Earlier this month the Chinese Internet erupted in fury when reports emerged that the soldiers who rescued 571 Chinese nationals in Yemen were made to eat a diet of nothing but pickles while evacuees feasted on an eight-course meal (with beer!). But angry Chinese Netizens can rest easy knowing that China, like many of the world’s militaries, has its own spin on the “Meal, Ready to Eat.” Pioneered by the U.S. in the 1980s, MREs aim to provide troops with the calories they need to function alongside the flavors of home. What does government-mandated Chinese food actually taste like? Thanks to online shopping behemoth Taobao, that was all too easy to find out. With a few clicks of the mouse I had a week’s worth of Chinese military rations en route to me. This is what happened once they arrived:
15:46 hours 自加热咖喱鸡丁炒饭 self-heating curry chicken fried rice
My first MRE meal. The precooked rice is reheated via a chemical reaction between water and exothermic heating packs. I wait for the sachets to bubble long enough to warm a foil package of rice that feels harder than a vacuum-packed Bible. Fittingly, the whole thing is vaguely sulphurous. The “cooking” takes 15 minutes; even then, some of the rice is undercooked. In some situations, hard rice is delicious—the scorched crust from the bottom of claypot rice, for example. But this is like the chewing you have to do to make a paste for the daub when you wattle and daub your hut. And how to describe the odor of the rice? It smells like the type of curry powder that Wile E. Coyote would order as part of an elaborate scheme to create Curried Road Runner. It’s overwhelming.
Photo: The Cleaver Quarterly
22:37 压缩饼干高能 compressed biscuits (high-calorie flavor)
I decide to chance a pack of the compressed biscuits. It turns out they are essentially compressed dust—the type that if you were regularly exposed to it, your employer would have to provide you with a government-mandated mask or risk being sued for workplace-related injuries. Eating this is like being punched in the mouth by a mummy. I have seven flavors to get through. This one tastes of sugar and little else. Still, the injection of sugar is enough to power me through the last couple of hours at work.
02:26 巧克力 chocolate bars
Chocolate was one of the cheapest things on the MRE menu so I’d ordered plenty of it. The inch-long bars are shaped like bullion, wrapped in gold foil and aspirational in the gaudy style of Ferrero Rocher. Unwrapped, though, they have the look of old chocolate, with a white discoloration that’s as sad as returning to a flood-damaged home once the waters have retreated. The flavor reminds me of a time when all I knew was cheap Easter eggs and non-brand chocolate bars.
11:36 红烧猪肉罐头 tinned red-braised pork
Tins always make for a good breakfast. That seems like something that people who holiday a lot on barges might say. I decide to get behind that thinking and crack on with the first of my tinned treats. I don’t often use a can opener nowadays, and the physical act of cranking the handles reminds me suddenly of camping… and miserable camping meals. Amazing thing, muscle memory. The tin is open. The meat looks like dog food and has a smell to match. I can only hope that boiling the fatty congealed pork will give me a wet nose and shiny coat. It turns out to be really salty—worryingly so. Enough that an estuarine crocodile might find it a little much. If a chef could get hold of this pork, wash the salt away, and then make the skin crackle, it could be okay. The thought of this crackling may keep me awake later.
15:21 能量棒 energy bar
I feel so tired. And very hungry. And a little bit nauseous and shivery in equal measure since eating the pork. This bar smells very sweet and looks even shinier. It tastes worse. Imagine walking into the sweatiest room ever and gagging. I manage another bite. Worst thing I have ever eaten. I eat a chocolate to get rid of the taste. One more. And another.
I would punch a grandmother for a purple Skittle
16:48 猪肉丸子罐头 tinned meatballs 凉拌菜罐头 mixed vegetables
Two tins. A feast. Why not? Flesh colored meat product and a portion of my five-a-day. The meat slides out of the can and remains in the shape of a can. The meatballs themselves are sloppily formed to start and further disintegrate when cooked. With the veg, the tartness of the brine is eye watering. The shredded cabbage, daikon and carrot are sodden with vinegar. At least they have a satisfying crispness. I decide to declare it al dente. Someone could make a fortune by tinning hot sauce for the time when we are all living in underground shelters. If this is the food we’ll all be eating then, I am in no hurry for the end times to come. Real army rations also contain things like Skittles or Milo. I’m not sure how far I’d go for such treats but I would not want anyone to test me. Where do my ethical boundaries lie? Could I kill a man? Could I kill a horse? Could I kill a man and a horse? Why would somebody be ordering me to kill a man and a horse? Does that even matter if they had Skittles? I would probably punch a grandmother for a purple Skittle. Who knows what unspeakable acts I might commit for all of the red Skittles in a packet? I’m writing down all of these reflections in the bathroom. Turns out you wouldn’t want to eat these dishes too far from the latrines.