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A recipe for trouble

Fast-food fare is replacing China's traditional diet

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A shopkeeper displays fresh hare at a meat market.

PHOTOS BY GERALD FLOOD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

A shopkeeper displays fresh hare at a meat market. Photo Store

CHENGDU, China -- The KFC restaurant at the intersection of Zong Fu Road, a six-lane main street, and the Chunxi Road pedestrian mall seats 300.

It is not the size of the restaurant, however, that is remarkable, although by Winnipeg standards it is very large indeed. No. What is astonishing is it is one of three identical KFCs on the block, along with three McDonald's, three Starbucks, three Pizza Huts and one Burger King, newly arrived in Chengdu and trying to establish a presence by slashing prices by one-third.

Although all of these fast-food chains can be found on street corners everywhere in Chengdu, their concentration at this place is symbolic of changing tastes here, the Epicurean epicentre of the province of Sichuan, famed the world over for its distinctive, spicy and healthy cuisine.

To be sure, China has not become a junk food nation. And although these remain lean times, a nationwide survey of 14,000 released this summer by the China Institute of Sports Science, indicated 11 per cent of young adults (20 to 39) are obese, up from nine per cent three years earlier, and overall 34 per cent are overweight. (The obesity rate in Canada is about 24 cent).

It's all part of longer term trends that have found, for example, six-year-old boys are 5.1 centimetres taller and three kilograms heavier than they were 30 years earlier.

The reasons China is bulking up are not mysterious. Chinese people increasingly are more wealthy, urban and sedentary.

They report they cannot afford the time to prepare meals or exercise but can afford to buy processed foods.

Wealth, too, has made it possible to replace bicycles with cars, but more commonly, with electric scooters. And so forced exercise has gone the way of forced labour.

A population shift from rural to urban means fewer (a relative word that fails to capture that fewer means tens of millions) people labour for a living. Survey results back this general finding -- obesity rates in poorer, farming districts are half those of the cities.

Young people, meanwhile, are studying more and playing less, resulting in a society that, for all its modernity, is lacking in a sports culture. In Chengdu, for example, a city of 14 million, the professional soccer stadium seats about 20,000.

Canadian entrepreneur Matt Vegh, who has lived in China for 14 years, most of it in Chengdu, sees the lack of interest in professional sport as a reflection of a general lack of interest in sports, which robs young people in particular of recreational opportunities and also robs the larger economy of a sports-equipment, sports-facility and sports-services sector.

Oddly, the CISS survey also found that, despite general inactivity, fitness has not declined appreciably, perhaps due to government campaigns to promote fitness following the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Fitness, however, hasn't improved either.

The Olympics confirmed, at the elite level, Chinese athletes are competitive with any in the world. But at the street level, more than 50 per cent say they have no time to exercise and access to training facilities is woefully inadequate, notwithstanding public gym sets that can be found on streets and in parks across the city, equipment mostly older people can be seen to be making use of.

Women, too, seem to take the need for exercise more seriously than men. On any evening in any square or park, you will see groups of women, sometimes hundreds, line dancing in formation, moving in a graceful step patterns to Chinese traditional and pop music.

But back to fast-food central. The KFC restaurant was the last stop on a tour that Duanduan Liu, a dietitian who trained at the University of Manitoba and spent six years studying and working in Winnipeg, had arranged to illustrate China's evolution toward bad taste.

The tour started at the Blue Stone Bridge Market, the largest live-seafood market in Chengdu. Although it also is the oldest market I could not establish its age beyond the fact the bridge for which the market was named has not existed in Duanduan's 27-year memory.

The market building itself is unremarkable, a massive four-storey concrete structure that could be a parking garage. But instead of car stalls, there are booths, hundreds that line the sidewalk and open interior, formed in lines like streets along which buyers pass, haggling loudly over prices.

The main floor is mostly seafood and meats. There are dozens of crab retailers, their booths overflowing with tanks of water filled with thousands of crabs in seething balls of moving legs.

Sellers take them by the bucket and prepare them for sale one at a time, first coaxing the crabs to furl their legs to form tidy balls and then tying them in place with pieces of string that dangle from their mouths so as to free one hand to hold the crab and the other to wrap the string.

Hog-tied (crab-tied?), they are ready for shipping to restaurants or super-markets, where they can be found still live in neat rows for sale to consumers.

Crabs are only the start. Live, cleaned or dried fish of every imaginable size and shape are on sale, live turtles, dried octopus, long silver tailfish that look like eels, cauldrons of red eels and shrimp (dead and alive). It doesn't stink so much as smell strongly of the sea.

Seafood gives way to other meats. A booth where a man trims bits of bone and gristle from cattle scalps, chicken feet, duck feet, duck jaws, duck tongues, duck heads, pink pig brains in neat boxes of 30, pig feet and snouts, white pig throat lining in rolls, fresh cleaned rabbit hanging from hooks, ditto for ducks and chickens, sides of beef and pork.

"Oh look," Duanduan exclaimed. "Rabbit kidney. I love this one. It is so good."

"We Chinese are terrible," she added. "We eat everything."

The second floor is given over to fresh fruits and vegetables, heaps of apples and tiny sweet Chinese oranges, miniature bananas, dragon fruit and melons. The third floor is spices and teas and coffees and dried goods beyond description. It smells of Sichuan pepper, Duanduan says, sweet and spicy at once.

The dizzying array of foods, however, was not the reason Duanduan brought me to the market.

She had never before been there, likely will never go back. The reason? Such markets are a vestige of a food culture modern China is leaving behind. None of the buyers are ordinary people, but rather restaurateurs and vendors.

"My grandparents would shop in such a place but not my parents," Duanduan explained. "Young people never come to such markets. They would not know what to buy or how to cook it."

From the market we walk a short distance up a broad sidewalk past hundreds and hundreds of scooters (the bicycles of modern China) to a French Carrefour supermarket.

It, too, is a hulking monster building, but enclosed as opposed to the open-air fish market, which means it is heated in winter (coldest days -5 C) and air-conditioned in summer (hottest days 35 C).

Climate control is a strong selling point, Duanduan explained, but so, too, are convenience and variety.

The main floor entrance leads to a glittering jewelry department and high-end shops selling high-end clothing cautious Winnipeggers might shun. But then, in Chengdu, there are more wealthy people than there are Winnipeggers, even Manitobans, for that matter.

The second floor is a department store reminiscent of the Bay or Eaton's in their glory days. Up a sloped moving sidewalk is a third-floor supermarket about the size of a Superstore, with the interior refinements of a Safeway.

Here are the processed and packaged foods of which North Americans are familiar. This and scores of stores like it are where modern China shops.

Our destination is the vast prepared food section where all the raw products of the open-market are on display, only now they are pre-cooked, pre-packaged and portioned from one to five servings in plastic wrap, far more appealing than a box of raw pig brains or a clutch of duck heads staring out of a bowl.

"In the market you must search for what you want and must know what to do with it when you get it," Duanduan said. "In the supermarket everything is organized so you can go straight to what you want and get it."

After Carrefour, it was a short taxi ride to the KFC, which, like most outlets at fast-food central, is located on the second storey off the elevated sidewalks that prevent the constant flow of pedestrian traffic from interrupting the constant flow of vehicle traffic on busy Zong Fie Road below.

I ordered some "original recipe" chicken, a Szechuan chicken wrap, a Beijing chicken wrap, a fish ball soup, a red-bean dessert and an ice-coffee (which includes a dollop of ice cream). I passed on the pork stuffed with potato and rice but would have sampled a shrimp burger had they not been sold out. Duanduan had a chicken burger combo with tea. Altogether enough food for four, $14.

I ordered more food than I possibly could eat, and instead sampled. The "original" chicken was familiar tasting. The Szechuan wrap was too spicy for my palate, the Beijing wrap was less hot, but bland; the fish ball soup tepid, the red bean dessert sweet and the ice-coffee as described.

None of it was very good and I felt lethargic when we were done. Duanduan agreed it wasn't as tasty or nutritious as could be had at a traditional restaurant, but it was fast.

Fast food is not cheap in Chengdu compared with the prices charged at tens of thousands of traditional hole-in-the-wall restaurants that line every street and store front across the city. But fast-food consumers know exactly what they are going to get and they trust it to be safe to eat. It is prepared and served fast by staff trained to be polite and helpful and unlikely to spit on the floor.

The restaurant will be clean, bright and cheery, Duanduan explained, and likely large enough to include a play area for children, who are further charmed with small toys and kiddie portions.

"Kids will ask to be taken back to these places because they are fun," she said.

Although she does not expect most Chinese people will become junk-food junkies, in large part because of the expense, she is acutely aware of the obesity issues it symbolizes.

Duanduan was fortunate to have parents wealthy enough to send her to school in Canada. She was doubly fortunate her mother encouraged her to study something other than business, a favourite that has produced a glut of young Chinese with MBAs.

Her training as a dietitian has assured her employment in a growing market of rich Chengduans concerned about their health and the health of their children.

"I worked in Winnipeg for a weight-loss clinic and people from all incomes would come in to lose weight," Duanduan said. "But here it is only the rich."

She works half time for two companies, one that provides home-service packages -- from decorating and furnishing homes, to finding schools and doctors, to hiring maids and cooks, which Duanduan oversees to ensure an appropriate diet.

The other is a health management company that creates diet and weight-control strategies for clients looking for help to manage conditions ranging from diabetes to anorexia -- both of which are increasing due to changing diets and American television shows and advertising.

"Sex and the City is popular with young people, who try to emulate the images," Duanduan said. "I see young girls and think they are perfect but they think they are fat. I think this is the way the world over."

Then, too, there are stubborn ancient stereotypes.

"In China, old people think that fat means wealth. So old and middle-aged people see someone who is fat and they think they are wealthy.

gerald.flood@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 ??65527

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