Safe Seafood — In Beijing?

Emperors and kings used to have food tasters screen their foods for poisons; I have my own tester — my skin. Whenever I eat unfresh foods that have toxins or chemicals in them, my skin will quickly break out with little itchy spots. The culprit is almost always seafood, especially shellfish, which I love to eat. This was never a big problem — until I moved to China. Since then, it’s happened so often here that I have a fairly good sense of seafood safety:

  • my most common reactions are to local river fish, especially that local fried flatfish
  • other notorious fish include local shrimp; mussels; and lake crab
  • I have less reactions to seafood from Dalian, and rarely to sushi imported from Tokyo, Alaska or Norway

The main issue is freshness; improperly frozen or stored fish very quickly develop bacteria on them. These bacteria pump out many toxins, including histamine-like toxins which almost immediately cause allergic-type symptoms like the rash, itchiness, and tingling sensations I get. That doesn’t even mention the toxins and heavy metals that contaminate much of the world’s seafood, and which is a serious problem all over China (see below).

So, unfortunately, I have become very wary of all local fish, and I almost never buy local fish from a market. However, I do trust most restaurants’ sushi in Beijing, especially at Hatsune or Yotsuba. Otherwise, Beijing has been a seafood desert for me. Even Beidaihe’s seafood was depressingly (and surprisingly) non-fresh. Things are much better in Dalian as well as Qingdao, and I gorged in Dalian’s famous seafood buffets — rash-free.

As for landlocked Beijing, I’m very happy to report that I’ve recently discovered a couple seafood restaurants in Beijing that finally are on par with Dalian freshness. One good reason may be that none of the seafood is local; one restaurant, Qingxiangge 清香阁 Dalian Seafood, flies their seafood from Dalian; and the second restaurant, San Zhi Er; 三只耳冷锅鱼, flies their best fish from the Chengdu area, which is the site of the original restaurant. I’ve been to both places multiple times and they’ve consistently passed my skin test.

San Zhi Er (三只耳冷锅鱼) is a relatively new hotpot chain which is on Gongti Beilu near the Poly Theatre. The Timeout review and CityWeekend review go into good details, but the gist is that this southern hot-pot chain serves up delicious and interesting fish. The restaurant itself is very clean.

Qingxiangge 清香阁 Dalian Seafood is another chain which recreates the famous Dalian restaurants. It’s really fun here as you walk around enormous tanks and platters full of fish, mussels and shellfish; you choose your fish as well as how they are cooked. They opened a new one on Xiaoyunlu, above the flower market/US Embassy area, which is very clean and bright. Definitely try their seafood jiaozi. You can get the address and read the review in Chinese here on Dianping.com.

The Creme De La Creme of Beijing Seafood…

I am now very happy that I can get my seafood fix every few weeks without flying to Dalian. But I still missed one special seafood, one of life’s pleasures — pure Boston lobster, steamed and dipped in clarified butter. I figured it was a lost cause here, but then my wife told me about the Hilton’s Friday night seafood buffet at Elements. We had a spectacular time, and we paid a bit for it, but it’s all you can eat Boston lobster (frozen), not the one-per-person that other buffets will enforce, and thus is an absolute bargain.

Why Worry About Local Seafood?

Take a look at the official 2008 map below of Beijing area’s Haihe river basin, which drains into Bohai Bay. Note all the red, orange and yellow areas. Literally more than 50% of all rivers are worse than the worst Grade V (the red zones).

Haihe river basin quality 2008

This hard data is why I’m always very concerned about any local river fish, or even anything from the worsening Bohai Bay. You can read the official paragraphs below, from the official 2008 Report on the State of the Environment in China:

In general, the Haihe River waters were under heavy pollution. Among 63 sections, 28.6%, 14.3% and 6.3% met Grade I~III, IV or V water quality standard respectively; 50.8% failed to meet Grade V standard. Major pollutants were ammonia nitrogen, BOD5 and permanganate value.

In general, the mainstream of Haihe River was under heavy pollution with no obvious change of water quality compared with that of last year.

The overall water quality of other rivers in Haihe River basin was under heavy pollution with no evident change compared with that of 2007. The Luanhe River enjoyed good quality. The Yongding River was under slight pollution. While the North Canal, Zhangweixin River, Dasha River, Ziya River, Majia River and Tuhai River were under heavy pollution.

Trans-province river sections were under heavy pollution. Among 18 trans-province sections, 38.9%, 5.6% and 11.1% met Grade  II~III,  IV or V standard respectively. 44.4% failed to meet Grade V standard. Major pollutants were ammonia nitrogen, BOD5 and permanganate value. The water quality had no obvious change compared with that of last year.

What’s your experience with local seafood? Which places do you trust? Please leave comments below.


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3 thoughts on “Safe Seafood — In Beijing?”

  1. The JW Marriott and the Ritz also have unlimited Friday night seafood buffets. I'm not sure about the Ritz's, but the JW's includes as much lobster as you can ingest, as well as countless other goodies!

    1. I\’ve heard of that — but I think (I may be wrong) that it\’s Australian lobster and not Boston lobster. In my personal opinion, Boston lobster\’s taste is in its own class. Has anyone been to these other buffets?

  2. My skin doesn't set off alarms like yours does, but my taste buds do! I stopped eating fresh fish here when I realized it all tastes like dirt. I think it's probably a reflection of the quality of the water the fish are raised in. Blech.

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