We’re in the middle of the sānfútiān 三伏天, the three ten-day periods signifying the hottest days of summer. In the west we call it “dog days of summer” for reasons which escape me. But my point is that it’s hot. Darn hot, and humid. And there’s no way that any fruits, vegetables or meats can survive more than a couple hours in this heat before starting to spoil or grow healthy colonies of unhealthy bacteria. Major groups including the WHO and the USDA all mention how exposed foods should be stored and chilled if left out for more than two hours — and only one hour if it’s very hot, over 90 °F/32 °C.
So let’s mix this fact of biology with Beijing’s charming images of the summer: watermelons baking in the sun from dawn to dusk on truck beds, their donkeys patiently waiting. Oh, and how about everyone eating barbecued lamb chuanr, sitting in tiny chairs at the mobile stands on every corner at night, playing cat-and-mouse with the police? Or the expat-preferred Sanyuanli food market’s meat stalls filled with piles of meat — uncovered, open to the non-chilled air, flies flittering between hanging carcasses. And this is supposed to be where top restaurants buy their food?
In my clinic, I’ve seen a more than usual summertime spike in diarrhea and food poisonings, but I’ve also never seen such a high amount of spoiled produce as I see this summer. I’ve never had problems with watermelons before, but twice this week my watermelon was already skunked when I cut into it at home, already fermented in the sun. Even my wife got diarrhea this week after eating sushi — at the most popular sushi restaurant in Beijing, no less. And how many Beijing street corners are filled with people laying out their vegetables and fruits on the pavements?
So the point here is to be careful during these six weeks of peak summer. Be watchful of what you eat and where you eat. And don’t assume that it’s a safe restaurant or market just because “every expat goes there.” No place is safe from Biology 101.
My tips for the next few weeks
My wife and I are cutting way back on buying and eating all meat, especially fish. If we do buy meat, we certainly would only stick to top-end hypermarkets with wrapped meats on cooled racks, including Carrefour, Walmart and Metro (our favorite).
We also get much more of our produce from the hypermarkets instead of our usual local one. And we’re more vigilant about peeling and soaking. And if anything tastes a bit funny, as did our watermelons this week — toss it out and try again tomorrow.
Maybe its also not a bad idea also to be proactive and buy some anti-diarrhea OTC medicines now to keep at home. My personal must-have are bismuth tablets from the US (Pepto-Bismol, AKA “the pink liquid”, sadly not available in China). But Smecta powder (蒙脱石) and probiotics (the good bacteria in yogurt) may come in handy, as well as loperamide pills (洛哌丁胺) just in case the diarrhea gets bad.
But don’t let me scare you totally from summer fun: there are some restaurants that are doing the right thing. If you’re truly craving for street food, you could try the skewers from restaurant chain Meizhou Dongpo 眉洲东坡, usually rated A for food safety. I like their 串肉 firstly because their streetside grill runs on gas, which is much cleaner and safer than coal. More importantly, their meats are chilled and wrapped up in a cooler right next to the grill. Check out their photos below: