A Modern Tao Tie

In Chapter 16 of Fuchsia Dunlop’s book, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, she explains the meaning of an ancient term, tao tie, that translates to, ‘a fierce and cruel person, or a glutton.’ The chapter itself had already evoked heavy feelings within me of what she calls “a moral loss of appetite” that had been imminently growing the longer I lived in Shanghai. I realized how much had changed since moving here, feeling the guilt of my own oblivious gluttony.

Just last weekend, I experienced a true gastronomic experience-one that is unique to Shanghai, among other coastal cities of the East. Hairy crab season brings hungry gourmands all over the world to the city, and I had only heard rumors of this mouth-watering delicacy. Why wouldn’t it excite anyone who loves food? It is a seasonal ingredient and only those lucky enough to be in Shanghai during its abundant harvest are able to taste the foie gras of the sea.

I couldn’t help but cave in- here I was, offered a free prix fixe dinner (one that I, myself, couldn’t afford) of multiple courses, each made with hairy crab different ways. Sweet steamed crab claws in scallion oyster sauce, two types of tender crab roe stew, and crab dumplings floating in a deep, aromatic broth. I wrote a blurb shortly after, in my drunk, plumpened state:

Amongst the gastronomic groans and camera shutters was a hairy crab haven for foodies and locavores. Patrons sat with their private parties, their tables sectioned off by Japanese folding screens. This conscious isolation allowed for individual groups to indulge in each sinfully decadent bite with all sensual awareness–no disturbance among judging eyes of surrounding strangers–just a mouth, tingling with pleasure; tastebuds, salivating with thirst; and senses, overwhelmed by fatty flavors and gelatinous textures of crab roe and tender meat melding together.

Reflecting back on the experience, I can’t help but feel guilty. Part of me wants to revel in the fact that I had the opportunity to try such a luxurious delicacy, and the other reminds me of the article that a friend had showed me just a month before about the various chemicals, birth control hormones, and antibiotics fed to hairy crabs during breeding season.

I was reminded of the many times in which I embodied a modern tao tie, and how much I despised that part of me in the face of all the poverty and deprivation constantly surrounding me. The longer I live in Shanghai, the more acquainted I become to such an abnormal lifestyle. I’ve gotten used to makeshift kitchens on tricycles, MSG-seasoned bowls, gutter oil and after-hour restaurants spilling out into the streets. It all excited me at first, but I can’t help but realize my own naiveté for not asking about where the food came from or why all of the vegetables in the wet market were so freakishly large.

Many foreign expats, including myself, are much more likely to be exposed to the honest and informative food businesses that care about telling others what transparency and traceability in China really mean. These are the people that have the choice to order their groceries from safe suppliers or choose to eat at restaurants that have their own trusted farms.

On the other end of the social ladder, there are poor Chinese people being forced to grow and consume food ridden with heavy metals, chemicals and toxins because they can’t afford to fight or escape from the environmental conditions of their homeland and, according to Dunlop, “it’s often cheaper [for food-processing plants in China] to pay the occasional fine than to invest in safe production.”

It is now an intrinsic and instinctual part of me to feel an aversion to local wet markets, restaurants and street food because I am constantly reminded of their lack in food safety, or deprivation thereof. I’m stuck at a crossroads between upholding my passion for researching streetfood and its sociocultural involvement and transformation in the urban landscape and feeling that my efforts would be merely futile due to Shanghai’s current unprogressive policies for improving its poor environmental conditions and food systems.

For now, I’ll put my thoughts to rest and end this post…. TBC.

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