Ed Charles takes a tour of Beijing's culinary underbelly and uncovers the seven strangest foods you'll find in the city.
You can encounter some pretty weird food in Beijing. But mostly it is designed for tourists more than the locals. “For westerners going to China for the Olympics, if they want to they can go and eat silk worm cocoons and go and eat penises and snakes,” says author and Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop. “But if they don’t want to, then they aren’t going to be offered that at all.”
Dunlop says that while the Chinese are adventurous eaters it is mainly the southern Chinese, the Cantonese, that eat all the weird stuff. “In Beijing there is the night market right in the centre of town,” she says. “It is very much aimed at the tourist with all the extraordinary and outlandish things. Northern Chinese people don’t eat those things very much at all. And the northern Chinese make fun of the southerners for having wild and crazy appetites and eating snakes and things.”
Dunlop says that in the years of desperate poverty and famine in the early 1960s people turned to insects. “Insects would add a little zest to an utterly boring and inadequate diet,” she says. Nowadays people don’t really eat these things. “They want to eat pork,” Dunlop says. “The insects get gathered and sent to fancy restaurants where they are an expensive delicacy.”
Photographer Greg Elms, author of Snake Fang Salad, says he ate deep-fried scorpions in Beijing. “The are much like any squishy crunchy bug really without flavour at all,” he says. “There was also deep friend silk worm chrysalis which had slightly more body than the scorpion. I suppose you could call them slightly nutty. I suppose the (mouth) feel of them was rather off-putting. They were sort of crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside.”
Watch out for bee pupae, silk worms, timber grubs, bamboo and sand crawling caterpillars, beetles and scorpions.
2. Chicken Feet
Chicken feet are hopelessly fiddly for most Westerners. “But if you are Chinese it is actually rather a pleasure to slurp around and get out the bones,” says Dunlop. Some are steamed until they are very tender and come with a sauce. Others are dry and gristly and really need to be chewed. “Gristly is used in English to disdain something. But for the Chinese gristly things are rather good,” says Dunlop.
3. Rubbery food
The Chinese love different food textures and mouth feel. According to Dunlop these textures, for example goose intestines, often mean nothing for Westerners.
”The first time I came across them I thought they were like rubber bands,” says Dunlop. “They have no taste at all they are just rubbery. For a Westerner with no experience of them, they are completely pointless. But for a Chinese you actually enjoy the cui of these things.”
In Beijing watch out for Lu Zhu Huo Shao, bits of flatbread with innards in a broth. “It’s quite scary if you don’t like that kind of thing,” Dunlop says.
4. Strange sea creatures
At the central market in Beijing you’ll most likely find sea horses on bamboo skewers. But they may be more surprises. Todd Blake, CEO of Restaurant and Catering Victoria, recounts a visit to the Forbidden City where he ate Dolphin soup. “We had dolphin, camel’s foot and snake all in one meal,” he says.
Elms ate jellyfish in China. “I somehow couldn’t manage to swallow that,” he says. “It just had the most repulsive mouth feel."
Snakes are common, especially in the south east where Dunlop says she ate snake soup, snake gall bladder in a glass of rice wine and snake blood in rice wine.
Elms also found himself eating snake. “I ate snake skin salad,” he says, “ which was a bit like chewing on my wife’s handbag.”
Dunlop says that the Chinese have a culture of great excitement and they get a thrill from eating in lots of different ways. “There are many different types of specialist restaurant serving one kind of dish or one style of eating such as a hotpot, for example,” she says. “Having a penis restaurant is in that genre. It’s not very common and as far as I know there is only one.”
That would be Guolizhuang, next to the West Lake, where rare penises can cost over $600. You can eat almost any kind of penis here from dog to horse to the exotic "Dragon in the Flame of Desire".
Dunlop says she has only ever eaten penis by accident. “It was ox whip soup. I thought it was ox tail. It turns out it was ox penis.”
Dog meat is a seasonal dish in China and probably won’t be available during the summer. “Westerners are obsessed with Chinese eating dogs and it is a stereotype,” says Dunlop. “But most people in China don’t eat dog at all... And when they do it is a winter delicacy.”