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Are there shoes in my yogurt?
2012-08-01
By Emily Ford

When people ask me why I came to China, I usually say something about "culture" or "Mandarin" or "superpower," but really it was because of the food. Nearly every day brings something delicious, from the steamed buns sold by the bun lady near my house, to Shanghai's soupy xiaolongbao dumplings.

Unfortunately, this genius with food also seems to bring out new heights of creativity in the criminal population. First there were reports of eggs with rubber yolks that bounced after cooked. A kind of teenage science class prank, but with potentially deadly side effects. "They must have a sense of humor to do that," I think.

Then came cabbages sprayed with formaldehyde. This week I hear that mushrooms in Fujian Province are being bathed in citric acid to enable them to keep for up to a year. "A year!" I think. "That's actually quite impressive."

While my Chinese friends worry endlessly that their food is out to poison them, the effect of all these scares on me is to feel little but defiant unconcern. "I'll worry about it when I'm sick," I think irresponsibly.

One day, however, the food thing starts to feel closer to home.

I am having breakfast at my desk when I read in the newspaper that Lipton tea is being sprayed with illegal pesticides that cause diseases, although the company says it isn't.

I immediately look at the label dangling from the teabag in my cup.

"LIPTON" it smirks.

On the next page is an article that says unscrupulous dairy owners have been putting industrial gelatin in yogurt to make it set.

This industrial gelatin is made from boiled-down shoes and is marginally cheaper to use than edible gelatin, which is made from cows. The only problem with using industrial gelatin is that it is categorically not fit for human consumption.

'The Truman Show?'

I look down at the yogurt I am eating, which has already started to taste less appealing. "Good god," I think. "Are there shoes in my yogurt?"

I start to wonder if I am in some Asian spin-off of "The Truman Show," where nothing is real and images of my life are being broadcast on television for the entertainment of friends and family back home.

"OK, I get it," I think. "Ha ha. Very funny. Now where's the door?"

That night I decide to take refuge in my own cooking. Putting ingredients together myself means that what I eat can't be as harmful, I rationalize.

I am aware that when I go to the supermarket I sometimes buy the wrong thing, but I tend to find the surprise element adds to the fun.

The last time I went to Carrefour I remember having a long exchange with the sales assistant over where to find salt.

The salt I bought is a kind of flaky sea salt in a large bag, not unlike what we use in Britain and not at all expensive. I am pleased when the noodles I have prepared taste far better than my cooking skills usually allow. "It must be that salt," I think. "I'll have to buy it again."

Curious, I draw the Chinese characters from the packet into my mobile phone dictionary to check the brand name. "Monosodium glutamate," the dictionary replies cheerfully. MSG, a substance feared in Britain, where it is banned by many restaurants.

For weeks I have been adding it neat to my food. I consider worrying, but then realize I have eaten almost all the noodles anyway.

"Oh well, one meal can't do any more harm," I think, as I polish off the rest.

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