Monday, January 4, 2010
Inside a Chinese kitchen
Not too long ago I was staying at a guest house in Yunnan Province. When the owner disappeared into the kitchen to first make her dinner and then ours, I trailed in after her and asked if I could watch. I learned an awful lot about Chinese cooking that day, more than I wanted to know, in fact.
During my travels in China I have been consistently worried that what I am eating isn't very healthy--every dish is usually dripping in oil and the meat is usually more fat than flesh. So I've made a real effort to try and have as many vegetables as possible at every meal. My favorite is a dish called "fish-flavored eggplant." It took me more than a month in China to find out that the eggplant is deep-fried before it is stir-fried, thus negating any possible health benefits one might get from eating vegetables.
What surprised me most was seeing this woman cook her own dinner. I had assumed that the excess oil was a restaurant cooking style, and that normal people don't really eat like that on a daily basis. But when she made her own dinner--fried rice--I was slightly horrified to see her add approximately 2 cups of oil to the rice. 2 cups of oil that was absorbed into the rice, of course, and was eaten as part of a single meal.
I think in my heart I had always known that this is how fried rice is cooked, but I hadn't ever allowed myself to acknowledge it before. And I know that I had read an article on Serious Eats about Chinese restaurants using a shallow form of deep-frying on nearly every food they make, but I also managed to ostrich that right out of my psyche. That's what makes it taste so good, unfortunately.
Luckily this kitchen visit came near the end of China adventure. I'm not particularly concerned with food hygiene and come from a family that believes that the rotten bits can just be cut off and the rest is still good. But what I have seen of Chinese restaurant kitchens in China has been eye-opening to say the least. In a word, they were filthy. One Westerner I talked to who was running a pub and restaurant in Yunnan mentioned that he would never open one in his home country because he didn't want to deal with all of the food safety and hygiene regulations. "They don't care about that stuff here," he said.
In my guest house's dimly-lit kitchen, a number of sickly looking kittens were slinking around cutting boards and unlabeled packets of powder and sauces were sitting around, open, with a thick layer of debris on them. The dishes were made, in large part, from food that was sitting unlabeled and uncovered in the fridge and freezer. The whole thing brought back fond memories of dinner at my grandparents' place.
But somehow it's different when the cook isn't related to you. Perhaps it is just my Western bias to think that a woman who has just had her finger lodged in her nose up to the first knuckle before making your dinner is sort of gross. These are the sort of things that one must become accustomed to when dining outside of the major metropolitan areas of China. But in all honestly, ultimately it made no difference. I ate my dinners. I didn't get sick. And although I do wish that the food had been less oily, much of it was truly delicious. So there you have it. Pick on, brothers and sisters, it doesn't really affect dinner all that much.