Notes from the Chinese Underworld

I appear to have been guilty of smuggling, or at least receiving contraband goods. Probably the Triads or somebody like that was involved as well. Too cool.

While bouncing around the net I discovered that the American Department of Agriculture had banned the import of Sichuan peppercorns back in the 60s, apparently because they can carry a disease that affect citrus. Apparently this ban was not really enforced for a long time, but then it began to be enforced a few years ago, presumably in the general tightening up after 9/11. Then, even more recently, the ban was rescinded on the stipulation that all Sichuan peppercorns be heated before being shipped here. I have never had any trouble buying Sichuan peppercorns and it fact never knew it was illegal. 1 I have been keeping contraband in my kitchen, and never even knew it.

This causes me to think a bit about Chinese markets in the U.S. and what odd places they are. Of course they are not really “Chinese” markets, they are Asian markets that sell all sorts of East Asian foods. In the smaller places you can usually tell in about 30 seconds if the owner is Chinese, Korean, or maybe Japanese. They will sometimes have a small sad little shelf of middle eastern ingredients, but not much. Around food at least there is a common East Asian identity in the U.S.

This makes some Americans nervous. When I was living in Georgia the government started pushing the store owners in Chamblee to put English names on their stores, in theory to help emergency workers find places but I suspect in part because it made people nervous to be driving down a street in the U.S. of A. and not being able to read the signs.

And, oddly enough, they were right. Asian town is its own little world. I went on a field trip to the Chicago Chinatown when I was young, but I remember not being that impressed. We ate at a Chinese restaurant that could have been anywhere, heard a short talk on Chinese culture from a women in a qipao and then got to buy some rice candy. I did not think at the time that it was that much different from any other ethinc neighborhood. Actually, it is, and you can see it in the food stores. Part of it is the prices. You can get a fair number of Asian ingredients in your better American supermarkets, but the prices and packaging make it clear that there are completely different distribution channels involved. $6.00 for a little thing of sesame oil at Safeway? In any case, how long would two ounces of it last? Asian places also seem to have a rather distant relationship with American food labeling laws. I find more and more things that have a sticker slapped on that supposedly gives all the information American law says you should have, although I have come across a few manufacturers that slap the same label on everything. A lot of it is not labeled at all. I have no problem with this, but I do find it odd that governments that are so anal about things like food regulations are willing to ignore them if what you are selling is miso paste.

Part of it is probably that the customers are willing to ignore regulation too. I suspect that an American supermarket would not want to get nailed for breaking food labeling laws in part because it would worry the customers. What other rules are they breaking? In the case of even the big modern Asian groceries your customer base is more likely to be local, and thus rumors that your chain has been cutting corners in the Cleveland store are less of a worry.

Of course some of the customers are non-Asians. There are usually a lot of foodies, who will occasionally ask me questions like I’m some sort of cultural intermediary. ”Psst. Is this Lemon Grass?”..“No, those are long beans. Lemon grass is over next to the winter melons” I assume this works at customs to. “Are those illegal sichuan peppercorns?” “No officer, those are winter melons.

* Note to anyone from the Department of Agriculture who may be reading this: All the Sichuan peppercorns in my pantry have been cooked to 160 degrees.

1 Now that I think of it the quality has been a bit down of late. A bag of Sichuan peppercorns should smell even at arms length, and in the last few years I have not been finding those kinds, perhaps because I am shopping in the wrong places but perhaps because I am buying pre-ban peppercorns that have been sitting around for a while.


  1. I had heard a rumor a while back that such peppercorns were banned not because they can carry disease, but because their strong smell can fool drug-sniffing dogs and that smugglers were importing drugs hidden within shipments of peppercorns.

  2. That may well be true. Supposedly coffee is used for the same purpose. Of course banning everything that is strong-smelling enough to bother drug dogs would be the polar opposite of the direction I was going with the post i.e. the government ignoring what all those people who are eating silly food are up to. Of course drugs are something that would make the U.S. sit up at take notice.

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