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The People’s Liberation Diet

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:

DAY ONE
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.

DAY TWO
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.

21:16 压缩饼干巧克力味 compressed biscuits (chocolate flavour)
These compressed biscuits are terrible, but bland and inoffensive. This is as good as it gets.

04:32 巧克力 chocolate bars
A diet of sugar seems better than nothing.

DAY THREE
13:20 巧克力 chocolate bars
I am past judging myself. At this point, I would give all my savings for some real food. You could quickly break a man if you controlled his diet.

17:00 五香牦牛 five-spice yak meat
This tin opens to reveal a meat jerky in a dry rub. It’s the best thing I have eaten all week—rewardingly chewy and authentically meaty. I’m licking my fingers. Everyone should eat yak. I would keep a stash of this in my house, just in case no one was kind enough to warn me of the imminent snowstorm/dirty bomb/zombie attack. This has made the trials of the last few days worth it.

17:06 美味香干罐头 pressed tofu strips
The tofu looks like cardboard but tastes like printer paper. Rather chewy for no payoff. The more I chew, the more I think it might be made of papyrus and I could actually be destroying something important to civilization. Hot sauce. Really. It would be the key to surviving a nuclear winter. Even ketchup. Something to mask the taste and provide an actual flavor.

21:08 压缩饼干葱油味 compressed biscuits (scallion flavor)
What is this flavor meant to be? Spicy chicken? MSG? Bizarre but not unpleasant. Also incredibly salty. The taste-testers at the factory where they manufacture these meals must have the taste buds of an elderly smoker. Bah.

22:48 压缩饼干香橙味 compressed biscuits (orange flavor)
More lemon than orange. I’ve never wanted lemon-anything this much. Somehow they are still salty.

DAY FOUR
16:07 山楂片 haw flakes 辣味雪菜罐头 tinned spicy greens 红烧排骨罐头 tinned red-braised spareribs
The end is in sight. Time for a blowout: eat all the tins, son. The haw flakes, made out of the fruit of the Chinese hawthorn tree, are the size of a handyman’s palm. Each one looks like the disc off a sander. How could you possibly turn fruit into this? Inedible. Horrid. If you were a really evil witch, you would make a gingerbread house and everything inside it would be delicious with the exception of these haw coasters. When the kids got to them, you’d struggle to keep a straight face and then lose it completely when they bit into them. And then you would eat the children. True evil is banal, they say. True evil is haw flakes. Today’s veg makes the other day’s seem much less vinegary. Gosh. Sensory overload with every bite. I could get used to it. Bones in a tin is a first for me. Interestingly, the sight of them makes the whole experience seem slightly less processed. Meat-flavored meat is quite the thing. Maybe this is what food will be like when it can all be replicated in labs. Hats off to them if they can make the meat slide off the bone like this. I did not think I would be using the word succulent to describe anything out of a tin.

Photo: The Cleaver Quarterly

19:00 压缩饼干芝麻味 compressed biscuits (sesame flavor)
These biscuits taste of coffee. There’s probably a market for coffee-flavored dust.

00:16 压缩饼干花生味 compressed biscuits (peanut flavor) 压缩饼干水蜜桃味 compressed biscuits (peach flavor)
Ever so nutty. It’s quite cloying. The contrast between the biscuit sawdust and the newly discovered bits is like ancient chalk and hard cheese. Horrible. The peach-flavored biscuits, on the other hand, are all right. It tastes like a crumble after a roast dinner. There’s a hint of something that could be coconut. I want to make a cobbler and use this as the topping. Two thumbs up!

DAY FIVE
16:15 单兵即食食品 meal set
This meal set is truly a space-age experience. Everything has been rendered inactive until it reacts violently with water. Thanks for that, science.

速溶固体饮料 instant beverage
I expect this to taste like an isotonic drink. In fact, I’m looking forward to pretending I am in a mid-‘90s EuroSport commercial where someone passes me powder and I suddenly become a much better middle-distance runner. How does it actually taste? Of citrus, but maltier. Perhaps like Gatorade… if you had only ever lived on a farm and tried to replicate the recipe based on watching it be poured over someone’s head at an American football game. Ingredients: one bee, two nettles, some hay, sunlight, and soil. Directions: Must be stirred in a stable. Mmmm. Delicious.

Photo: The Cleaver Quarterly

猪肉蛋卷罐头 egg-wrapped meatloaf
Egg rolls don’t exist in British-Chinese cuisine but this is what I always imagined them to be: something rolled in scrambled egg. This is fine. I could eat more of this. The cheap spicy taste does make me think it’s hiding something.

自加热雪菜肉丁炒面 self-heating bagged fried rice with salted greens and diced pork
I find myself rather enjoying the process of reheating the rice. Is that because I know the end is near? Or because I abandon the instructions and sluice the heating packs under the tap? The packs bubble forcefully. That the fried rice comes with a pack of chili sauce makes it more exciting still. Hot sauce has become a worrying obsession for me. I can’t wait to retire to a cottage and make my own from chilies grown in poly tunnels in my back garden. What has happened to me? The sauce makes the dish. As before, the rice involves a little more chewing than I’d like. It’s the reanimated corpse of fried rice—slow and dim-witted.

This is exhilarating

糖水菠萝 pineapple in syrup
Real fruit in syrup. This is exhilarating. It’s quite insipid and very syrupy but I’m still giddy. Normally, I don’t like pineapple a lot. I would cross the road to avoid pineapple. I have definitely spent entire minutes of my life wondering what a world without it would be like. Never again.

耐贮蛋糕 shelf-stable cake
This cake is fucking delicious. It’s sweeter than a Korean girl band, mind you. The outside tastes vacuum-packed but once you break that, it’s soft, springy, and almost fluffy. A delight. It’s like a package holiday to a Spanish tourist town. Cheap and full of almost-instant regret. I want more. I break open another meal pack and have another. Still delicious. Maybe more so. Cakes will make the underground future bearable. A ray of light while you await an actual ray of light.

CONCLUSIONS
I’ve thought of nothing but food all week. Never more so than when I was near other people and they were eating whatever they wanted. I must have looked like a Labrador dreaming of food. That means I have spent five days permanently drooling. What else? I’ve been tired. So tired between meals. I’ve also felt pretty stupid. I should not be trusted to operate heavy machinery. It also just took me three tries to correctly spell “stupid.” I’m done. Five days is long enough on this. If this is what you have to eat in the army, I’d take being court-martialed.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Cleaver Quarterly, a magazine about Chinese food around the world.

Jonathan White
Jonathan White is a writer focusing on food, sports, and pop culture, and he is one of the founders of The Cleaver Quarterly. He currently lives in Beijing, China, and can be reached at jmawhite@gmail.com.
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