May 11, 2010

One Cook Reveals All: Secrets of a Chinese Restaurant

Disclaimer: This is a hot post on Mop, one of the largest forums in China. However, being a popular article doesn't mean that it is fact-checked (as it would probably have been if it were published on some official news website). This only means that enough Mop users believe the information contained in the post is true or they think it is interesting enough to deserve a read.

Translation: 我是厨师。全面的食品安全问题,诸如地沟油添加剂

The city I live in is one of the largest in the east. Here it is always crowded. Here the stress levels are extremely high. Here 100 yuan buys land only half as large as this paper money.

Currently the city is hosting an executive banquet that the whole world has its eyes on. To my great regret, I am not attending because my application was rejected. It would have been a huge honor to offer my services to such a celebration, held during China's most glorious era. My enthusiasm and interest are undeterred however. As everyone knows, under the leadership of our beloved party, China grows stronger each day, gaining international acceptance and recognition. Every Chinese feels proud that the banquet is being hosted by China. I think Yushu quake victims and the poor in the west likewise share the sentiment. Why would they want to protest just because they are poor and miserable? Nothing stops their love for the government and the party. Those who criticize the money ill spent on banquet instead of on disaster areas, or who say that the party does not consider the west to be part of China, do you still have a conscience? How could a Chinese act like this? Have you forgotten the party teachings? We must protect our country at all cost. You *expletive*.

(More along the same line. Omitted)

I am just ranting because the Expo has been vilified. Since my work place is located close by, I often see posters that say: "the banquet makes me broke; my 5 year old store got demolished; furniture fell down and hurt people." This is all a big misunderstanding, and I approve of the government's efficiency in taking down such fliers. I personally had the opportunity to witness the "all for the people" attitude because some of the dormitories belonging to our hotel violated regulations. So one day, while it was raining cats and dogs, people in military uniforms tore down our buildings, broke our computers, tossed out our uniforms, and beat up the dogs. They accomplished the task despite of defiance from my boss. I detest my boss's inability to see the larger issues.  
Anyway, I have digressed far enough. Let's return to the subject on hand--problems that exist in hotels and restaurants. I have worked at all levels of 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. Oil from drains and gutters is not that big of a deal. What's in it? Dregs from the oil barrel bottoms poured down the drainage. Oil collected on exhaust fans (this is horrible). And cooking oil from leftover dishes. Our restaurant buy 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 recycle oil is carcinogenic. What people don't realize that the oil is all genetically modified. I don't understand the details, but I do know that 90% of the chefs give birth to daughters.

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.

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 color pretty? Food coloring and baking soda* used to scrub toilets.

(* The writer wrote 石粉,which literally means rock powder. But one commenter pointed out that picture shows baking soda. So the writer probably made a typo. It should have been 食粉, short word for 食用小苏打粉 or baking soda)

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 has 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.

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 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.

One chicken costs 15 yuan, but both the buyer and the supplier are colluding to keep some of the profit. Who can vouch for chickens this cheap? How can chefs cook good dishes? There is a lot of money to be made in state-owned restaurants. One of the local employees only needed to pay 50,000 yuan for a 100 square meter apartment. *expletive* But those of us who are from other places don't receive anything, yet we have to do everything. I witnessed first-hand the misuse of taxpayer money. The daughter of a famous General Peng (she also a general now) once ordered a meal worth 10,000 yuan.

We serve food that are forbidden elsewhere, like pangolins and puffer fish. Because we are operated by the military, no one dares to say anything.

Finally, the money you pay when a waitress opens a liquor bottle. Everybody tends to misunderstand this part. The waitresses and waiters are paid very little, about 1200 yuan or so. Bottle money is the only way they make a profit. The more customers they serve the more bottle money they receive, sort of like gratuity in the West. Yes, you can carry your own alcohol around. No one has right to stop you. But it means that the hotels don't make much money--most of their revenue comes from seafood and drinks. Meals alone are not very profitable. If you know more, please feel free to share.

(Parts omitted. The writers describes the way some typical dishes are prepared)

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

Hotpot spices. Pure chemical. A whiff of it makes you dizzy for 10 seconds or so, and your nose will temporarily stop functioning.

Food coloring. Big Red. So called "3 no products"--no factory name, no factory address, no health license.

Orange food coloring. Complements the Big Red perfectly.

The sesame oil used to be aromatic. Now I look at this and understand one thing: China surpasses everybody in faking goods.

Nitrate, this is toxic. One spoonful can kill you. Don't mistake it for salt when you are cooking at home.

Melamine. A type of protein milk. Still faking it.

We use red yeast rice for natural food coloring, especially when we prepare red-cooked pork. But synthetic coloring is indispensable. Everybody uses them. If you don't, the dishes won't look as nice and you lose customer. We hide the synthetic ones.

White bottle is used to make the meat tender (fresh and not overcooked). Yellow one is baking soda, great for scrubbing toilets. Again, a pair that complements each other well.

The chewy dumplings you eat at hotpot stores probably contain this.

Another type of spice, rou bang wang (肉宝王). Very aromatic.

But see what it is used in? Cigarettes, liquor, cosmetics. Last time, our CEO told us that our kitchen has all the necessary chemicals to do a perm.

This is called A. I have no idea what it is used for. It has no smell or taste. But I was told that the thing is addictive.

The spices you need to make jiang niu rou (浆牛肉, some sort of beef dish?)

Jian shui (枧水). Barber shops use this in their perms. (Note: this is an basic solution traditionally used in Cantonese desserts, so I don't think it is as dangerous to health as the writer makes it sound)
What go into freshly squeezed juice. We still put in fruits. A few.

These additives are so commonplace to chefs. I haven't had the time to take pictures of the places where my friends work. I want to change my job, because it makes my heart cold.

Wild fungi spice. It is supposed to be used in soups, but cooks apply it in other dishes too.

Xian wei bao (鲜味宝). Tastes twice as good as MSG. An overdose is definitely not healthy. We use a spoonful for each cold dish.

Zeng xiang gao (增香膏). Aromatic to an extreme. It will make all your bland vegetables and eggs taste delicious.

Dead shrimps. When one customer requested shrimps a few moments ago, we showed the live ones to him. As soon as we went back to the kitchen, the lives one were exchanged for dead ones. People who think they are getting fresh seafood shouldn't be so naive. If they request live fish but the restaurant keeps dead ones in the back, they will get the dead ones instead. I can't do much about it. It is all about profit. Sometimes when I get fed up, I will tell the boss that the shrimps can't be salvaged. Headless shrimps are usually dead shrimps.


  1. "Conventional wisdom in our business says that old oil is carcinogenic. What people don't realize that it also mutates genes. I don't know the details, but I do know that 90% of the chefs give birth to daughters."


  2. "Yellow one is rock powder (CaO for example)"

    The yellow box is clearly Arm and Hammer brand baking soda (苏打, 小苏打, 碳酸氢钠), exactly how it looks in the US (including part of the "Drug Facts" label on the side). It's a perfectly legitimate baking ingredient, although it has many other uses. Why did he call it 石粉? Is that even a word? I have never seen 石粉 used by itself, only in words such as 白云石+粉 or 重晶石+粉.

  3. @ First anonymous:

    The writer makes the generalization that "90% of the chefs end up having daughters" (rather than sons). He attributes this phenomenon to the oil, because he believes that it affects the quality of the sperms or eggs.

    @ Second anonymous:

    Thanks for pointing that out. The only time I have heard 石粉 used is for 石灰粉, pulverized rock and such.

    Now that you mentioned baking soda...I think he made typos. In both cases, he probably meant 食粉, which is the short word for 食用苏打粉.

    I will make the changes in the entry.

  4. I'm wondering if anyone out there might know more about this? My understanding is that melamine was added to things to make them look like they had a higher protein content. I have never heard that it was a tasty food additive. I'm sure that there are plenty of scary things happening in Chinese restaurants (heck, there are scary things happening in restaurants. period.), but does anyone know anything more about these claims?

  5. @ Megan,

    From my personal experience, I think the deficiency in sanitation is often true, the dead fish part is also true, and the liberal application of MSG definitely true.

    Melamine, though, I am not sure. From the replies in the MOP thread, it appears many chefs admit to malpractices in their workplace, but insist that situations are not as bad as the poster makes it out to be.

  6. Great stuff. Very informative and insightful. Thanks for the translation.

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