In Chinese culture, artificial has a more positive connotation than in Western culture. We tend to regard anything artificial as less that ‘the real thing’. Chinese on the other hand perceive creating a good to perfect copy of the real thing as a skill and the product of that skill as something that has added value over the copied object.
This cultural difference is very visible in the different ways Chinese and Westerners deal with landscape. Many Westerners have their favourite spot of unadulterated nature that they frequently visit to recuperate. When Chinese find such a spot, they like to embellish it, to make it even more beautiful. You can accentuate a hill by adding a few metres of soil, dig a little lake, build a wooden bridge over a brook.
The Chinese word for ‘artificial’ is renzao (man-made). Man’s interference with nature makes it more renqi. This literally means ‘people spirited’ and refers to the cozy ambiance that you create, when people get together. In other words, a human hand will make nature more human.
In Chinese cuisine, and later carried on in the Chinese food industry, this positive perception of artificial has led to a large number of artificial versions of natural foods and ingredients.
For this post I have selected artificial jelly fish an example. Even the natural jelly fish is not something you will find on many menus of Western restaurants, let alone an artificial version.
My source for this post states that artificial jelly fish is novel food that can compare in look and quality with natural jelly fish. It adds that regular consumption can lower the glycemic level, and can prevent heart diseases and obesity. Wonderful!
While most industrially produced jelly fish starts from sodium alginate, this recipe uses seaweed as raw material. The seaweed is steeped in sufficient water and treated with sulphuric acid to take away the calcium and soaked in a sodium carbonate solution. The acidity of the filtrate of the resulting liquid is then lowered to 7.5 – 8 using diluted sulphuric acid.
The basic recipe of artificial jelly fish is:
580 gr of the processed seaweed; 20 gr gelatin; 90 gr calcium chlorate; 5 gr sodium hydroxide; 200 gr salt; 5 gr MSG; 100 gr water.
First solve the gelatin in 100 ml water and stir in the treated seaweed; leave for 6 hrs. Stir again and add the sodium hydroxide until pH 10.
Solve the calcium chlorate in water using a 1:5 ratio, and then add the solution to 450 ml of water. Poor 400 ml of the liquid on an enamel plate and wait until it sets into a sheet of 2 – 3 mm. Repeat that until all liquid is finished.
The sheets are seasoned with salt and MSG and left for 3 days. Then the product can be cut into shapes, most typically shreds, like the natural jelly fish. Sodium benzoate can be used as preservative.
Jelly fish is usually eaten as a cold appetiser. Some vinegar, chili and chopped spring onions can be added.
It is difficult to assess if the cost price for this product is lower than that of the real thing. This also applies to the balance of nature. We do not need to hunt jelly fish, but we are still harvesting seaweed. However, seaweed can be grown in coastal water, just as we grow wheat in soil, while jelly fish is hard to herd like some of the fish we like to eat.
This product is definitely high in dietary fibre, even though some less agreeable chemicals are needed to get it on our table.
I think that the real bonus for the creators of this recipe (and a long list of other recipes, including those for artificial chicken, honey, grapes, and shrimps) is that they derive pleasure from the very fact that they are able to create all this artificial food that is like the real thing . . . and a little bit more.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.