An Insider’s Guide to Better Eating in Chinese Detention Centers


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Zheng Churan, one of the five women’s advocates detained last March while preparing a campaign against sex harassment on public transport.Credit

When Zheng Churan, one of the “Feminist Five” whose detention in March made international headlines, was taken into custody, one of her greatest fears was about the food.

In “A Foodie’s Guide to Survival in a Detention Center,” published online this week, the 25-year-old social worker and women’s rights advocate describes her distress at being separated from her “chocolate spread, wooden bucket chicken [a Hakka dish], sliced beef in chili oil and salmon” at the Haidian Detention Center in Beijing. She had long dreaded the prospect of incarceration, she writes, because she heard the food was so bad.

The article offers a rare glimpse of the culinary offerings at China’s pretrial detention centers and the creative uses to which inmates put leftovers and the occasional, possibly smuggled, treat.

Ms. Zheng, who was detained ahead of a planned campaign against sexual harassment on public transport and released on bail after 37 days, said it was admiration for her fellow inmates’ creativity and the recent detentions of two friends that prompted her to write about life and food inside a Chinese detention center.

“I think the dishes prepared by the detainees are far better than those in ‘A Bite of China,’ ” she said in an interview on Friday, referring to a popular documentary series on television.

The two friends, Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing, both former employees of the antidiscrimination organization Yirenping, were taken away on June 12 and accused of “illegal business operation” amid a broader tightening of controls on nongovernmental organizations.

“Their friends are very worried,” Ms. Zheng said. “So I think I should let everybody know what life is like inside.”

Ms. Zheng had heard there was no meat in detention centers, she writes in the article, and so on her first morning in custody she asked if this was indeed the case.

“There’s meat!” fellow detainees responded. “We get it twice a week!”

Sitting next to a glass-walled toilet, she had her first breakfast: cornmeal porridge, pickled vegetables with a very pungent smell and sour steamed buns.

“As a southerner, the giant steamed buns scared my head off,” wrote Ms. Zheng, who is from Guangdong Province. The northern Chinese staple is not popular in the south.

But the giant buns would come back to haunt her at every meal, usually accompanied at lunch and dinner by boiled cabbage, radishes or bean sprouts.

Her first sight of meat was a variety of meatballs that tasted like duck, and she nearly missed out on these because an interrogation session lasted through the lunch hour, she said. Fortunately, another inmate, whom she called Auntie, saved some for her.

She hated the meatballs, but fell in love with the one other kind of meat available: fatty pork. “I didn’t even want to brush my teeth after eating it,” she wrote.

But what impressed her most were the dishes fellow prisoners contrived from leftovers (even the much-hated buns) and the sauces and seasonings they had access to.

“What is worth documenting is the working people’s accumulated wisdom, which has managed to serve appetites well no matter how horrible living conditions are!” she wrote. She suggested that such dishes be called kancai — or “detention-center cuisine.”

Here are some recipes:

Cat Ears

Ingredients: Leftover steamed buns, leftover cornmeal porridge, soy sauce, vinegar, garlic.

Directions: Shred the buns into crumbs and mix with leftover cornmeal porridge. Press a small portion of the mixture into the shape of a small leaf, or cat ear. Combine some soy sauce, vinegar and garlic cloves and stir in the “cat ears.”

Ms. Zheng comments: “The nice smell and sweet-and-sour taste hide the sourness of the steamed buns.’Cat ears’ would appear every other day or so. Whenever a ‘sister’ made some, she would share with the rest of us.”

Peanut-Coated Steamed Bun Balls

Ingredients: Leftover steamed buns, sugar, crushed peanuts.

Directions: Shred the buns into crumbs and roll into small balls. Dredge the balls in crushed peanuts and sugar.

Ms. Zheng comments: “They were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, as delectable as Ferrero Rocher chocolates.”

(Ms. Zheng doesn’t know how some detainees obtained the peanuts, as they were not provided by the detention center.)

Birthday Cake for Auntie Who Saved the Meatballs for Ms. Zheng

Ingredients: Biscuits, milk, orange juice, soy milk powder, brown sugar, haw jelly, caramels, oranges.

Directions: Lay the biscuits out in a plastic container. Add milk and orange juice and wait for the biscuits to soften. Press and spread the softened biscuits evenly across the bottom of the container. Wait for the mixture to solidify and sprinkle some soy milk powder over it. Mix brown sugar and haw jelly and seal in a plastic bag. Bite a small opening on the plastic bag and squeeze out the jelly to write “Happy Birthday.” Press a caramel into the shape of a pig (because “auntie” was born in the Year of Pig) and place it on the cake. Decorate the cake with oranges and haw jelly.

Ms. Zheng comments: “If we had had our mobile phones, we would have scrambled to take pictures of the cake! Auntie made another less delicate cake with ‘Go home early’ written on it. We all got a bite of that.”

Ms. Zheng said that she had been notified that she would be released on bail during a farewell party with “detention center cuisine” held for Auntie, who was being transferred to a prison the next day. Her fellow inmates erupted into cheers at the news, she writes, and she left after hugging Auntie and thanking everyone.

“My friends Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing were recently put into a detention center, too, and I have no idea why,” she wrote at the end of her article. “Will there be this kind of creative kancai in the men’s cells?”

“I look forward to their release,” she continued, “and to talking about the good food there, with laughter.”



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