Monday, August 31, 2009

Anything With Four Legs Except a Table

There's a saying here that says the Chinese eat anything with four legs except a table, and anything that flies that isn't an airplane, but I'm sure that still leaves a lot of things out. Eating people is generally agreed as a bad idea, but just about any other carbon-based matter is quite literally still on the table.

Thousands of years of never having an adequate food supply for the entire country has led to this "Waste not, want not" approach to their diet over the years, and in recent times when food production has finally reached a surplus, the Chinese have developed such a taste for goat penis, duck tongue, and silk worms, that there is no good reason to halt the consumption of such delicacies.

No better place is this illustrated better than in my old hometown in the Southern countryside. It took me a good couple months to realize it, but although we were surrounded by vast sprawls of beautiful nature, accompanying wildlife was nowhere to be found. Whatever the Asian equivalent would be to squirrels and deer running wild in people's back yards was nonexistent there.

When I asked a friend who had lived there for almost ten years why this was, I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry by the response: "They ate it all." During the Great Leap Forward in the 1960s when more than 30 million people died due to starvation, anything that moved was a source of sustenance, and who could blame them? But the fact that an event more than 40 years ago has still had such a dramatic effect on the fauna of an ecosystem today is just mind-blowing.

All that to say that from my first trip to Hong Kong I've been an adventurous eater, never turning a single dish down that I had not tried before (with the sole exception of blood). The environmentalist in me certainly applauds the Chinese style to eat all parts of animals, and I think Westerners could learn a bit from their example.

So when I heard of a magical street in Beijing that where you could try every insane food known to mankind, I was ecstatic. I rounded up two brave souls to join me, Darren and Henry, and the three of us embarked on our gastronomic journey.

Me in front of the market

We figured we would go tackle the street from the grossest to most delicious. This way we would have our hunger helping us out on the really hard-to-swallow morsels. The only thing worse than eating something extremely foul is eating something extremely foul on a full stomach. So in this way, insects were elected to be the first on the list.

We had heard that the crowning jewel of the food street was scorpions. I knew, like every other insect that they were eaten somewhere in this country, but I had never actually seen them on a menu. To my surprise and delight, not only were they abundant, but they were still alive and skewered on sticks when we arrived!

We even got a glimpse of a man skewering fresh ones onto a stick!

Before we tried anything, we continued walking down the rest of the street to get a good look at everything on offer.

Live, impaled scorpions waiting to take the hot oil dive

Silkworms and centipedes

Locusts perhaps? Or maybe grasshoppers

I have no idea what this poor sucker was. Lizard perhaps?

I will be honest. On our walk towards the street, knowing full-well what to expect, I was filled with inalienable confidence. But something about seeing the scorpions wrangle around on the skewers, actually freaked me out a bit. It had been a couple years since I'd eaten anything truly this wild, and I was feeling a little rusty.

Once the first batch of scorpions came out of the oil though, my confidence returned. It was much easier to look that stinger right in the eye now that it had stopped moving.

**Bonus: Be sure to check out the lady's reaction to us eating the scorpions at 1:01 in the video.

Eating Scorpions from Simon Lesser on Vimeo.

Next up were the seahorses. It certainly helped that everything on the street made its way into the deep fryer, but no amount of oil could save these guys from tasting like eating a crispy, fishy, seashell.

Hello, my pretty.

...and goodbye

Seahorses from Simon Lesser on Vimeo.

Then came what would go down as the 2nd most disgusting item of the night: Starfish. A video says a thousand words...

From insects and bone-flavored seafood, we made our way to some good old-fashioned Halal food. At the next stand we were greeted by some extremely friendly Uighurs barbequing every part of the lamb (sans wool). One man in particular caught our interest by yelling in the same style as a popcorn and peanut vendor at a baseball game might, "Laaaaamb baaaalllllls! Laaaaaaaamb Peeeeeeniiiiis!" How could we refuse? While it's still not the exclusive Beijing penis restaurant, it's a start. So we ordered up a set. (Yes, that kind of set.)

Lamb parts. Can you guess which one is the penis?

In case you're wondering what sheep testicles looked like

A set

So juvenile, but I couldn't help myself

Lamb Business from Simon Lesser on Vimeo.

In Hong Kong, I had once eaten something that my local friends refused to tell me what it was until the next day. Turns out that it was sea urchin, but it was cooked, well-seasoned, and in a shape that you could not tell what animal the meat came from. But at the night market, we happened up upon a plate of raw, whole sea urchins. This way felt much more authentic.

Raw sea urchins

As it turns out, the best way to eat sea urchin is raw, not unlike sushi. So our "chef" picked up one of the lucky little guys and cut him perfectly in half. He shook it up a little before the cut, so all of the stuff in the inside settled to one half, and he threw the other out. The remaining half looked like it was filled with a big ball of mud. He scooped out all of the dirt and god-only-knows what else into the garbage. When he was satisfied with how much gunk he removed, he sprayed in some soy sauce and added a drop of wasabi.

First, he cut them in half

Then he scooped out most of the dirt

What he handed me looked absolutely foul. There seemed no good reason to put what was in my hands into my mouth. So we scraped out what we could best tell was meat and ate it good and raw.

Looks divine, no?

Trembling with fear

The meat turned out to be actually quite delicious. The best thing I can compare it to is very choice sashimi, mixed with copious amounts of sea mud. I figured that if it was somehow possible to rinse off the meat, or prepare it slightly more refined, it would actually be quite nice. As it was, it was still pretty good. We were just glad it was nowhere near as scary-tasting as it was scary-looking.

Before ordering up some of the most foul items of the night, we picked up a baby shark to cleanse our palette's. While still exotic, I knew from experience that shark meat tasted pretty good, so I figured it would be a nice break from creepy-crawlies that were next.

Baby sharks

Baby shark head

The last event of the night was a triple-header of beetles, a centipede, and silkworms. This proved to be our most fierce battle with our gag reflexes of the night. 

First up was the centipede. Apart from being long, there was really very little meat on the guy, so I figured it couldn't be that bad. I dove in straight for the head. A bitter, foul, insecty flavor immediately filled my mouth. The sensation was not unlike chewing through a bitter pill, or at least a bitter pill made from centipedes. In any way, the signal sent from my tongue to my brain was the same: "This is not food. This is vile. This should not enter the body."

Thankfully, due to the small size of the bite, swallowing the morsel was also not unlike swallowing a pill, and went down without too much of a fight. When my fellow companions tried their turn at the centipede, however, I felt as if I may have gotten the wrong end of the deal. They didn't mind it at all. Either I was overreacting, or the head was the most miserable part. I still guess it's the latter.

Rocking the centipede

No me gusta

The beetles were a slightly uneventful intermission before the silkworms. They fared crunchy, with the now-familiar insect flavor, but not too strong, and not too meaty for that matter. While no one requested seconds, swallowing was not too difficult of a challenge.

Our white whale was now upon us, and we were staring the silkworms right in the eyes. (Do silkworms have eyes?)

Henry was the first victim to bite the bullet and go for it. He'd held his own all night and took everything down like a champ, but the sheer wretchedness of the silkworms proved too much for him to keep his composure.

Henry gagging after a bite of the silkworms

Darren stepped up to the plate next, and suffered the same fate.

Darren trying to keep the silkworms down

By this point, I had become more than a little nervous. I had just watched two fellow soldiers wretching and dry-heaving after one mere bite. But I knew there was only one way out of this, so I popped it in.

I don't want to do it

Immediately after taking a bite, I felt my compadres' pain. It was truly awful. It took all of the worst parts of the centipede flavor, amplified it, and added a texture that was just...wrong. 

Swallowing was not an option it seemed, but it had to be done. Before I even attempted to squeeze it down my throat, however, the dry-heaving began. I almost spit it up. After a while I was able to claim victory, but it was a battle well-fought.

Without a doubt, the chewiness of the critters certainly made for the worst part. Becuase the other objects we had been eating had been relatively thin, the deep-frying process had rendered most of them nicely oily and crispy. However, while the deep-fryer had tanned the outer shell of the silkworms a nice golden-brown, the insides were left still-goey and mushy.

This made for a long, grudging chewing cycle. The starfish was bad, make no mistake, but it was crushed into a swallowable powder after a few bouts of mastication. The silkworm on the other hand was not going away any time soon, and I could feel him laughing at me for it.

Oh yeah, it's that bad

...and here it comes back up

Once we had our lasts of the silkworms, we went running towards some fried noodles to liberate our mouths of the still-lingering, offending flavor. We returned home triumphant and full, but not without battle wounds.

The epilogue to this whole tale is that this event actually took place all the way back in April. I've just now gotten around to posting about it. Since then, I've returned twice to the scene of the crime with visiting friends from the States, who naturally, must try these items. So once again, I put on my game face, and went at them full-force.

Adding to the menu in subsequent trips include: Stinky tofu (so much worse than it sounds), snake, snake skin, crickets, some sort of bird that neither Steve or I were able to identify, sheep kidneys, and a few other choice selections not coming to mind at the moment.

In full disclosure, I will add that the same excitement apparent in this first trek was not as abundant in subsequent treks. When I stuck my toothpick into the stinky tofu again last week with Steve, nothing about it felt adventurous or exciting. I only felt dread and disgust.

My apologies, Steve, for my lack of passion in our last journey together. My stomach finally said, "No more." And while my mouth still agreed to open, my heart just wasn't in it.

Is the adventure gone for good, or are my gag reflexes just begging for a short break? Let's hope the latter. Heck, I'll even put money on it.


Chris said...

Who would have thought that silkworms tasted so bad? They look like little churros.

Magnus said...

you will be looking at this post for years to come. NICE SHOTS. Thanks for doing this so we don't have to. Now try MOONCAKES!