Tag Archives: fastfood

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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Suzhou, Jiangsu

Having heard the city of Suzhou dubbed the “Venice of the East” and been told off for not having yet paid a visit despite its proximity to Shanghai, Sean and I decided to go on a sunny Friday before winter set in to see what it was all about.

Shanghai Railway Station

We got to the Station at quarter to ten, hoping to get 25rmb “hard-seats” (i.e. second class tickets) on the 10:06 train leaving Shanghai. We ended up getting 31rmb soft-seat tickets for the 10:16 train along with a verbal lashing from an impatient ticket seller. (I asked one too many times for hard seats that were apparently unavailable. His response: Hurry up and stop being cheap, you’re with a foreigner, and it’s a difference of 5 freaking kuai.)

Morning in Suzhou

Once outside the Suzhou Railway Station, we were immediately accosted by two ladies pushing their 15rmb/day bus that would take us to all the sights, with discounted admission to boot. I said no thanks and kept walking; they followed. (As with the stereotypical college alpha male, no in this situation meant maybe, and let me think about it meant yes.) Now we’ve received and successfully rejected these solicitations numerous times before, but these ladies were relentless. I was beginning to think man, I guess it is a pretty good deal…until Sean reminded me of the likelihood of spending the day in jade factories. They finally gave up when we began crossing a big road.

We visited the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园), first constructed in the 1500’s and the largest of the classical gardens for which Suzhou is famous. It was beautiful, relaxing, and quite sparsely populated (probably due to the hefty 50rmb admission). We strolled leisurely around, enjoying the greenery and open space, stopping every few minutes like an elderly couple to rest on a bench/in a pagoda.

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Afterwards, we wandered along the quiet canals in that part of town and weaved through old one-story housing compounds where some women played mahjong in the courtyards. Unlike the most of old houses we’ve seen in Beijing and Shanghai, these didn’t sport crumbling brick walls or look in peril of being bulldozed next week.

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Lunch

Lunch was soup noodles, xiekehuang (蟹壳黄), and soup dumplings (汤包) at a little restaurant on dongbeijie. The xiekehuang were crispy and flavourful, but the dumplings, which came out cold, were a huge letdown—especially since the lady taking our order had endorsed them. We sent them back, but they just resteamed them; the skin came back hard, the soup non-existent, and they were overall inedible. After 3 months in the supposed birthplace of xiaolongbao, we maintain that New York Chinatown still holds the tastiest (and value-for-money) soup dumplings.

Zoo-zhou

After lunch, we walked over to the East Garden (东园), which had a big lake dotted with paddleboats. Sean suggested getting into one of those so we could paddle out and just sit in the middle of the lake, maybe take a nap. Romantic and more or less effortless. But we were rejected at the ticket booth, as we had gotten there too late (literally 1 minute behind this dude that managed to rent one). Oh well, our legs were probably too tired to pedal anyway.

So we moved on to the zoo, whose admission was included in the East Garden ticket. For 20rmb (3USD), we obviously weren’t expecting Animal Sanctuary of the World, but we definitely weren’t prepared for its uncanny resemblance to a mental asylum (as I imagine it). Tiny cages, piles of poop, rusted bars, animals that looked like they’d given up on life, and some that looked worse for wear than the beggars outside the train station…

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The squirrel monkeys were the cutest things EVER, though. I could’ve watched them forever. Look:

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The grossest thing? Two giant black snakes that were spooning (ok, kind of cute, maybe) and in the process of shedding their skin. The curled-up sheets of dry, scaly old skin sent chills down my spine. I know it’s natural, but it was also utterly disgusting.

Horrible living conditions aside, the most outrageous thing about this zoo was the amount of crap (i.e. human food) people were feeding the animals. Several cages were littered with food wrappers, and at one of them we witnessed a kid crawl through an outer wooden fence and hand a monkey, which had stuck its hands through the metal inner fence, some sort of cake with half a wrapper still on. The worst part was that there were two zoo employees in uniform standing there, WATCHING. They were amused! No wonder the animals were all crazy.

Suzhou Railway Station

I haven’t quite figured out the causal direction, but working at a railway station must either have a foolproof way of turning a person into a grouch, or require in its job description a terrible personality and unwillingness to help. We got to Suzhou Station at 5pm and soon realized we’d gotten in line for the most unhappy 20-something female employee I’ve ever seen. No smile, no eye contact, her chapped lips barely moving as she mumbled at the customers ahead of us. In a contest of unpleasantness, she would’ve kicked the average Philly SEPTA employee’s ass.

Anyway, we found out that the next train with seats wasn’t until 6:52, and it was a K—older, slower—train at that (we’d only ever been on the new D trains so far). Since it was cold outside, we decided to head into the neighboring two-story KFC for some warmth and grease. We shared a meal of fries (no waffle fries?? preposterous!), popcorn chicken, and a chicken drumstick featured on recent commercials, which was surprisingly about as good as I’d expected. KFC is damn expensive, though. It also has quite the ironic tray lining, which reads “Healthy blood pressure, healthy living.” I’m sure KFC is all for that…

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K-Train Delights

Apart from a half-hour delay reminiscent of Amtrak service, the train ride back was probably the most entertaining part of the day. Total old-school, with steep steps leading you from the platform up to the cabin, a noisy car full of tired travelers…but that’s where the predictable ended. Some noteworthy sights during the cramped one-hour ride:

– A purple bag tied up with string started moving about on the overhead shelf. We discussed worst case scenarios;

– The uniformed conductors, rather than spending their time checking tickets, paraded up and down the aisle selling—get this—wind-up flashlights. Yes, flashlights, for 10kuai only, perfect for kids and the elderly, no battery needed! About 2 minutes later, they threw in a special: buy one get one free. I was tempted. Sean was reminded of Chinese DVD hawkers on the NYC subway;

– A conductor with loosened tie and untucked shirt came around to mop the filthy floor. Very professional, but I’d probably have done the same. The woman across from us in the aisle seat proceeded to spit on the freshly mopped (but still dirty) floor and rub her spittle around under her boot as if she were putting out a cigarette.

– As we were pulling into Shanghai, the conductors switched gears, briefly promoting a wind-up, light-up, musical top (yes, those things that spin). Priceless.

I guess because it was near the end of a (too-)long train ride, it looked like no one gave a shit about anything anymore. We could only sit and appreciate the scene.

A fun day all in all. We’ll be back to explore the rest of the city, but will probably be buying round-trip tickets in advance next time.

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