Gutter Oil: China’s Filthy Open Food Secret

August 6, 2015 by Steven Ayy

“Have you heard of gutter oil?”

When I moved to China my family was, rightfully, worried. We would discuss what to do if things went haywire and I needed money, if I got hurt with no insurance or if I was kidnapped! But my dad, always the wise one, was more worried I would eat trash oil. Cooking oil fished out of garbage cans, disposed plastic bags and feces filled sewers was used over and over to save money. Eating such shit would cause immediate diarrhea, possible vomiting and long term health problems. I brushed it aside in the hopes of not freaking myself out of this massive move the words stuck in my head and I promised myself to be careful.

We think of Asian food in general as being very health oriented and focused on vegetables, whole grains and lean meats and proteins. Korean kimchi is a spicy little treat with cooked cabbage, carrots and other roots as its base. I don’t think we need to belabor the healthy taste of Japanese sushi with just rice, seaweed vegetables and meat with little cooking necessary. China seems to be a black sheep when it comes to this healthy cuisine.

Most dishes you will find outside your home are literally swimming in oil. The oil used is usually a type of hydrogenated soybean oil if your lucky and pig oil if your not. Most every foreigner when they get to China will have an issue with the oiliness of the food. I would always cook with just a tiny bit of olive oil over a low-medium heat to avoid stomach issues whereas in China I watch my cooks pour it on like maple syrup on a pancake.

My stomach has settled some but when I first came to China is was definitely an issue and I knew not to stray far from my “throne” when I ate certain thing. I never felt sick necessarily, it just zoomed through me, and I chalked it up to not being used to the amount of oil, not necessarily the quality of it. After talking to Chinese people though the two words I had blocked out of my pysche came back. I tried to pass the smell coming from the street vendors as simply overused oil, sealing in the flavor of a thousand meals, not healthy by any means but, they don’t really fish oil form the gutter do they?

A recent study reported by the China Daily news source, a Party sponsored English Language newspaper (available on most flights in China) 1 in every 10 dishes consumed in Chinese restaurants, so that’s not even including all the street food and unlicensed eateries, contains this sewer swill. Common compounds found in the oil include aflatoxin which is “100 times more poisonous than the forbidding white arsenic.”

For me the worst part is the idea I can’t escape from this terror. I thought that by going to the right place, sticking to shopping malls that charge a little extra and avoiding the street food I could avoid the gutter oil, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Why would a business expose their customers to such rotten food just to save a few pennies per meal?

The underground economy starts at night, to avoid detection, when “fishers” look for their yellow gold in urban sewages. They began a process of filtrating, heating, subsiding and dividing the oil until it is “edible.” “Each fisher could fetch up to four barrels at a time, nearly 300 yuan ($44) easy money every night or over 10,000 yuan ($1,465) a month” which is a pretty nice chunk of change in China.

I remember my first reaction when, at a large shopping mall chain, most of the restaurants and eateries found inside would display their health code score as a very proud “B.” In the United States anything less than an A will get your in serious trouble, fined and possibly closed until further notice. The lower threshold for safety in the developing world is part of the reason for the lower cost of living enjoyed by expats but I am starting to wonder at what price.

Anyone interested in the matter can find a large photo album is the most disgusting food cleanliness practices you can imagine at China Smack’s story from last year on the matter. The issue isn’t going away anytime soon and between all of the other problems facing China such as water shortages, an Olympic Games to prepare for and just general smog covering all of the major business hubs I don’t think this will rise to the top of the political agenda tomorrow. Be careful and try to cook at home is the only advice I could give.

Originally published at on August 6, 2015.

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