Disclaimer: In case the title didn’t tip you off, you may find some of the following to be slightly unpleasant. Or a lot unpleasant.
Ok. Let’s do this.
I love Chinese food. Odds are, so do you. According to Time Magazine, there’s more Chinese places in America than “all the McDonald’s, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Taco Bells and Wendy’s combined.” It has an almost universal appeal; combine small bits of meat, veggies, and rice/noodles with delicious spices and liberal amounts of sodium (and possibly some MSG). Anyone can learn to cook simple Chinese food and yet there’s enough variety to be consistently blown away by chefs who really know what they’re doing.
I could (and probably will) fill several posts with love letters to the culinary wonders of the Middle Kingdom. This is not that.
Today we’re here to discuss the first thing everyone asks me about China – namely, what horrifying things I’ve chosen to put in my mouth.
Now, before we get started, I suppose it’s worth pointing out that what constitutes “horrifying” or “gross” is incredibly subjective. For example, lots of people around the world think that cheese – rotten milk, basically – is disgusting.
[we call those people “terrorists”]
But for the sake of getting to the fun stuff, let’s just agree that there is a certain shared sense of what is “icky” in the West. It’s not particularly rational or well-understood, but we are imperfect beings with lots of biases and so on and so forth.
Have I caveated this enough? Excellent.
1.) The bits we don’t normally eat (but totally should)
My hands-down favorite thing to eat in Beijing is chuanr (串), which – as you may be able to guess from the character – is just meat on a stick. Pretty much anything you can turn into bite-sized bits gets skewered and grilled with a variety of amazing spices in about a billion restaurants all over the country. Besides the *normal* pieces of meat, you can get hearts, gizzards, livers, kidneys, and just about any other organ you can think of – yes, even *those* organs, now quit snickering.
Honestly though, it’s all amazing. I’m barely exaggerating when I say the sight of a freshly-grilled skewer of chicken hearts fills me with the kind of joy normally reserved for having kids or true love or whatever.
That being said, there are a few bits and pieces I haven’t gotten fully on board with. Brains fall pretty heavily into this camp, so I guess I can forget about getting invited to any of Hannibal’s dinner parties.
Then again, my only experience with brains has been at hotpot places. Boiling rarely increases the appeal of a gross food (see: liver, spinach, every British food stereotype, etc.), so maybe I’ll change my mind the day someone hands me grilled brains on a stick.
Additionally, you can nibble on the feet, claws, hooves, necks, and tongues of most standard made-fer-eatin’ animals at your pleasure. Duck tongue is pretty good – think duck jerky – but in general I find that kind of stuff is a lot of effort for minimal reward.
2.) Animals we don’t think should be eaten
I’m sticking this in the middle and keeping it short and opinion-less. No wrath of the internet for me, no sir.
I’ve never tried shark-fin soup. Never been much of a soup guy.
I also have not – to my knowledge – eaten any dogs. My general understanding is that this is more popular in southern China and/or Korea.
I’ve noticed dog meat stuff on a menu or two outside of the big cities, but it definitely doesn’t pop up often in Beijing – not that I’m ever looking for it. I’ve also never actually heard someone express any desire for a Snoopy Sandwich. I do recall the big dog meat festival in Yulin getting some attention back in June and making Matt Damon very sad and that’s about all I have to say about that.
To be honest, I don’t really feel qualified discussing animal rights in any kind of normative way. If you’ve spent time in another developing country, I’d love to hear your stories to gain a little perspective, but until then I’ll leave discussions of this nature to higher-brow platforms. Moving on!
3.) Animals we hate so much we refuse to eat them
There is a fairly significant exception to my “all meat on sticks is amazing” rule, and that’s when the Chinese decide to skewer my nightmares and – if you’re lucky – cook them.
Spiders on sticks. Giant centipedes on sticks. Grubs on sticks. As far as I’m aware, not a single variety of creepy-crawly on this earth has managed to avoid getting unceremoniously impaled and shoved in the faces of horrified tourists.
You may be picking up on the fact that I draw the line in the sand on bugs. I know it’s completely irrational. I know we’ll probably all be eating them soon anyway. I’ll even admit that they don’t taste that bad – like salty crunchy nothing, basically. But I just don’t care. I saw Temple of Doom on a field trip when I was seven and never recovered, so shut the hell up and pass the gizzards.
[pictured: a sound basis for lifelong opinions]
The critters that do manage to avoid the stake often suffer an even more unpleasant fate; being drowned in shitty wine. This I can much more heartily endorse – it isn’t what I’d call a sipper, but it’s basically the next step up from mezcal with a worm. This treatment is normally reserved for snakes, although it’s not uncommon to see a giant scorpion in there with it. You know, just in case you were on the fence about whether to put this liquid in your face.
And hey, speaking of scorpions…
This is in Wangfujing, a famous old shopping street with the glitziest and shiniest malls you’ve ever seen on one side and incredibly over-the-top *Chinatown-in-China* markets on the other. It’s great, and one of the first places I advise anyone visiting Beijing to go see.
But here’s the thing. That video is of just one of the stalls. There’s at least five more just like it, each with their own display of hundreds of somewhat-alive-but-definitely-wriggling scorpions. And see all those cooked ones next to the display? That’s because easily tens of thousands of people walk by every day and actually buy the damn things.
Now, I’m not a scorpionologist, but it seems to me that there’s got to be a limited amount of time that one of those guys can keep wriggling before the (relatively) enormous stake through his body takes him out. The fact that only half the display seems to be moving at any given time would appear to support this. I also know that this market is open 12+ hours a day – every day – and I have never not seen the scorpions doing their little *kill me now* dance.
If my logic follows: somewhere in the immediate vicinity of these stalls surrounded by thousands of people is a motherf@#king box full of enough live scorpions to maintain this display all day, every day.
And they’re pissed.