From famine to fancy dining: China’s great cuisine leap

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A Chinese pastry chef welcomes afternoon office workers

In one of Beijing’s most exclusive neighborhoods, where embassies and international hotels stand majestically behind tree-lined streets, Emily Yeh and Garfield Wang, two young marketing professionals, have found their way to a secluded, hard-to-find, out-of-the-way Mexican restaurant. It’s Tuesday night but the small dining area is packed with the neighborhood’s denizens – well-heeled, fresh faced young men and women. Yeh and Garfield scramble for the last table and are lucky to get it. In time, an over-worked, stone-faced waitress finally comes over to the two women and briskly takes their order. She speaks in the harsh, biting tone that’s unique to most members of the Chinese service industry. When the waitress returns with the meals, Yeh is a little disappointed. She eyes the dish: three small, flat and limp tortillas with small servings of lettuce, shrimp and salsa. Yeh and Wang, who now both work in China, are from Taiwan and have travelled the world. They know what Mexican food should be like. “The mainland Chinese just move from one country’s cuisine to another,” Yeh complains over the din of diners and drinkers. “The restaurants don’t even try to be authentic. After all, in a little while, everyone will be out looking for the next big thing. China is like that. For a country that built the Great Wall, it really seems uninterested in anything long lasting.” No one in the restaurant looks old enough to remember the bad times. The great famines of the 1950s and 1960s. That’s when poor government planning and bad weather resulted in such low food yields that tens of millions died of starvation. Today, China’s reforms on farming, as well as its limits on the number of children a family can have, has made it a population control leader, albeit a draconian one. In just a few decades Chinese people have gone from being concerned about if they’ll eat to what they’ll eat. And now, besides abundance and variety, for many Chinese, the focus is turning to food and food handling standards. Unlike the West, however, many food preparation standards in China are not fully in place. Things like adequate water for washing, refrigeration and cooking temperatures are becoming a major The demand for improved food inspections spiked recently when it was discovered that Illegal food stalls and poorly inspected legal food stalls were using fats and grease stolen from sewers leading from larger restaurants and hotels. Even less dramatic incidents are catching the attention of food inspectors who are closing down stalls for having inadequate refrigeration facilities, running water and other factors that can lead to foodborne illnesses. Thomas Hon, an American-trained financial expert believes family-run restaurants will be the next casualty.  “People are becoming very sensitive about food safety. No one knows what corners these family restaurants are cutting,” he says. “At least with chain restaurants, we know they’re looking over each other’s shoulders. Since government inspectors can’t always be there, more and more people are avoiding these little mom-and-pop places. Instead, they’re choosing to dine at large chain restaurants and hotels, if they have the money. To be honest, I can’t blame them.” But even with the new focus on corporate dining, traditional Chinese cuisine hasn’t gone away. Walk along any street and you’ll find that Chinese noodle, fried rice and fish and turtle restaurants easily outnumber the bright and glossy Burger Kings, McDonalds and KFCs. In-between “snackers” are also in luck. Small, well-maintained professionally made food booths are popping up everywhere, offering fried snacks, crepes, ice cream and more. And if you’re looking for something a little more traditional, stop by any authentic Chinese restaurant or grocery store. There you’ll find food so fresh that when you look at it, it looks back. Next to an aisle of giant, stoic, green-gray bullfrogs the size of footballs, you’ll find plastic garbage cans full of slimy, black eels slithering and pushing beneath the dangerous, exposed surface layers of their brothers and sisters. You can also find fresh fruits and vegetables carried into local neighborhoods by farmers who have been walking into town with their bounty for generations. Carrying two giant baskets balanced by a long wooden stick across their shoulders, they look like visitors from the past.

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