we looked for dishes we could “turn” vegetarian, and finally settled on a Fujian fried rice and a fried rice noodle, hold the meat. We don’t want meat. Is there shrimp in the rice? Put it on the side. Yes, talk to the cook.

The vibe at Uncle was casual and comforting, the toy model display of old-school Hong Kong buses and taxis endearing, but the food at this place wasn’t even great. The fried rice noodles, which looked crispy in the picture, was soaked in soy sauce and laden with strips of ham (c’mon, ham?!? if you’re going to ignore my request, at least do it right with shredded pork); the Fujian fried rice was over-salted and overloaded with squid, shrimp, and imitation crab; the pineapple bun was not crunchy or chewy (Tsui Wah still wins); and the greens in broth with preserved and salted egg was bland and one-dimensional — and topped with generic meat bits. The cheung fun was pretty good, though the sauces were watered down. Sean and I picked and danced our way around the meat, which likely made our friend at least slightly uncomfortable.

I dislike eating with picky eaters, but recently realized, to my horror, that I’ve become one myself. More so now than during any of my temporary diets in the past, I feel torn between my love of food — and the hearty, no-holds-barred meal– and the principles I’ve set up to guide my consumption. If we are what we eat, and eating meatlessly is shaping my current self, then my avoidance of the meat-centric food culture that has long been a part of me has also forged a dent in my identity. How much chipping away at a root before it can no longer hold up the tree?

Maybe I was just asking for trouble, dining at a Cantonese joint as a vegetarian. Thankfully there are other more veggie-friendly Chinese regional cuisines available in Shanghai, so I’ll let tofu and green beans and shredded potatoes keep me distracted until I visit my parents in Hong Kong this December…



Uncle (表叔茶餐厅)
456 Huichuan Lu near Kaixuan Lu
汇川路456号 近凯旋路
(21) 5273-6797

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Subway: eat fresh, but is the meat fresh?

Here in Shanghai, where decent, filling, and affordable sandwiches aren’t easy to come by, Subway has been a godsend. Its shops are conveniently dotted around town, its offerings are consistent, and judging from the fact that I’ve never gotten sick from its raw veggies (*knock on wood) I’d have to say it ranks decently on food safety and quality. Plus, I’ve never encountered a grumpy Subway employee here; even when my emerging sub is in the fumbling hands of a new hire, service is never rude. In the four months since I went off meat and shut off many convenient, cheap, fast food choices, Subway has become an even closer friend, always nearby to comfort me as I introduced visitors to the pork-soupy wonders of Xiaoyang’s fried dumplings.

So I was excited to learn that this sandwich chain plans to massively grow their presence in China, more than doubling their stores from the current 220 to over 600 nationwide by 2015. Not only is it a “taste of home” for the growing numbers of North American expats here, but it’s also been catching on with locals as a healthy alternative to KFC and the like.

I, too, was persuaded long ago that Subway is a healthier option than most, whether I chose the turkey breast or chicken breast, the six-inch or footlong. During my post-college Philly days I even somehow convinced myself it was acceptable to order for lunch a $5 footlong (what a deal!) and add $1.30 for three cookies (what a deal!!) ’cause, well, it was Subway, so it couldn’t be that bad for me, right? (And, well, it was Philly, one of the fattest cities in the US, so I had a ways to go before I’d have to stop eating as much as I wanted all the time… right?)

But I had a realization this past weekend while scarfing down a six-inch Veggie Delite in the basement food court of the Zhongshan Park Cloud Nine mall. I was studying the wallpaper with pictures of the different types of sandwiches and the slogan “eat fresh” underneath the Subway logo, and I was sort of undressing the subs with my eyes: off with the warm, fresh-baked bread, off with the sauce, the fresh, well-washed lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, peppers… and there we go, the meat.

And my eyes darted between the meat and the “eat fresh” slogan, and I suddenly felt uneasy. Not because meat disgusts me now (it doesn’t, usually), but because it was one of those “world view shattering” moments, as I saw what I should’ve seen long ago: that wait a minute! the meat’s not exactly fresh: highly processed cold cuts, canned tuna, imitation crab, ground-meat meatballs, uniform slices of unnaturally soft and smooth chicken “breast”, and so on. And neither is the cheese.

So yes, the fresh array of veggies and bread, revolutionary in the fast food scene, is awesome, but can you still sincerely tell your customers to “eat fresh” when you’re serving mass-produced, processed meats? Is it even possible not to (serve junk) when your business is cheap and fast food, or is Subway the best we can aim for in a cash- and time-strapped world? Or does it matter at all, since the fresh ingredients sort of “cancel out” the processed ones, and a lot of people probably don’t realize how terrible cold cuts are because we grew up eating them in sandwiches at school?

Am I realizing all this way too late in the game?

Whatever the case, I have to give it to Subway’s marketing department. It had me fooled for a long while, and it took giving up meat altogether to realize their meat wasn’t great, either. (I’ll still go back for the Veggie Delite.)

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The case for eating in more often

One of the questions I get most often in China is 你自己烧饭吗? “Do you cook?” Which isn’t too surprising considering Chinese people’s preoccupation with food and meals. What has been surprising to me is how many friends and colleagues I know don’t cook on a regular basis, preferring to eat out or bring food home (or let their mothers cook). I want to address some of the reasons behind their preference and make the case for eating in more often (at least in China).

It’s cheap(er) to eat out. Groceries can get expensive.
This is probably true if eating out means 6 RMB bowls of niurou lamian and grocery shopping means stocking up on imported foods at City Shop. But if you really do the math, you can cook your own (non-instant) noodles with 4 slivers of meat and a sprinkling of scallion for under 5 kuai. If you’re craving western food, you can make a huge bowl of pasta for much less than the restaurant price of 50+ RMB, or two burgers with sides and dessert for 20 RMB. The veggie market’s around the corner, and even though food prices are rising, its offerings are still damn cheap.

I don’t have time. Getting food to go/delivery is so convenient.
After a long day and maybe a longer commute, who has the energy to labour in the kitchen for an hour when it’s so easy to pick something up on the way home, or better yet, pick up the phone and wait for dinner to arrive, often with no delivery charge? No dishes even have to be washed — just stuff the wooden chopsticks, disposable spoon, plastic baggy that held the food, and styrofoam bowl all into the bag that everything came in, and throw it in the bin. Yes, it’s convenient, but also costly — to one’s health (it’s only a matter of time before we hear about the plastic-baggy scandal*) and to the environment. It takes less than 15 minutes to whip up some (non-instant) noodles with veggies and a fried egg, or an omelet with toast, or a hearty sandwich — Google “15-minute meals” and you’ll find 200,000+ hits. Not to mention — knock on wood — those extra minutes by the stove might well save you hours over the toilet later.

I can’t cook. I never learned. The stuff I make doesn’t taste good.
BS, BS, BS. I did spend a lot of time in the kitchen growing up, but unfortunately didn’t take away much from my (grand)mother in the way of recipes — tricks for peeling garlic and thickening sauce with cornstarch, sure, but you can learn all these things and more from the almighty internet. Most of my cooking these days is either based on, or greatly helped by, information found online. And while I’ve been at work, my bf’s been busy in the kitchen too; a few years ago he couldn’t make anything beyond spaghetti, tuna fish sandwiches, and frozen turkey burgers. Experimenting is part of the fun, and trust me, it’s sooo satisfying when you get it right!

It doesn’t make sense to cook if I’m living alone.
While I have the joy of being able to share the fruits of my labour with another person, I can relate to this sentiment on the occasional day Sean doesn’t come home for dinner. It doesn’t feel worth the effort of turning on the stove and preparing a whole meal just to sit alone and eat in silence. (I admit on these nights I’ll often just resort to eggs on toast or somesuch.) But a meal doesn’t have to be complex — have some noodles, bread, eggs, or canned stuff on hand and you’re set. And if you’re worried about eating alone, I’m sure any friend would be happy to be invited over for dinner! (And if your friends are busy, save the other half for lunch the next day.)

Cooking means fighting flame and steam and smelly grease that sticks on my clothes.
So one of my coworkers tells me. Yes, I’d probably hate cooking too if it involved struggling with a heavy wok, having my hair singed by soaring flames and being splattered with hot oil after a long day at work. But preparing a meal doesn’t have to be like that. It can be done lightly and cleanly — if you’re willing to give up wok hei and invest in a non-stick pan!

My kitchen’s too small.
My kitchen’s small, too. It’s probably still bigger than the kitchens of most old people living in old buildings in China, and they cook up a storm day in, day out.

I like having someone else cook for me.
Well, I’ve never actually heard this one, but am using it to stress the point that outsourcing food preparation comes with many risks. Call me paranoid, but you never know whether the ingredients have been properly washed, what kind of oil they’ve used, what kind of artificial flavourings or colourings have been added, or whether your food has touched sidewalks or dirty kitchen floors on its way to your mouth. While we cannot control how the crops were grown or animals bred, buying, cleaning, and cooking our own food is one way we can regain some control over what goes into our bodies.

Of course, one can argue that I’m speaking from a position of privilege: my workday ends at 5 (or 6 at the latest), my boyfriend does most of the grocery shopping, I have someone to share a meal with, making cooking more viable and more worthwhile. And even then I don’t make my own meals all the time — I’ll still enjoy a dinner out with friends, and I almost never bring my own lunch to work (that is something I aim to change). All I’m saying is that eating in — eating food you’ve had some say in — can be done cheaply, quickly, simply, and cleanly. So go ahead, do it when you can!

I’d also love to hear more reasons for eating in, or arguments against :)



*Update 2011/6/13: here’s the plastic baggy news story I was waiting for!

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Groupon ad strategy a bit misguided?

Hmm… to go veggie or get 70% off hamburgers?

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Food news round-up

A round-up of this past week’s food-related news.

  • Blue tap water is safe, say officials Officials try to assure us that the blue tap water recently coming from our faucets is actually “better quality”. Uh, right.
  • Cancer popcorn buckets seized While America fusses over the saturated fat in cinema popcorn, Shanghai’s moviegoers worry about larger problems.
  • Punishments follow steamed buns scandal Hualian/Lianhua supermarket steamed buns were found to be made from recycled expired buns and coloured with illegal dyes. Fining and firing officials are okay, but it might be more fulfilling for the public if the punishment involved some form of televised forced toxic-bun-eating.
  • Fat reward for deep throat in food industry Probably the best/worst headline ever.
  • Lastly, guess what’s front page news on the New York Times today? An article summarizing the above and more!

  • While having all this press (esp. in Chinese news sources) bringing food-safety issues to light is a good thing, it’s depressing to know that in spite of the publicity, in spite of the crackdowns and even executions, a lot of these “news” are actually not new: tainted milk and meat have been problems for years, and will probably remain so for a long while — especially if you have nearly half of surveyed food producers believing that ‘strengthening self-discipline’ is sufficient for increased food safety, and some dean of a food sciences college over here saying “It is not as bad as people think it is.”

    That being said, if eating in China doesn’t kill us, breathing apparently will… so eat on, I suppose!

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    One month of meatlessness

    This weekend past we hit the one-month mark of our foray into meatlessness, which began on March 9 (Ash Wednesday) during our trip to Yangshuo. As of this past Sunday, there are exactly two weeks left of Lent, meaning two weeks left until Sean and I can eat meat again.

    Yay! Right? Except…

    …lately we’ve been reading up on healthy eating, vegetarianism, recipes, and such, and are very much tempted to keep going with this for at least a little while longer, if not for the long run (!).

    The thought of becoming vegetarian both excites and scares me — excites, because I never imagined I could do it, but now I think I can; scares, because “becoming vegetarian” implies something permanent… like converting to a religion, getting a tattoo. Part of me keeps thinking that if I go vegetarian and later decide I want to turn back or make an exception, that is somehow much worse and more hypocritical than not taking that step/making the leap in the first place. Also, it might be easier to do here, but what about when I’m travelling? When I’m back in Hong Kong with its charsiu and roast goose, and Vancouver with its salmon and sashimi? Would I be able to resist? Why should I force myself to resist?

    At the same time, the prospect of actually making a small contribution to the world — and larger contribution to my health — appeals to me very much. Although I was raised Catholic and do loosely follow a set of what might be called Christian ethics, I have long been living without a firmly, deliberately established set of principles to guide my actions. This is the first time in a while that I’ve found myself really convinced about something — namely, that significantly reduced meat eating is a necessary (though not sufficient) step to improved health, solving the food crisis, saving the world… and so on. Even though I admittedly haven’t read much first-hand research about this stuff, from what I have read and seen the argument makes a lot of sense to me, and I am eager to embrace the idea by putting it into practice.

    The question is: should I take the leap into full-blown vegetarianism, or is “significantly reduced meat eating” (ideally, one meaty meal per week) enough? Is the latter still a cop-out? Most vegetarians/vegans would probably say yes.

    A meatless month in Shanghai

    Has it been difficult so far? Most people I’ve talked to about this “experiment” have asked me that. The answer, generally, is no. It hasn’t been that difficult in that I haven’t been craving meat. Also, because we had already been eating meatlessly at home for a year and a half, we’ve ended up just eating at home this past month even more than we usually do.

    It’s been fine at work as well, even though I have had to turn down some offers of food and invitations to lunch (not great for bonding in a new workplace). I’ve found refuge mainly in Subway’s veggie delite and City Shop’s soups and breads and salads, though there are other (more expensive) meatless options around my office.

    On the few occasions that we’ve eaten out with friends this month, it’s still been OK. Even though menus are generally meat-heavy, we’ve had Chinese, Indian, Thai food without any problems, and our friends have on the whole been pretty receptive to our needs — even though I can’t help worrying that I’m inconveniencing them in some way. We don’t mind seeing people eat meat, or occasionally having to pick around meat bits to get at the veggies… if we did, it might be a different story.

    I did have one uninspiring meal of 金银菠菜 (spinach with egg) on rice at a HK cha chaan teng, which was when I realized Hong Kong cuisine is not vegetarian-friendly. At all.

    But the toughest meal so far was probably dinner at our friend’s house on Saturday — tough in a “face” sort of way. She and her mom had made like 8 different dishes, including lots of veggie dishes, but also jiaozi, which I love. When we told her we weren’t eating meat, she pointed to another platter of dumplings and said, “These ones don’t have meat. They’re shrimp. You can eat these!” But no, I couldn’t. And… I felt bad about it. Like I had offended them, or at least disappointed them. I have never been one to be picky about food, especially home-made food, because I think it’s rude. And it made me think of my parents and grandma, who are wonderful cooks, and having to refuse their food the next time I visit. I could probably do without xiaolongbao for the rest of my life, but wouldn’t it be ungrateful, even hurtful, to turn my nose up at my (grand)parents’ expressions of love?

    So I’m still undecided about the future. It’s been a great month — a little gassy, but great — and I feel cleaner in a way. I’ve been having truly delicious meals, I’m always full (though the focus now must turn to portion control!), and my coworkers’ charsiu on rice doesn’t appeal so much to me anymore. But can this last forever?

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    When you have to quality control quality control

    In a country where, unless specified, “meat” on a menu is synonymous with the meat of a pig, the recent tainted pork scandal — in which pigs were found to be fed clenbuterol, an illegal additive that promotes leaner meat and is harmful to humans when consumed — shouldn’t be something to just take lightly and file away (as I admittedly did with news of fake high-end wines and viagra… just because I consume neither). According to China Daily, thousands of tons of pork products were recalled two weeks ago, and as of last Saturday, 16 government officials have been charged and 41 are still under investigation for “breach of duty”, namely betraying what little is left of consumers’ trust while collecting cash for a third or fourth BMW.

    While the paper cites a few cases of people making more careful choices when buying — or abstaining entirely from — pork, I don’t know how deeply this news has struck in the minds of people around me. Three of my colleagues ordered charsiu and shizitou for lunch today. When news of scrap-leather milk came floating along, Sean and I (well, mostly Sean since I was already minimizing dairy consumption for other reasons) kept drinking milk, hoping for the best. The media’s been publicizing scandal after scandal without stopping for breath; we’ve become so used to hearing about toxic this and tainted that that we — young people especially, I think — are no longer flabbergasted by these attacks on our well-being, and even make jokes about how “this meal will probably take a few years off my life, but oh well. It’s cheap. And/or delicious.” Half-hearted laughter.

    And no wonder a lot of people have adopted this attitude, because if we avoided every item on the never-ending list of food scandals, we’d be left with nothing to eat except unaffordable imported goods (and even then, who knows…). But when you really stop and think about it, this shit is outrageous! We shouldn’t have to feel uneasy (or feel like we should feel uneasy) all the time about what we’re putting in our mouths.

    When it’s gotten to the point where the procedures employed by people trusted with quality control require quality control, and those people in turn have to be kept in check by some other group, there’s no telling where it ends. When the one institution we would like (to be able) to trust fails so thoroughly and publicly, there is nowhere else to turn.

    I can only imagine in my wildest nightmares the number and variety of scandals that are just under the surface, waiting to erupt. I’m willing to bet the gorgeous strawberries we’ve been eating all winter weren’t as flawless as they looked.

    But what am I gonna do about it?

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    Lab-grown meat? Why not try less meat?

    A China Daily article (well, podcast transcription, whatever) from February titled Artificial Meat May Answer Food Crisis, which I only recently discovered, left a foul taste in my mouth. Apparently scientists are now researching “in-vitro meat technology” as a solution to the food crisis, which will enable them essentially to grow meat in labs, freeing up valuable land (hopefully to grow other things… but probably to build luxury condos, at least in China).

    While the concept of growing meat (as opposed to growing animals) is still at the research stage, and it may be a while before we see the meat section overtaken by “lab-grown lamb loin” and “petri-dish pate”, just the idea that a bunch of smart people believe we will (have to) settle for artificially grown meat just because we NEED to eat meat is disturbing to me.

    There is also a “yuck factor” to overcome when people know that meat is grown in a lab, although other foods like yogurt have been cultured for years.

    “One of the biggest things that people enjoy as a comfort thing is food,” said Sam Bowen, a bar manager in Columbia, South Carolina.

    “And until people grow up with the idea of artificial meat, it’s going to be hard to convince people otherwise.”

    I do love my beef brisket and char siu and smoked salmon and honey garlic chicken wings and… I could go on, but this is because I grew up eating these things and finding comfort in them. It reminds me of childhood, of family, tradition. But now that I’m starting to realize what a drastic effect meat eating around the world is having on, well, the world, I can make a conscious effect to at least reduce the amount I eat. And have my future children grow up not with the “idea of artificial meat”, but rather the idea that plants can be yummy, and that meat is a treat and — like processed junk food — isn’t really necessary at all, at least in the quantities we consume.

    I’m not saying everyone needs to go vegetarian — I myself am not prepared to give up meat entirely for the rest of my life — but why not try to be more aware that meat doesn’t need to be present at every meal, for example? Or even every other meal? The Meatless Monday movement is a good start, and for people who make most of their meals at home, it can be easy or even fun to find other ways to put protein on their plate. I think the point is to shift the way we think about meat, from something we take for granted to something we have to make a conscious decision to consume, whether we are cooking at home or ordering at a restaurant. We’d need some help from restaurants, though, which aren’t going to want to change until/unless demand changes.

    You can call me hypocritical: I still eat some dairy products and believe my life would be incomplete without eggs. For now, for me, the line is drawn there. And yet I have a happily, healthily vegan friend; how does she do it? I guess it comes down to how much each of us wants to contribute, to give up — to contribute by giving up. And it’s okay to keep some of our traditions and habits as long as we’re continually introducing new, environmentally- (and health-)friendly ones. While we can claim “but this is our culture!”, we must also accept, and even promote, the fact that culture evolves. The question, as the article suggests, is whether we want a food culture of more vegetables or of in-vitro meat.

    Consumption of all kinds is a mark of one’s standard of living, and we are loath to give up the variety in food we have come to acquire through decades, centuries of hard work. As China has been growing increasingly wealthy, for example, its people are consuming more meat and a wider range of foods than ever. But what if we can find ways to be better to the environment — by eating, as Michael Pollan suggests, “mostly plants” — without sacrificing that VARIETY we crave? Even just the past few weeks of culinary exploration has revealed half a dozen plant foods I’d never before considered incorporating into my regular diet.

    Here’s another way to think about it: if we all eat less meat, we can all keep eating real meat.



    (As a side note, the New York Times seems to be going vegetarian — all of their “recipes for health” lately have been vegetarian (or even vegan?), and there was a mouth-watering article on the growing popularity and variety of veggie burgers in the US. I’ll put my support behind those creative veggie burger chefs long before I’ll start believing in lab-grown meat as the answer to our world’s food problems.)

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