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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 July 2007, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Losing the taste for China's delicacies

In the week that China executed Zheng Xiaoyu, the man once responsible for ensuring the safety of China's food and drugs, Fuchsia Dunlop, an expert on Chinese cuisine, finds tainted food has blunted her appetite.

China Food
Starfish, grasshoppers and other insects for sale at a night market
The highlight of this particular banquet is the whole sea cucumber. Mine lies on my plate in a slick of dark sauce, glistening.

To Western eyes, it looks more like a sex toy than a delicacy, with its phallic shape and rows of playful little spikes. And to the Western palate, it is also baffling, because it is eaten only for its texture, and has no flavour of its own.

Chinese gourmets adore its kou gan, or mouthfeel, that squelchy rubberiness, that surprising hint of crispness in the bite.

When I first lived in China, I found sea cucumbers revolting, and ate them just to be polite.

Now, though, after years of applying myself to the Chinese arts of eating, I understand the pleasure of having something slithery and bouncy in my mouth.

Different kind of qualm

It is the same with many other Chinese delicacies.

Goose intestines, frogs, insects, ducks' tongues: I have eaten and enjoyed them all. But although I have lost my European squeamishness, I find my dining out in China increasingly beset by a different kind of qualm.

Take that sea cucumber, for example.

The Chinese economic boom of the last two decades has led to a surge in banqueting, and the boundless appetite of the new Chinese rich for this slimy creature has decimated its stocks in Chinese waters.

These days the supplies that grace the dinner table come from as far away as the Galapagos Islands off the South American coast.

If I eat one, am I contributing to the ruin of marine ecosystems all over the world?

It is a similar story with many other expensive delicacies, like sharks' fins, turtles and pangolins.

Chinese restaurants are the engine driving a global trade in endangered species. And in China, there is a thriving black market in all kinds of supposedly protected animals.

I am offered them all the time, even at banquets attended by the very Communist Party and government officials who are meant to be enforcing environmental laws.

Pollution

Hairy crab
The hairy crab is a fabled delicacy
My appetite is also shrinking because of the dire pollution in China.

Last autumn I was in Suzhou for the hairy crab season.

I revelled in the taste of this fabled delicacy, its sweet flesh dipped in ginger-vinegar, until I read in the papers that many farmed crabs were tainted with a cancer-causing antibiotic.

And then I looked into the waters of one lakeside farm, and saw a swirl of oily scum and other muck.

Earlier this month government inspectors found paraffin wax, formaldehyde and other illegal additives being used in the production of everyday foodstuffs like biscuits and seafood.

And the United States turned back more than 100 shipments of Chinese food products in a single month this spring, after finding them laced with banned chemicals and antibiotics.

My friends in China are increasingly worried about the food they eat.

Many mutter darkly about the use of hormones in rearing livestock, and they seek out vegetables that have insect bites on their leaves - a sign that they have not been drenched in pesticides.

On my own trips to China, I eat less and less meat and seafood, because I just do not know what is in them.

Instead, I help myself to vegetables and beancurd.

But even they might be risky. According to official figures, 10% of Chinese farmland is dangerously contaminated with pollution.

And the newspapers are filled with terrifying stories about poisoned rivers, lakes and reservoirs, their waters unfit even for irrigation.

Corruption

Of course, pollution, tainted food and the consumption of endangered species are international problems.

Zheng Xiaoyu
Food agency chief, Zheng Xiaoyu was executed for corruption
But in China the media is state-controlled, environmental activists are routinely harassed, and corruption is endemic.

The government is taking the nation's environmental crisis increasingly seriously, largely because of the threat of social unrest triggered by pollution.

But although the former head of the Chinese Food and Drug Administration has been executed for taking bribes, many local officials still disregard rules on environmental protection, and Beijing itself is said to have tried to cover up a World Bank report revealing that more than 700,000 people die every year in China because of air and water pollution.

China probably has the world's finest cuisine.

After more than a decade of researching it, I am still astonished by Chinese culinary culture, and in awe of the skills of the country's chefs.

But these days, as I sit down before their beautiful tables of plenty, the shadows of pollution and environmental degradation hover in the background.

The banquets that once seemed to be a glorious perk of my job have begun to feel like an occupational hazard.

The meals that give me most pleasure are those in the remote countryside, where I can dine on wild mushrooms and bamboo shoots, and pork from pigs raised by people I know.

It is ironic that in all these years of eating in China, I have deliberately dismantled all my cultural barriers, to the point where I eat like a Chinese person.

No weird Chinese delicacy can shock me: culturally, I eat everything.

Yet when I read the endless litany of food scare stories in the Chinese press, I find I am asking myself: "Do I want to eat anything?"

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 14 July, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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