Would You Eat from This Kitchen?

BY PH
May 31, 2010

From gutter oil to additives, one chef reveals what could go into your food these days when you dine at a restaurant in China.

 

Translation: 我是厨师。全面的食品安全问题,诸如地沟油添加剂

 

I have worked at all levels of the food business, from hotels with star ratings to small food stalls. Most cooks are not well-educated, so I do not expect to see many of my peers here. Nevertheless, if you are in the business, I hope that you can be conscientious and objectively comment.

Let's talk about oil first. Our restaurant buys oil from typical suppliers, and we call it refined oil. Because of the frequent need to fry food, we reuse the oil. The recycled oil is called "old oil" but is different from gutter oil. When you see this color (below), you know it is "old". We make Sichuan spicy oil from it. Conventional wisdom in our business says that recycled oil is carcinogenic.

We have also used gutter oil. The boss bought some back when regular oil rose to 9 yuan. It has the color of soy oil and stinks. The thing was dirt cheap though, about 2 dollars. The cooks refused to use it because it greatly affected the food quality. I believe the boss had no choice. Otherwise, who would toy with his reputation like that? Besides, the restaurant business has thin profit margins. So, people, rest your fears. Most of the gutter oil is sold to factories to make soaps and fertilizers. But the fast food places in train stations and such will use gutter oil. I know one place for sure uses it. It is not far from our paradise city.

 

One bowl of old oil. One bowl of fresh oil.

One bowl of old oil; one bowl of fresh oil.

Photo credit: MOP.com

 

Additives. This poses a serious problem. Without additives the quality of our food regresses back to the ‘70s. Presently many additives are being marketed as condiments. The types of dishes I prepare require a plethora of additives, including the poisonous and the banned. We even use melamine occasionally.

Food coloring is definitely overused, but I don't know whether that's illegal or not. Let me tell you – one day spent in the restaurants means that you will have consumed on average 100 additives by the time the day ends. Why do you think our beef tastes so tender? We use a powder for that. Why is the pastry so chewy? We have additives for that. Why is the colour pretty? Food coloring and baking soda used to scrub toilets.

The ratio of beef to water used to be 1 to 1. Now it is 2 to 1. Why? Because the beef we buy already have water injected in. We don't put in water to cheat the customers. It is necessary for the texture. But some of the beef in smaller restaurants are fake. They are made of poultry and gigantic amounts of food coloring. Nitrate is also used frequently because it improves the meat texture and adds a moist red color. I will provide pictures later to illustrate.

In reality sanitation is a joke. We just add tons of MSG. Even when preparing food we don't much attention to cleanliness. To give an example, we use our bare hands for everything. After cooking the dish, I will then go on to arrange the plate. We use stinky towels to wipe dinnerware.

Our CEO told us that our kitchen has all the necessary chemicals to do a perm.

Most of the kitchens have surveillance cameras. They are not used to monitor food quality but to fine us. The cameras have not been very effective though. Chinese cuisine presents a special situation. Nowadays chefs have the same status as migrant workers, and they are paid even less. We have no benefits to speak of. I have never seen a retirement card in my entire life. We get fixed salaries, and when things go wrong, we get fined. Hours are long; work is tiring. Many of us end up switching jobs. I am just saying that this area is hard to regulate. Last time some officials came down to inspect sanitation. They found excuses to penalize us even though there wasn't anything wrong. Then I saw the boss handing over a big wad of money. A free meal later, everything was back to normal.

Some people comfort themselves by saying: Rich people and officials eat out the most often, so they receive the biggest dose of additives. This is not true. I worked in a state-owned hotel previously. Most of the customers were generals and leaders from Beijing. When they are not here, we do whatever we want. When they are here, a crowd usually tag along, mostly managers, provincial officials, and military people. As we cook, photos are taken and the dishes are inspected. Everything is strict.

 

A plethora of additives (top-left to right): Chemical hotpot spice - a whiff  of it makes you dizzy for 10 seconds; "Big Red" - the packaging of this artificial colouring has no product name or manufacturer information; Orange food coloring - used to complement "Big Red"; Toxic nitrate - one spoonful could kill you; Melamine; (bottom-left to right) Synthetic colouring; Artificial meat tenderizer;  Artificial spice -  rou bang wang (肉宝王) is very aromatic, details on the bottle indicate that it can also be used in the manufacture of cigarettes, liquor, cosmetics; Flavour enhancer - Xian wei bao (鲜味宝) is twice as potent as MSG, we use a spoonful for each cold dish; Flavour enhancer - Zeng xiang gao (增香膏) is extremely aromatic and makes all your bland vegetables and eggs taste delicious.

A plethora of additives (top-left to right): Chemical hotpot spice - a whiff of it makes you dizzy for 10 seconds; "Big Red" - the packaging of this artificial colouring has no product name or manufacturer information; Orange food coloring - used to complement "Big Red"; Toxic nitrate - one spoonful could kill you; Melamine; (bottom-left to right) Synthetic colouring; Artificial meat tenderizer; Artificial spice - rou bang wang (肉宝王) is very aromatic, details on the bottle indicate that it can also be used in the manufacture of cigarettes, liquor, cosmetics; Flavour enhancer - Xian wei bao (鲜味宝) is twice as potent as MSG, we use a spoonful for each cold dish; Flavour enhancer - Zeng xiang gao (增香膏) is extremely aromatic and makes all your bland vegetables and eggs taste delicious.

Photo credit: MOP.com