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):
- Remove the plastic wrap, open the lid and remove the dish bag, the wet tissue and the spoon
- 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
- Place the lid back on, pull the tape until the red label.
- Wait for 10minutes and enjoy your delicious meal.
- 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.
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.