Beijing’s air is notoriously foul, with pollution indices spiking again earlier this week and causing mass flight delays as smog destroyed visibility. The main causes of the pollution were thought to be clear: factory emissions from nearby provinces; the record number of cars on clogged roads; and coal consumption that includes heating the Chinese capital. Now, add another ingredient to the toxic pollution recipe: cooking.
In a press conference, a Beijing official blamed excessive use of cooking fuel for the capital’s pollution, which is high in the lung-choking tiny particulates that measure 2.5 micrometers or less. “The traditional Chinese style of cooking contributes quite a portion of the PM 2.5 index,” said Zhao Huimin, head of the foreign affairs office of Beijing’s municipal government, while speaking about preparations for the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum that will take place next year in the Chinese capital. “I hope Beijing residents can cooperate to keep the air clean.”
It’s true that Beijing’s traditional alleyways are often lined with stacks of circular coal briquettes used for cooking. (In winter in the poorest neighborhoods, the coal is piled up next to heaps of cabbage.) But Chinese cuisine uses less fuel than that of many other countries. That’s because ingredients for Chinese meals tend to be cut into small pieces that require just a quick stir-fry in the wok. China has long been a populous nation with poor access to firewood — and that historic lack of fuel has literally shaped the national cuisine.
Predictably, feisty users of Chinese social media mocked Zhao’s exhortation to — what, cook less? Or consume more salad? Eating raw foods can be a dangerous proposition in China, given constant safety scandals that include excessive pesticide use. (Cooking can blunt the toxins’ effects.) By 3 p.m. on Oct. 10, Zhao’s comments had been re-posted more than 31,000 times on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblog service. Referring to the Chinese capital’s efforts to lower air pollution by banning cars from driving one weekday, as well as regulations during the 2008 Beijing Olympics that limited drivers from roads on alternate days, Yi Xinran, a Weibo user, wrote: “Let’s do even and odd days for cooking: cook on even-numbered days while starving on the odd days. I would be proud to do this for the coming APEC.”
—With reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing