Tag Archives: meat

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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Meeaatt! Pt. 2 — Stiller’s Restaurant

On Saturday night we went to Stiller’s Restaurant in the south Bund. Embarrassingly enough, I’d never made it out to the fairly new Cool Docks before this, mostly because it’s inconveniently located and full of restaurants out of my usual price range. My mom had found out about this place while reading an account of a food writer’s trip to Shanghai. Apparently the writer’s wife had deemed the restaurant’s 36-hour slow-braised beef cheek — of all things! — the most unforgettable part of their trip. So my mom, always eager to try something new, had me put it on the agenda.

The restaurant is physically connected to a cooking school by the same name, all owned by German chef Stefan Stiller. After a short ride in a dim elevator to the top floor, my mom, my grandma, and I were led through an elegant, modern-looking space with an open kitchen to a balcony-side table that gave us views of the Huangpu and Pudong on the other side.

We’d peeked at the menu online before heading out, so had some idea of what we wanted. The dishes are pricey, so we didn’t want to overdo it, but we also didn’t want to leave hungry. Worried that four dishes might not fill us up, we asked our server if we could get some bread to start…

…to which she responded by bringing us a very generous basket of warm rolls along with three types of “butter”: sesame, cilantro, and curry. They were all interesting twists, but the sesame spread was truly delicious. The bread kept us company all through the meal. (Before the bread came, we’d already enjoyed a complimentary plate of savoury meat-filled mini-pastries… mmm.)

Our next surprise was an aesthetically pleasing array of amuse-bouche, three little hors d’oeuvres centred around the lantern pepper. Our server pointed to them in turn: chopped yellow pepper “salad”, red pepper mousse, and a green pepper “soup”. Soup? we echoed, gazing questioningly at the neat, round blob on the spoon. But then we popped it into our mouths, the blob went “pop”, and our tastebuds were delighted with a burst of sweet-peppery liquid that had til then been encased in a delicate skin. Mouth amusement, indeed.

Then came the stuff we actually ordered: a turbot-crayfish consomme with crayfish sausage, accompanied by slivers of toast and a saffron aioli. For fear of an allergic reaction, I didn’t touch the sausage (which looked weird anyway, a fleshy floating finger), but the consomme was light and sweet, but because we split it in three, the portion felt a tad small.

Next was a prettily presented foie gras “cake” layered with black truffle, served with toast and spiced pineapple bits. I hadn’t had foie gras in years, after learning about the horrors involved in producing the stuff, but I’d had pork belly last night and was about to have beef cheek, so what the heck. OH MAN. It was rich and creamy, its sweetness balanced by the tang of the pineapple and balsamic jelly, a refreshing alternative to the decadent heart-stopping devil that is fried foie gras. Not that we had any illusions about its nutritional properties…

And then the mains, a turbot fillet and Boston lobster with “lemon-grass curry sauce” — though the “sauce” really was foam and didn’t taste of lemon-grass or curry. The turbot, which my mom informed me is a big (and expensive) deal in fish-eating circles, was very tasty, tender-firm and moist and with none of that dryness or mushiness that characterizes too many restaurant fish dishes.

And then, of course, the slow-braised beef cheek, which was served with a delicious cauliflower puree, Servietten-Knoedel (dish-towel dumplings), and yummy sliced potatoes. After all the anticipation, though, I have to say I was a bit let down. Actually, we all agreed that a plain steak would’ve been more satisfying. The beef was super tender — so soft, indeed, it could be cut with a fork — but came off overwhelmingly… well, beefy. It tasted more like animal than meat, if that makes any sense, and the sweet gravy that accompanied it only served to emphasize the rawness, even though after 36 hours in a pot I’m certain it was fully cooked. The plate came with an extra dish containing two more chunks of cheek, but we could’ve done without seconds on this one. By the end I was making mini cheek sandwiches with the rolls.

We were too full — and too practical — to order one of the 110RMB desserts, but our reservations were actually rewarded with a plate of tiny sweets, on the house: a waxberry tartlet, a soft fruity (berry? hawthorn?) candy, mini cream puff, and a wonderful dark chocolate truffle, which wrapped up the meal splendidly.

While my tummy and palate were satisfied, my favourite part of this experience, perhaps more than the food itself, was the thoughtfulness and creativity that went into preparing and presenting the food, as well as all the little surprises (a.k.a. complimentary stuff :-) that really made us feel like we were being well looked after (rather than being watched) and justified the 885 RMB bill. Service was attentive but not over-eager, professional but not at all snooty, and the owner-chef even came over to see us out.

It had rained all day and was still drizzling when we emerged from the restaurant. The Cool Docks resembled a deserted Xintiandi, and in the rain felt like another world, a movie set. Bellies full and hearts warmed, we caught a cab back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

The bad news: the next morning I felt terrible, afflicted with headache, stomachache, and a desire to vomit, though I wasn’t able to. Huddled against a chair in the hotel room, I felt nauseous at the thought and sight of food (on the cover of a travel guide). By noon I managed a pear, and recovered shortly thereafter… My mom and grandma were fine, though, so the problem was probably more my body (too much meat maybe?) than the food.

P.S. While the a la carte menu offers few meatless options, Stiller’s also has a vegetarian tasting menu alongside a “regular” non-vegetarian one, which looks promising. Nice to see a restaurant tell us that fine dining doesn’t have to mean lots of meat! At 598RMB, though, these veggies (and cheeses) had better be out of this world.

Stiller’s Restaurant & Cooking School
The Cool Docks, 6-7/F, Bldg 13
505 Zhongshan Nan Rd. near Fuxing Dong Rd.
老码头,中山南路(近复兴东路)505弄13号楼6-7楼
6152-6501

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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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Unpalatable pork

Also, pictures like this make it a lot easier to stay meatless (click image for story):

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Meatless eating in SH: some background

When I moved to Shanghai in 2009, I dropped about 4kg the first three weeks. Watching the numbers on my cheap IKEA scale gradually slip to the right brought great feelings of satisfaction. I was living by myself at the time, out and about every day exploring the city and lugging home new supplies for the apartment; internet hadn’t yet been installed in my sixth-floor walk-up so even checking e-mail forced me out of the house. Apart from a few over-zealous weeks in college during which I took the stairs to my 17th floor dorm room once a day, this was the first time I’d had to trudge up more than a few steps to get home. I’m going to lose my nutritionist-prescribed 15 pounds in no time, I giddily thought.

It was much more than the physical activity, of course. Even though they may feel endless when one is weighed down by bags of groceries, six flights take all but a minute to complete: far from a rigorous work-out. What I was also doing, with a greater effect on my results on the scale, was limiting my food intake in strange ways. My unfamiliarity with the supermarket, HK-bred suspicion of mainland produce and meat, and bare-bones array of kitchen supplies led me to limit myself to the following foods: boiled noodles with Swanson clear chicken broth, frozen 湾仔码头 jiaozi, spoonfuls of Skippy, and Pretz sticks. Even though none of the above were healthful foods by any standards, due to the lack of variety—and company—I was barely eating. It was probably the only time in my life where meals didn’t matter to me.

Enter my boyfriend Sean, who arrived three weeks after me and had started getting into healthy eating a year or two before. I quickly accepted that my laissez-faire food habits weren’t going to cut it, that it was time to invest in a frying pan and take some chances with “fresh” veggies. (“Fresh”, because it turned out that much of the produce at our local supermarket, which happened to be owned by Walmart, usually appears half rotten.)

Even when we were able to find decent-looking items, there was the question of insecticides (which, if you think about it, are probably directly proportional to the aesthetic appeal of the vegetable). Many of the dish detergents on the shelves claim to double as fruit & veggie wash, so I was doing that for a while until Sean remarked that I was just trying to wash off chemicals with other chemicals. I then found out online that some people use white vinegar & water as a good veggie soak, so that’s what we’ve been using as long as we have white vinegar around. But who knows if that actually works? When we run out, we just soak it in tap water. It’s one of those things where you just have to hope for the best and not think too much about it.

With vegetables already causing some concern, we decided upon a simple rule of meatlessness in the kitchen. This practice was justified by reasons relating to health, environment, cleanliness, and a desire for simplicity (a.k.a. laziness). Without meat, we wouldn’t have to worry about putting unused portions in our unreliable freezer and defrosting in bacteria-minimizing ways. We wouldn’t have to keep track of two sets of knives, scissors, sponges, and cutting boards to keep raw meat from contaminating everything else. (Is this a paranoia that exists only in my family or a general practice, I wonder?)

Since then, apart from very occasional exceptions concerning bacon, frozen dumplings and 叉烧包, and a meal of 可乐鸡翅 (cola chicken wings), we’ve relied on vegetables, tofu products, and eggs (and rice/bread/noodles, of course) to satisfy our hearty appetites. We discovered a vegetable market near our compound, which Sean visits regularly, though we still get our proteins and processed foods at the supermarket. We’ve still been eating meat when we eat out, though, partly coz it’s hard to avoid when eating with friends, and partly coz it too often comes in the form of appealing dishes like 三杯鸡, 生煎, and 红烧肉.

I gained most of that 4kg back, though, I suspect because I was back to eating more and and eating out more. We’ve often felt gross after eating at a restaurant (particularly Chinese ones), weighed down by what we’ve come to assume to be oil and fatty meat. The oil is hard to avoid; even when I specifically request less oil to be used, dishes will arrive soaking in it. So we’ve decided, in the spirit of Lent (which started March 9), to see if we can give up meat for forty days. For vegetarians/vegans and those who’ve given up meat for Lent all their lives, this is not at all a big deal. And it wouldn’t be a deal at all if we only eat at home for the next few weeks. But we do enjoy eating out and having some semblance of a social life through shared meals, so it will still be a bit of a challenge, especially in a country where vegetarianism and the awareness of cases against meat eating haven’t really caught on.

What I intend to start here is a sort of journal of food (ad)ventures, particularly in the kitchen. This kind of blog is nothing new, and I am shy about speaking with authority, especially as regards what’s healthy and what’s not (even researchers can’t seem to agree on anything, which makes the quest towards healthy food habits all the more frustrating). But I’m not trying (yet, at least) to be a health advocate, or even expect to turn into a permanent full-blown vegetarian—I still love to indulge when I can. While I try half-blindly to make good food choices, the focus is more on creating simple meals that maximize the amount of real Food and are nevertheless delicious and full of variety.

These forty days of Lent will hopefully be the start of better food habits in general. So what follows this post will likely begin as a sharing of recipes and experiences as I explore what can be created in a limited kitchen (no oven and no meat) as well as satisfying meatless options that can be found outside of the home. This’ll also motivate me to expand my culinary repertoire—beyond the eight or so vegetables that have come to feature regularly on our dinner table.

Many of our friends here eat out a lot, reasoning that it can be just as cheap, and more convenient, compared with cooking at home. While I do enjoy eating out as well, I’d like to emphasize the benefits of eating at home: the lack of rude servers and spit on the floor, the joy I derive from making a meal and having it be appreciated by Sean (I am a housewife at heart, sigh), the sense of security that comes with knowing how my food was prepared (even if I can’t be sure how the ingredients were treated prior to my purchase), and the amount of veggies we can fit into a single meal. Oh, and the proximity of my bed after consuming a food coma-inducing meal :)

Also, I need and want to get back into writing, and what better way than to write about what I love?

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America, you’ll always be in my heart

My recent nostalgia for the States has been punctuated with cravings for a good sandwich, something I’d taken for granted during my days in Philly. So ever since I stumbled upon the website of one “NYC Deli” weeks ago while googling “burritos in Shanghai” (don’t ask), I’ve been pestering Sean to pay a visit with me. Yesterday was the big day.

Greeted with a pretty impressive menu, we decided to go for an order of “South Philly cheesesteak” (how could we resist?) and a combo meal involving a corned beef reuben, beef barley soup, lay’s chips, a cookie, and a drink. At 38rmb and 60rmb respectively, both sandwiches also came with a pickle and home-made coleslaw.

My first reaction upon seeing the reuben was: the meat looks dry. And then: the bread looks wrong. As it turned out, the meat was fine, the sauerkraut and dressing (thousand island though it was) weren’t bad, but the bread was definitely not rye, and not soaked in oil, as I remember from college dining days. In spite of this, and even though they could’ve done with a little more cheese, the sandwich was tasty on the whole. It almost felt healthful.

[I’m looking now at the menu we picked up and it looks like rye is one of the bread choices–we’d just neglected to specify. Don’t reubens by definition use rye though?? Ergh.]

And then the cheesesteak. At first I was a little perturbed that it came in a “French baguette”, but I have to say that it gave the beloved Italian hoagie a run for its money–what it lacked in delightful chewiness it made up with a crispy crust. The meat (can’t say for sure it was steak) and onions weren’t bad. But the cheese warrants a mention. It was creamy and runny, as cheesesteak cheese tends to be, but tasted a little suspect–tangier than cheez whiz. So I asked the server/manager what it was, and his response was “We mix it ourselves.” Hmm. Right. We were going to let it go, but then he offered that it was a blend of cheddar and evaporated milk…which at least sounds better for you than the chemical orgy that is cheez whiz. Now there’s only so much one can expect of a South Philly sandwich in a New York-style joint in China, so I have to give these good people points for effort.

My expectations had been guarded to begin with, so the experience was satisfying on the whole. Even though these weren’t exactly the sandwiches I held in my memory, they were still quite tasty, and did ease my “homesickness” a little bit. So until we discover a rival deli, we’ll probably be back.

As if we hadn’t had enough meat for the day, the street we walked up after dinner was lined with shops like this:

While a cut of raw pig didn’t appeal too much to us, we stopped by a mall on our way home and shared 3 Subway cookies and 2 egg tarts, making it a truly glorious, heart-stoppingly American night.

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Finally, a substitute for the gyro

If I were somehow forced into picking the cuisine of a single country to consume for the rest of my life, China would be my first choice, hands down. Nevertheless, I long ago began to have intense cravings for a multitude of foods from other parts of the world (think egg & cheese, hoagies, lamb & rice, gyros, souvlaki, raisin bran, whole wheat bread). Sadly, even though I am in arguably the most cosmopolitan city on the mainland, my pitiable student budget severely limits my options, as most non-Chinese food establishments are geared at expats/the more well-to-do Chinese. Also, and maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough, but I suspect that something like Dominican food is close to non-existent here.

So Sean and I have begun to scout out satisfactory replacements for all those foods we missed from our previous life. Yesterday proved to be a fruitful day for our quest.

We followed a recommendation from his (American) coworker and hit up a little stall by my University’s back gate for some “Chinese sandwiches”. I could muster only a hesitant optimism on our walk there, but as soon as I saw the spit, with its alternating layers of fat and meat, my skepticism began to melt away. We ordered 2 “sandwiches” at 6rmb each. The girl proceeded to gather a bunch of meat pieces from the bottom of the spit (minus 1 point for having meat pre-sliced), throw some lettuce on top, sprinkle some orange and green powders, and roll it all up in a flat pastry dotted with scallions and sesame seeds (sorta like a thin 葱油饼). Slipped them into plastic baggies so we wouldn’t have to get our fingers greasy.

It was delicious. The meat was salty and succulent (most of my friends know that I hold the “meat” in lamb gyros/lamb & rice very close to my overworked heart, but this stuff actually looked like meat!), the greens refreshing, and whatever that seasoning was–chili powder?–tickled just the right taste buds. The pastry was warm, slightly oily, and chewy or crispy depending on where I bit. We decided that this would be our substitute for the gyro while we were in China.

As this was a literal hole-in-the-wall with no seating area, we strolled down the street as we ate, but as soon as we reached the end of the block we turned shamelessly around for seconds–in our defense, they were little. The girl was amused. “Hao chi ma?” “Hen hao chi.” Hoping to hit a second bird with the same stone, I suggested that she should start selling rice boxes with this meat, but she said there wasn’t enough space to make rice. (Not true: a rice cooker takes up no space at all.)

The sign on the sidewalk called it Turkish roast meat. Chinese, Turkish–whatever, as long as it’s good, cheap, and not slated to be bulldozed like the rest of Shanghai, I’m happy to have satisfied my heavily-seasoned-roast-meat-wrapped-in-flatbread craving. Throw in the 30-minute round-trip walk and the lack of white sauce, and this might become one of the healthiest changes I’ll have made in quite a while.

Now if I could only convince them to make the portions about 3x bigger…

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