03.21.07

Cross Cultural Contamination

Posted in Culture Clash, Food and Drink, Health and Medicine at 9:57 pm by Benjamin Ross

chinese meat market
a typical Chinese “meat market” in Fuqing, Fujian

As Westerners, one of our first impressions of the China is an apparent lack of sanitation, especially in regards to food. In Chinese markets, one can find meat remaining out on tables all day long, unwrapped and unrefrigerated. Vegetables are sprawled over the dirty ground, often only a few feet away from heaps of rotting garbage. Flies and other pests are abundant. Chinese restaurants can be even worse. Like the market, the floors are dirty, the food is not always refrigerated, cooking utensils are often old and rusty, and cooks slice their vegetables on the same surface as raw meat without washing in between. Based on Western standards, China’s restaurants and markets fall far below our expectations of cleanliness in the West. (note: Many high-end Chinese restaurants follow Western sanitation standards. This article is concerned with the mid-range and cheaper places, which are more common.)

I believe there are 3 main reasons for this.

1. China is a developing country, and amenities such as refrigeration are still relatively new. Although they are available to most of the population, it still requires time for these devices to be completely integrated into the culture. A refrigerator in China is still an amenity, not a necessity as it is in the West. The same could be said for individual packaging of meats and vegetables, which is available in most high-end grocery stores, but still not the norm for Chinese families buying groceries.

2. Americans* are over-paranoid about food sanitation. Our mysophobic society spends too much time and effort ensuring all our food products are clean, sealed, fresh, air-tight, unpolluted, untainted, uncontaminated, dirt free, sanitary, hygienic, sterile, disinfected, anti-bacterial, and vacuum-packed. Yes, germs are the culprits of most infectious diseases, but when did we forget that each of our bodies come equipped with its own personal immune system. While I am not saying food sanitation is not important, I do think it is a little overkill in the US.
*I could have probably said “Westerners” but I have not spent enough time in other Western countries to accurately judge.

3. This is the point I want to focus on. Traditional Chinese cooking methods, are by nature, more sanitary than those of the West. Because Chinese society survived for nearly 5,000 years without “modern” sanitation technology, the food culture developed with built-in sanitary checks.

Let’s look at some examples.

1. The Chinese rarely touch their food with their hands. As much as we fret about sneezing, spitting, and passing our bodily fluids, there is quite possibly no spot of the body which spreads as many germs as the hands. Yet, a good proportion of Western cuisine is “finger food.” In China this is rare. Even snacks such as peanuts are eaten with chop sticks. If you order fried chicken at a Chinese fast food restaurant, you will likely be given plastic gloves to assist you with your consumption. Why? Less chance of food touching the hands means less chance germs will enter through the mouth. I am not suggesting that the ancient Chinese possessed the knowledge of germ theory. However, it does not take a microscope to figure out that touching food with grimy hands can lead to sickness.

baby bok choy
Vegetables, such as this homemade baby bok choy, are always served cooked in China.

2. In China, vegetables come cooked. Outside of the context of Western cuisine, most Chinese people would not even think of eating uncooked vegetables. Whether they are stir-fried or dipped in boiling water, Chinese vegetables are served cooked, 99% of the time. Often times, food-born illness such as E. Coli are ingested from contaminated fresh vegetables. With cooked veggies this is a non-issue. This also nullifies the danger of cutting vegetables on the same surface as raw meat.

3. The Chinese tendency towards eating meat in morsels. In the West, we like our meat in large pieces. Cutting it up ourselves is part of the dining experience. In China, this task is relegated to the cook. Meat is diced up into small pieces before it hits the wok. With small morsels it is easier to ensure that the meat is thoroughly cooked. In the West, we prefer cooking large pieces of meat before they are cut up. This method increases the likelihood that part of the meat will not be fully cooked.

4. Everything goes on the fire. Chinese kitchens may be dirty, but there isn’t an item in that kitchen which won’t be exposed to extreme heat before it makes its way onto your plate. 2 million years of human civilization has proven that there is no better germ-killer than good old-fashioned fire. Virtually every item ordered in a traditional Chinese restaurant will arrive at your table straight from a fiery wok. Unlike when cooking with an oven, the operator of a wok constantly flips and turns the contents to ensure all ingredients are properly exposed to heat. With only a few small exceptions, everything in China is served hot (read: sterilized). Heck, the Chinese even boil their water before drinking it.

Interestingly enough, in nearly three years in China, I have only gotten sick off of food once; this as opposed to my average of at least once or twice a year when I was living in the US. At first glance, it would seem logical that living in an environment where food sanitation regulations are lax or non-existent would lead to an increase in food-related stomach ailments. However, three years of subsisting off a diet consisting primarily of cheap Chinese restaurant food has shown this not to be the case.

For the record, I am no doctor, nor do I have statistics to back up my claims. Instead, I am speaking on personal experience and observation, when I say posit that Chinese food culture is inherently more sanitary than that of the West. Western societies have developed higher degrees of sanitation standards, in part to compensate for a food culture which is in and of itself, relatively unhygienic. Had we been slicing our food into little bits, cooking everything on a wok, and not using our fingers, we might have been able to allow our sanitation standards to slide a bit as well. Alright, I’m off to get some stir-fried beef and boiled spinach.

25 Comments »

  1. Danielle Germany said,

    March 22, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    An excellent article:) Well i guess the flesh and veges in supermarkets might meet your sanitation standard…

  2. James China said,

    March 22, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    After an American satire storm,let’s settle down and enjoy a Chinese banquet.Ben, you’re a good cook.

  3. Danielle Germany said,

    March 23, 2007 at 3:21 am

    Wow! We can see flags now after our names! Coolness!

  4. chriswaugh_bj China said,

    March 23, 2007 at 8:24 pm

    凉菜呢?There’s no shortage of Chinese dishes involving raw fruit and veges and cold meat.

    And do Americans not wash their hands before they eat?

  5. Matt China said,

    March 24, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    Nah, we just rinse

  6. Kate China said,

    March 26, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    I get sick from food in China about once a month. When I was first here 10 years ago, it was from doing silly things like eating my peaches without peeling them first (because seriously, who wants to try to peel a peach?), now it is mainly run-of-the-mill laduzi from something not quite right (I think it’s usually the meat or the greasy sauce that gets my tummy rumbling; undercooked baozi will do the trick as well). I know lots of folks who have gotten sick–a few quite seriously–from food both in China and other parts of Asia. Perhaps you are just lucky, Ben.

  7. Kate China said,

    March 26, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    Oh, but great overview on Chinese cookery. :) It is definitely true that wokking is not just good from a sanitation perspective, but also from a preserving-the-vitamins-in-veggies perspective.

  8. Todd Wesselhoeft China said,

    March 27, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    I can not think of one dish (consisting of meat) served in the States that is not cooked at wok temperature or higher except those put on the grill. Frying your veggies does not ensure sanitation unless it is boiled in oil, which it nearly always is in China. I think the food here is the best in the world, but as far as sanitation methods are concerned it is the absolute pits. Another factor contributing to your theory is that many if not all foreigners are often inoculated, sent over with meds, and/or given regimens of medication before departure to combat just such things. Often times the grease is siphoned from the gutters and/or reused in various methods in the restaurants you and I frequent and finally, I have rarely met a Chinese woman without some sort of stomach ailment. Love the food, but hate the cold hard facts.

  9. Benjamin Ross China said,

    March 27, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    Todd-
    I think the difference in disinfection methods between Western cooking and Chinese cooking is not so much the temperature of the wok per se. In theory an oven or grill should kill all the little bugs too if heated to the proper temperature and given enough time. The difference is that with wok cooking, everything is cut into little pieces, and constantly stirred around. In the West, we usually cook meat in one piece, and it sits in the oven untouched. Therefore, it is more likely that the center of the meat does not get cooked through. Again of course, this is mainly conjecture. I am by no means an expert.

  10. China Law Blog United States said,

    April 3, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Interesting post and I want to see a flag by my name.

  11. Steven China said,

    April 9, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    some good points, there! the culture of Health & Safety regulations in the UK is suffocating, and explains why we can’t build a road or lay a new railway in any time less than one decade.

    as my mum used to say when she shoved a fresh strawberry into my mouth after it had just been picked from our garden, “a little bit of soil won’t kill you”!

  12. danjo China said,

    May 28, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    Good points, I’ve had some of the same thoughts but wouldn’t have been able to organize them as well. My father, a doctor, was just about ready to cancel his trip to visit me after hearing about the habit of eating from the same dishes, but after a year and a half in China I find that I don’t get sick any more often than in the US. In fact a friend just this past weekend got very sick from the Western cooking of another foreign teacher.

  13. Ken Erickson United States said,

    May 29, 2007 at 11:43 am

    Meat that’s fit to eat is bought in big chunks and then cut. The scary meat is the stuff that gets ground up in the meat-factory, from who knows how many cows, then sits on a conveyer belt and is mixed in a giant tub with the trimming from untold hundreds of chunks of untold hundres of animals. I know. I wrote a Ph.D. about working in a Kansas meatpacking plant.

    And I’ve only been sick after a meal in China once. That was after eating sushi at a famous Beijing seafood restaurant where sushi had just been added to the menu. How stupid was I to order uncooked fish? I nearly always get a bad case of stomach cramping and the shits when I come home to the USA and start eating uncooked vegetables.

    I’ll take a Chinese street-side meal over most of the stuff that comes across the counter in the USA any day of the week, and please pass the chopsticks. Its just a healthier place to eat, China is.

  14. Linda China said,

    May 30, 2007 at 9:09 am

    I’d never got food poisoning until I came to China over two years ago, and since then I’ve had it at least three times. I must admit, each time was mostly my fault. The first was from eating fruit on a stick (which had been sitting in water and could have been there for a REALLY long time).
    Another time was after eating sushi. The only time I ever eat fish in China is at Japanese restaurants, which is a bit stupid when you think about it because it’s usually raw. Another time was when I already had a stomach bug (thanks to dodgy water in Yunnan), so I ate something which I thought would be innocuous (a cheese sandwich) and ended up vomiting all night. I think there was a lot of illness in that town (Lijiang) – you could hear retching echoing around our hotel courtyard.
    The moral to this story is: don’t eat fruit on a stick, and be careful of what you put in your mouth in Yunnan.

  15. KevinZheng China said,

    June 19, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    Well, I think westerners are more interested in Chinese food than they really love it. Anyway, everybody loves change. I, for an example, love steaks so much! But if each of my meal is steak, I think it is quite a disgusting thing isn’t it?
    P.S. Forgive my gramma mistakes. I’m not a native speaker ^0^

  16. Another Ben R. from Missouri in China China said,

    July 8, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    I love your blog. I am also a
    Ben R. from Missouri in China. China
    is the exact opposite of the USA. The ethics,
    politics, freedom, wealth, cleanliness, quality,
    comfort, safety, justice, religion, creativity, education, fashion, diversity, healthcare, and politeness are
    entirely different from the Western way.

    I have been here for five years and have gotten food poison twice. In America, I only have trouble adjusting from
    going from a rice diet to a a sandwich-based
    one. True, everything is cooked in China, but directly sharing a dish with everyone at a table instead of each dish having a ladle is gross. I also have found worms, rocks, and hair in my food in China. Unlike Mcdonald’s, Chinese restaurants don’t close if there is no electricity or water.
    Dishes are washed in cold water, too. I’m afraid China will remain a third world country for awhile.
    Following laws are a hassle, but better safe than sorry.

  17. Lynn China said,

    September 3, 2007 at 10:19 pm

    Happened to see this article when I was looking for materials about culture differences b/t East and West for my thesis, and found your comments here very impartial. I also agree that there are things to be improved in most Chinese restaurants. But if you eat in someone’s home, I think it’d be much better. Enjoy your stay here:)

  18. Nick Peloquin China said,

    January 1, 2008 at 5:59 am

    what is the fruit on a stick called when it is candied? i know one of the fruit is called hawuah (差不多) but i don’t know how to write it in chinese nor what those kind things are called in general, you know in case i want a different kind of fruit.

  19. Liuzhou Laowai Germany said,

    January 14, 2008 at 12:59 am

    The fruit on a stick is haw.

    山楂

  20. Swiss James China said,

    September 8, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Am trying to think of times when I’ve been sick in China, other than alcohol related. Nothing so far I think.

    The fruit on a stick though- we could be talking about watermelon or pineapple fresh fruit. I’ve seen those sitting in water, but not the Haws and other candied stuff.

  21. Liuzhou Laowai China said,

    January 7, 2009 at 12:00 am

    The only time I’ve had food poisoning in 12 years in China was from eating a Wall’s Magnum Ice Cream.

  22. Nathan China said,

    January 7, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    There’s a difference between being over paranoid about sanitation and having a kitchen that even comes to close to achieving basic levels of cleanliness. Eating in a food court and seeing cockroach crawling everywhere is not reassuring.

    Similar to Kate below i’ve become ill from food around once a month whilst being out here and one of the times I suspect was from a supposedly higher class of restaurant.

    I very much agree with not going OTT on sanitation as like you say we’re humans with an immune system and its said that eating “a bit of muck” can be good for your body. But the states of some places that cook food are very far from being acceptable for preparing and cooking food.

  23. Kirby China said,

    July 21, 2009 at 8:00 am

    I think its the case that every single person’s body is unique and what gives one person food poisoning won’t necessarily give someone else food poisoning. You should be aware of your own limits and eat accordingly.

  24. BIN Australia said,

    July 17, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    You are famous now! This article has been translated into Chinese and posted on many different Chinese news websites and blogs recently. The new title is “美国人大惑不解,中国餐馆看着脏却吃不坏肚子”. But they didn’t give out the link of your article. Thanks for Google, I found the original post eventually. :-)

  25. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    July 19, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks to BIN for pointing this out. I am both flattered and extremely irked about this situation. In the future, if anybody wants to repost material from this blog (or any other blog!) always include a link back to the original post.

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