By Konrad Shek, Executive Committee Member, Chinese for Labour @konradshek
The work that Action on Salt is doing is commendable, raising awareness about excessive salt levels in food. We could all do more to reduce our salt intake but I have to say it makes for distinctly uncomfortable reading when I see headlines like “Chinese meals should carry a health warning” (http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/news/surveys/2018/salt-awareness-week-survey/)
Seriously? Born in the UK to an ethnic Chinese family, I’ve been raised on Chinese food for most of my life. Does that mean I am on death row or on a one-way ticket to high blood pressure hell?
Okay I admit some Chinese foods can be salty, particularly some of the preserved foods, but to say Chinese food on the whole is excessively salty - well I say that’s just a symptom of bad cooking rather than a characteristic of Chinese cuisine per se. Moreover, anyone who has a basic understanding of Chinese cuisine knows that soy sauce is high in sodium. It’s a flavour enhancer used for cooking or as a dipping sauce like you would use Worcester sauce - it was never meant to be something you drench your rice or noodles in.
But if we are talking about excessive salt levels in takeaway food, why just single out Chinese food? I’m sure quite a few of you out there have tasted some salty Indian takeaways, pizzas and kebabs in your lifetime. To justify this on the basis that it is the country’s most popular takeaway just seems flimsy.
Action on Salt’s press release is well written and gives the impression that their research was thorough. So, it surprised me to find in the notes section that the research was based on a sample size on just six restaurants in London’s Chinatown. They also claimed that this data gave a good representation of the typical salt values in Chinese restaurants across the country. Getting accurate figures on how many Chinese takeaways or restaurants in the UK is quite difficult but one could safely assume that it numbers in the thousands. Any decent statistician worth their salt (excuse the pun!) would tell you that six out of several thousand is statistically insignificant. Worrying still, they claimed that the restaurants were chosen at random, but one of the random restaurants still included Wong Kei’s which to my mind makes it less of a random sample. Wong Kei’s isn’t a restaurant that I frequent or necessarily recommend but it is known among certain circles for being value for money and back in its heyday it had the notorious reputation for being one of the restaurants with the rudest service (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2014/feb/24/rudest-restaurant-london-wong-kei). I ask Action on Salt that if they have ever visited good Chinese restaurants such as Royal China, Phoenix Palace or Michelin starred Hakksan? Should their customers be greeted with health warning signs on entry or will Action on Salt admit that their sampling area didn’t extend more than a radius of 500m?
I guess the biggest kick in the proverbial nuts is the association of supermarket Chinese style ready meals with Chinese cuisine. When has anyone seen a Chinese person shop for Tesco’s Chow Mein or an Iceland Slimming World Chinese Style Banquet Rice, which by the way is half a kilo of rice, for that matter? You would need to have some appetite to consume half a kilo of rice! Anyway, surely supermarket ready meals having excessive salt is exactly that - ready meals having too much salt - why make it about Chinese food specifically?
I guess this all boils down to whether this is a case of singling out Chinese restaurants because they are an easy target and there is little risk that the industry would vociferously defend its interests. After all the Chinese in the UK are the silent community, right? The point of writing this article was basically to say no we are not. We are willing to speak up against injustices and insensitivities. I just hope that Action on Salt would be brave enough to admit that their study and press release was done in poor taste otherwise they may lose credibility on the very thing they are trying to campaign against - too much salt everywhere!