Monday, March 11, 2013

Self-heating Chinese TV dinner


By Kevin

It felt like I was eating a science experiment.

I'd bought the box of rice topped with a common Chinese pork dish called 鱼香肉丝 (Yu Xiang Rou Si) on a whim last time I went to the grocery store. I thought it might make a quick microwave meal some night when  we didn't feel like going out or cooking something else. I figured --  I'd eaten halfway decent Chinese TV dinners in the States many times.  Undoubtedly the Chinese could do a better job of it. And I'd never  even seen a Chinese TV dinner before in China, I should give it a  try. But this was a TV dinner without the microwave.


I noticed Chinese on the front of the packaging saying something  about "10 minutes." But surely it wouldn't take that long to microwave  it. So I flipped to the side of the box and looked at the English  instructions. I was puzzled. Nowhere did it mention the word  "microwave" "stove" or "oven" for that matter. I looked back at the  front cover and noticed it said something about 自热 (zi re). I knew these  two words - "self" and "heat." The English instructions weren't  perfect, but they mostly got the idea across (copied literally, so  any unclear English or grammar mistakes are entirely theirs):

Directions:
  1. Remove the plastic wrap, open the lid and remove the dish bag, the  wet tissue and the spoon
  2. Cut the parafilm of rice with the end of a spoon tear off the rice  cover, use spoon to stir rice empty the contents of the dish bag pour  onto the rice evenly
  3. Place the lid back on, pull the tape until the red label.
  4. Wait for 10minutes and enjoy your delicious meal.
Cautions:
  • Ensure the lid is tightly closed when pulling the tape. Beware of hot steam during the heating process. It is normal for the lid to rise by  approximately 2-3cm while heating. Do not attempt to remove lid  during the 10mintue heating process.
  • Adult supervision is required for children. Please wait for 15 minutes in the elevation of 3,500 meter above area.


Thankfully the Chinese cleared up some of the punctuation omissions.  It also helped me figure out exactly what the "dish bag," "wet tissue,"  "parafilm" and "3,500 meter above area" were. The "dish bag" was the sealed bag containing the main dish (food) to be spread atop the  rice. The "wet tissue" is a handy pre-wrapped napkin so you can wipe your hands after eating (it wasn't wet). The parafilm was the  cellophane wrapper. And "3,500 meters above area" refers to elevation  -- almost 11,500 feet above sea level (For perspective -- that's  about the altitude of Lhasa in Tibet, where altitude sickness is a  common problem for visiting travelers, higher than the peak of any  of the mountains in the range near Los Angeles. I guess that mountain  climbers are envisioned among their clientele). 

I pulled everything out and looked at it, tearing open the cellophane  and dutifully pouring the contents of the "dish bag" onto the rice.  Inside the box, underneath the rice tray, was a napkin-wrapped cloth  bag containing a powdery substance lying atop a bag of a liquid  substance (water perhaps) with a string running across it and outside  of the box.

I shoved everything back into the box as if I hadn't done anything to  it and tugged (hard) on the string, releasing the water into the  bottom of the box, uncertain what exactly I should expect. Amazingly,  within a minute, the box began to get warm and a chemical-scented  steam began pouring out of the ventilation holes in the top and  sides of the box. It was working. Then I remembered those chemical  hand-warmers I used a couple times watching high school football games  on cold November nights in the States. It must be a similar idea. The  chemical smell, however, made me open the window and wonder: is it  safe to eat food cooked over a pool of chemicals? It felt like  something we would have done in our high school chemistry class.  Something that might end in an explosion.

I waited the 10 minutes it suggested to cook it, then remembered that  Yinchuan is at about 3,000 feet above sea level. A big difference  from 3,000 meters, I know, but it seemed like longer would probably  help.

I Googled "self-heating food" and discovered an article from The Guarding titled "Is self- heating the future?"  In addition to emergency workers, the author writes, "There should be a market for good self-heating food –  for mountaineers, campers and explorers, for luckless fishermen,  isolated cottages, power cuts and for the impending global apocalypse. There's a market for it, and nobody's cracked it yet."

I also found a Wikipedia article and some companies in the States selling them. They point to FDA claims that they're safe. OK.

So I pulled the box open and crossed my fingers that the Chinese company is using the heating method approved by the FDA, or at least that the Chinese food safety label on the front of the box means something. There was steam  and the food was mostly hot. I poured it onto a plate and stirred it  up, but the rice kinda stuck together in semi-hard clumps. I took a  deep breath and took a bite. It wasn't terrible. But it was too cold  and the rice needed more steaming. I threw it in the microwave for  another minute in hopes of softening up the rice. It worked. But it  wasn't something I'd purposely eat again, either. The "Yum Flavor"  claimed on the cover? Not so much. "100% New Sense." Sure. 

If it actually tasted, um, good, it seems like it might appeal to  college kids who don't want to go out to eat, since Chinese students  aren't allowed to have any sort of cooking equipment in their dorm  rooms. However, the 30 RMB price-tag (about $4.75) seems prohibitive.  The school cafeteria makes the same dish better at about 1/4 the   price. Plenty of local restaurants make it actually taste good better  for about half the price).

I found a website from the company (旺禾) with a video demonstrating the  heating process. I notice on the  page, they also provide microwave instructions. Might be handy to  have those on the box, but then again, maybe anyone who buys this is  just buying it for the novelty.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I believe that the US Military is using this science in their MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat).

Candy said...

Pretty funny! What will they think of next?