ARE YOU GOING TO EAT THAT?
In our own little way we all know that the Chinese eat foods that are different to what we do in our quaint, sterile western worlds. Things like chicken feet are somewhat common place on authentic Chinese restaurant menus in the west. Duck has now become very popular worldwide and we even acknowledge the odd jellyfish on a menu or two in our city’s respective China towns. I am also sure that we have all had a dig around in Chinese or Asian food supermarket for a particular paste and seen foods that we thought were different or odd. However, once you get to China the world of food weirdness explodes.
There are the purveyors on the street or those that have little stores selling all matter of things as well as supermarkets to choose your fair from. Nothing can explain the feeling of walking into a Tesco over here. Tesco is a British chain of grocery stores that I used to frequent when I lived in London. They would be the equivalent of Coles/ Woolworths in Australia or Albertsons/ HEB in the USA. In the UK you can count on them to stock all of the food you require and more. Same as any grocery store in the West.
Thankfully for Tesco’s longevity in China and my curiosity, they are quite different over here. The signage is the same, the storefront is the same and upon first look it gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling of comfort. When I walked inside I looked at the Chinese medicine store to the left and on the right a stall set up to sell knives, forks and spoons as well as other western utensils. There is a lady there full time explaining how to use each utensil and elderly Chinese men and women listen intently to them nodding in wonder at such strange implements. As you walk through the automatic gates you enter the home wares section where you can purchase one of 9 different types of rice cookers, fans, coat hangers, and towels as well as plenty of other items. Then you move into the fresh food section. This is where it gets interesting and all signs are in Chinese which makes it just like a guessing game!
There are tiered tubs holding many kinds of flour, legumes, lentils, beans, rice and other food items. I can pick out the obvious ones like dried red beans, different types of dried lentils, different types of rice etc. What perplexes me are the flours. I cannot tell the difference between any of them. They are all different prices but look identical. So I move on. Poor Greg hasn’t had a muffin baked for him in months! Luckily the Patisserie down the street is so good and reasonably priced he hasn’t really noticed, he just happily tucks into the Pain au Chocolat or almond croissant that I occasionally purchase for him. When you purchase items from this area you have to scoop it into a plastic bag and weigh it yourself and place the price sticker on the bag so the cashier can scan it. No sticker no buy.
Then comes the meat section. I use that term loosely. When I think of the meat section I think of beautiful cuts of beef, lamb roasts, minced/ ground beef packaged by the kilo, chicken and pork. There was an even a kangaroo section emerging in Australia, but quite small compared to the big 4. (Beef, chicken, lamb, pork) Rarely was there offal on the pristine shelves at my local grocery store. It’s just not in vogue enough to be cooked these days so it’s not on the shelves and frankly most offal dishes smelled quite awful so I am fairly happy people don’t cook with it anymore.
The meat section of a Chinese grocery store is quite a confronting experience. There is a small beef section with cuts of meat that I wouldn’t go near. They look terrible, are poorly butchered and packaged. The minced/ ground beef comes in 200g packages and admittedly is quite good quality. You certainly pay top dollar for it! The chicken is all Tyson brand (for those Americans reading, you will know it well) and 2 breasts (500g roughly) will set you back about $3. I am not a fan of Tyson and their farming techniques but as with most things in China I just have to feign ignorance and pretend that the birds and in fact all animals were farmed humanely. There is no Free Range here and if there was it’s best not to believe it. Ninety-nine percent chance it wasn’t.
The pork section is huge. If you were unsure what the most common meat eaten here was then the pork section in Tesco certainly gives you the answer. There is the pre-packaged pork section and the “Tell the butcher which bit you would like section”. Snouts, hooves, legs, ribs, chunks of boneless meat, minced meat, minced fat, ears, heads you name it and that part of the pig is for sale. I can cope seeing most of this as I was exposed to it a lot in Vietnam but when I see those snouts… anyway moving onto the Duck section.
Ducks of all shapes and sizes, plucked, not plucked, blackened (my assumption they are marinated in some kind of concoction and that is what turns them a deep purple/ black colour), beheaded, de-beaked or not. There is a duck for you. They are either on ice or plastic wrapped in a refrigerator.
Once past the ducks you reach the aquatic animals section. I can smell this section from the front door. I am not an overly huge seafood lover. The smell puts me off more than anything. Here though, there is far more than just your run of the mill bass, bream, tilapia and barramundi. There are whole fish, parts of fish, fish guts, fish heads, dead fish, alive fish as well as the poorer cousin, the eel. You can have your fish scaled in front of you and filleted. The fish is usually alive as it is being scaled, which is common practice with the street vendors too. Too gruesome for me to watch. The eels are alive and all slithering around in their tub which is situated right next to the frogs. Yes, frogs. Not your beautiful green tree frog but your ugly, huge, almost toadlike frogs. They are leaping around in their basket trying to break through the netting on top of their tub. There are obviously some dead ones around as the smell out of those tubs is enough to make me dry wretch on most occasions (You have to walk past the frogs to get to the dairy - there is no escaping a nostril full of the odour). Next to the frogs are the live turtles. I feel like buying them all and the releasing them until I remember just how dirty and polluted the water is in Shanghai. They are probably better off as someone’s dinner in reality. Well that is how I try to justify it to my animal activist self.
Let’s take a walk down the snack food aisle. On one side are the multinational brands like Hersheys, Kinder, Dove Chocolate, Pringles and Lays. On the other side are the Chinese snacks. Ever fancied a packet of duck tongues to munch on whilst you were watching your favourite TV crime show? Some shredded dried flavoured squid? Dried fish pieces resembling cat treats surely must be in your cupboards waiting to be eaten in a period of low self-control. No?
These are the treats and snacks hanging like bags of candy in the aisles here. Do I find it fascinating? Absolutely! I love walking down each aisle looking at what is on offer. Knowing that I can purchase a packet of dried duck gizzards for less than $1 yet I can’t buy a can of tomatoes or a box of cereal in some weird way gives me a little buzz. It makes me further understand just how different our two worlds are. It also make me see how fortunate I am being a westerner. We have the easy path in this world as the Chinese - who almost outnumber the first world westerners - want to be more like us. They are getting used to our way of life rather than us getting used to their way of life. I mostly think to myself, as I handle the packaging looking for English words to tip me off on what it is, “Are you going to eat that?” and every time my answer is a resounding “NO!”