Friday 1 July 2011

CNN blunders over Chinese eggs

An ill-conceived list compiled by CNN of the world’s most “revolting” foods has led to an outpouring of bile across China.
pidan - they taste better than they look
The list contains delicacies (which, oddly, all hail from the Far East) such as dog meat and cicadas, most of which the various CCN reporters actually thought were quite tasty, but the controversy surrounds the short piece which the hapless Danny Holwerda put together on “century eggs”.
For those whose knowledge of Chinese food doesn’t yet extend beyond Blue Dragon sauces or the Lucky Fortune Chop Suey House on the corner, “century eggs” (also known as “thousand-year eggs”, or pidan 皮蛋 in Mandarin) are eggs that have been steeped in an alkaline solution until their proteins and fats are completely transformed. The albumen turns into a translucent, firm, brown jelly while the yolk turns into a grey-green creamy goo. If you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt, they have a very complex flavour with a tang of ammonia, salty, with a rich creaminess that’s used in Chinese cuisine to add depth to otherwise plain dishes; if you’re being Danny Holwerda, though, they taste “like the devil cooked eggs for me.” 
This has unsurprisingly led to little short of an internet hate campaign against CNN’s list and particularly poor Danny, who seems (I can only assume) to have eaten his pidan as a Westerner would, taking a spoon, an eggcup, and a good old mouthful. This, though, is like offering someone a glass of Worcestershire sauce or a tablespoonful of Colman’s English mustard - pidan are more a condiment than a snack, and aren’t generally eaten by themselves (though the Cantonese and the Taiwanese do really dig them). Instead, they’re usually chopped up into small bits and stirred into  plain rice porridge, or piled up on soft but quite tasteless tofu, or else you might dip the end of your chopsticks into the yolky goo and then use them to scoop a mound of rice into your mouth.
I feel rather sorry for Danny Holwerda - a quick background check on him doesn’t bring to light any particular experience of China, and he probably thought that his editor was looking for the kind of light-hearted, hundred-word piece that makes a couple of cheap points at the expense of what to most Americans is an alien and bizarre cuisine. But while the other reporters were either locals or travellers who’d actually visited the countries in question, Danny apparently bought his eggs in an Asian supermarket in Texas and seems to have had no real clue what to do with them. His editor was then naive enough to include his short report nevertheless, even putting it at Number One on the list. 
China’s Xinhua News Agency has been reporting the brouhaha, and you can sense its glee at being able to portray the US as a nation of uninformed gluttons who mistake the Big Mac for food yet call other people’s delicacies “revolting”. The words “racist”, “ignorant” and “arrogant” litter the online comments. 
You should never assume that what you consider delicious is going to be delicious to people with a very different take on tastes and textures. I remember being stuck in a Suzhou youth hostel with a Chinese bloke once, who’d travelled across Europe and who thought that European food was disgusting. He didn’t know what many of the things he’d been offered were, and described how in France he’d been presented with what sounded like a superb continental breakfast - croissants, preserves, bread rolls, butter, cold meats and all that jazz - but couldn’t bring himself to eat “any of that dog shit!” Beyond what you can sometimes buy in foreign-owned supermarkets in the big cities, the Chinese don’t eat baked bread, jam, sliced cold meats, and they don’t do butter unless they’re Inner Mongolian. Bread, butter and strawberry jam is as exotic and scary to most Chinese as preserved eggs are to Danny Holwerda, a point which CNN just doesn’t get. I can’t wait to read Xinhua’s list of the Top Ten Revolting American Foods: corndogs, Oreos, American “cheese”, hotdogs, Big Macs, Hershey “chocolate”, Reese’s peanut butter cups...


  1. [ LETTER ] from Danny Holwerda, aka ''HAO WA'' as the Chinese media are calling him

    Tue, Jul 05, 2011 - Page 8

    Thrown into the frying pan

    Dear Editor, Taipei Times, Taiwan, RCC

    In regards to an article that recently appeared in your newspaper about an American blogger — and as the actual blogger mentioned in the article — I would like to add my two cents about the backstory (“American blogger on CNN sparks ‘pi dan’ brouhaha,” July 1, page 4).

    I need to explain that I originally posted my CNN iReport video about trying to eat a pi dan in April, after CNN asked readers to send in video stories about the most revolting foods they had ever eaten anywhere in the world. Since I had just tried to eat “century eggs” that I had purchased at a local Asian supermarket here in Texas, I sent in a brief iReport on the subject.

    Fast forward to this month and I can report that my blog has received more traffic than ever. However, people in Taiwan should know that CNN, on its own initiative, added my April iReport to a special section about the world’s most disgusting foods and my report about century eggs was the first one on the list. It is important to note that I never once mentioned “Taiwan” in my video report, nor did I ever criticize Taiwanese foods or Taiwanese. In fact, my godmother who lives in California is Taiwanese.

    So, imagine my surprise when I saw the Taipei Times article online, translated from the Liberty Times, calling me all sorts of names, with one Taiwanese food blogger calling me “ridiculous,” and a Democratic Progressive Party politician even going so far as to say that “Americans are chicken-hearted” and apparently lumping me into that bracket.

    I also received many angry e-mails and comments from people calling Americans “fat xenophobes with terrible dietary habits.”

    And that was one of the nicer comments.

    So I want to apologize to the people of Taiwan if my video caused a brouhaha. That was never my intention. Although I did not enjoy the pi dan, I meant no disrespect to Taiwanese or their culture. If you knew me, you would know that I like to eat traditional Chinese and Taiwanese food very much and it is one of my dreams to visit Taiwan someday and see — and taste — your country’s culinary delights.

  2. contd

    The response last week to my CNN video was like riding a roller coaster. I went from the initial excitement of having my blog mentioned on CNN to the experience of being vilified on international discussion boards, denounced by a Taiwanese legislator and receiving e-mails calling me “an ignorant racist” and worse.

    All I was trying to do with my pi dan story was to present something that I felt was fun. To those critics in Taiwan who got so angry at me for not being able to stomach century eggs from my kitchen in Texas, I hope they can gain some perspective now. It is not like I committed an act of violence. My sin was trying some strange-tasting eggs and not enjoying them.

    Okay, maybe I did not eat pi dan the correct way. Taiwanese food critic Tao Li-jun (陶禮君) said I probably had eaten the century egg without any condiments. Guilty as charged. Had I known what I know now, thanks to Tao, I would have prepared the pi dan with diced scallion, sesame oil or soy sauce. And to Taiwanese gastronomist Fei Chi (費奇), maybe she is right that the reason I did not enjoy my first experience with a century egg from an Asian supermarket was because I did not know how to appreciate its taste.

    Now I know better and if I get a chance to visit Taiwan in the future, I will look forward to sampling some real pi dan dishes prepared by real Taiwanese chefs.

    I never meant to criticize Taiwan and its culinary delights, and in fact, I want to reiterate that I never once mentioned the word “Taiwan” in my CNN video. I hope this letter will help to clear up the entire brouhaha and put an end to this “tempest in a pi dan.”



    Published on Taipei Times :
    Copyright © 1999-2011 The Taipei Times. All rights reserved.

  3. I see that Dan has already been here, and posted my letter to the Taipei Times. If I may, though, here is some additional information about my experience with pi dan.

    I didn't create the story for an editor or for anybody else. I am not a reporter. I have a personal blog ( where I post stories about my family, and about silly projects that I embark upon. In April, I had a month-long series called Project Gastronome, in which I tried a different food each night, either something unusual or something that I had never tried before. Century eggs were only one food of the many that I ate over the course of the month.

    Around the same time, CNN solicited submissions for their "most revolting foods" iReport. The iReports section of their website is made up entirely of user-generated content, not content from professional journalists. I think there's been a lot of misunderstanding about that. Having just tried the eggs, and not having enjoyed them, I decided to submit the story as an entry.

    Where this whole thing took a turn for the worse is when CNN published their compilation article, and included ONLY foods from Asia. Taken in isolation, my story may not have been the best piece of writing in the world, but I doubt it would have ignited any cultural furor. However, when it was first on a list that quickly came to be seen as an example of Western prejudice...

    To address the point that I ate the eggs "incorrectly," I was fully aware of that, even when I tried them. If you visit my blog and view the video, I even say that exact thing. This was partly because, as you said, I didn't know the correct way to prepare them. But it was also simply because I thought that eating them that way would just be funny. Simple humor? Sure. But that's all it was - humor.

    This whole incident has become like a game of Telephone, where the story changes more the farther it goes from the source. Again, if you return to the source (my blog), you will notice that I never once say anything insulting about China, Taiwan, or any other people or cultures. My only "offense" was trying another country's delicacy and deciding that I didn't like it. I agree that CNN's presentation of the list was lacking in sensitivity, but I hardly deserve the scorn that's been heaped upon me.