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July 21, 2023

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Cool as a cucumber: Humble salad freed from draconian regulation

In the heat of high summer, smashed cucumber salad is one of the most popular cold dishes in China, whether one eats at home or in a restaurant.

It’s such a simple dish that it can be whipped up in five minutes — no recipe required. You simply smash pieces of cucumber in varying shapes and sizes, which allows the vegetable to better soak up the sauce that goes on it.

The typical dressing is made from chili oil, mashed garlic, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil. Garlic and vinegar are believed to have antibacterial properties.

The dish in Chinese is called pai huanggua, and its English translation is literal. Pai means to “smash,” usually with the flat side of a cleaver. Huanggua is cucumber.

You wouldn’t think such a basic and popular dish could be controversial. But this cold salad has become the target of regulatory fines, following tip-offs from culinary whistleblowers.

Up to May this year, some 1,000 eateries and restaurants across China have been fined for “overstepping the defined operational scope” of their businesses.

According to the regulations, smashed cucumber salad is subject to the stricter food-safety regulations governing all cold dishes.

Since these dishes have not undergone the sterilization of heat cooking, they are believed to be more susceptible to contamination by bacteria.

As a consequence, restaurants serving this dish must have a “dedicated operating work space of no less than 5 square meters for preparing cold dishes,” complete with adjacent facilities for changing clothes, rinsing hands, and sterilization.

This tough rule means that a lion’s share of smashed cucumber salads are prepared in substandard conditions and are subject to a fine of 2,000-10,000 yuan (US$285-$1,428).

That’s a pretty crushing penalty for a dish normally priced at about 10 yuan.

The issue has gone viral on social media.

Some online commentators complain that cucumber salad is getting too much policing while a myriad of other food-safety issues go ignored.

It also turns out that some of the whistleblowers are owners of eateries seeking to hobble rivals, or those who find it profitable in providing such tips.

A father and son duo surnamed Huang in Hunan Province have provided tips on “illegal” cucumber salad sellers on 49 occasions, only to profit from the misery of the small businesses.

The uproar has led to regulatory authorities to examine their own practices.

According to new regulations that will come into effect on December 1, the rules governing the preparation of simple dishes such as smashed cucumber salad and even tea-making will be streamlined.

Violations will be considered petty offenses if no adverse health effects are reported among customers. Violators will be given a slap on the wrist, not fines, and a time period to rectify any breaches of regulations.

But the new regulation does not apply to high-risk food production and sales, including raw fish, cold-processed pastries and cold-meat products.

The regulatory about-face will free small eateries from smear campaigns by rivals and let them concentrate on continuing to serve a dish much sought after by patrons.


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