As is apparent from my two other posts on food in China (Food in China and the Challenges of Limited Palates and How the Sichuan Peppercorn Led Me to Learn to Cook Chinese Regional Cuisines), I love trying and learning to cook new food (I’ve been able to take five cooking classes, including, most recently, Hunan and Yunnan Vegetarian) and have loved that aspect of my life in Beijing. I’m happy to report that my family (at least the kids!) have become slightly more adventurous eaters over the last six months. While Manu still has no desire to travel around the city with me seeking out unusual ingredients and tastes (three of our four dinners out sans kids over the past six months have been at restaurants featuring contemporary, creative European cuisine), I’ve been fortunate to have made a wonderful friend, Xu Er, who has been happy to accompany me to explore some of Beijing’s stranger offerings.
Our first night out was inspired by my friend, Lindsay, who sent me an article about eating rabbit heads in China that appeared in the NY Times in April, asking me if I’d tried them yet. I have to admit that at first the idea didn’t actually appeal to me, but after I read about how tasty they were and that the rabbits are part of spicy Sichuan cuisine, one of my favorite regional styles, I asked Xu Er if she’d like to come with me and, having never tried them herself, she agreed. The heads are not very large and you have to break them apart, sucking and using your chopsticks to get all of the meat out (eyes and brain included!), but the flavor is quite rich and spectacular. Although we tried both the five spice (a blend of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel seeds, and Sichuan peppercorns) and the spicy, both of us thought the spicy route was the way to go.
Our next foray into the unusual was to try “stinky tofu” (臭豆腐 Chou Dou Fu). I’d occasionally smelled it on the street when the scent something like a very moldy, drippy, smelly (delicious!) cheese wafted my way (I chose to dwell on the former image rather than on other possible associations, such as old shoes), but hadn’t had a chance to actually try it. We went to a renowned stand in the Houhai (lake) area, which, fortunately, was right across from a place that boasted serving traditional Beijing snacks. After we picked up our tofu, Xu Er chose a number of other dishes and snacks she thought we should try, including fried durian (炸 榴莲 Zha Liulian), a yogurt-like cheese with red bean (奶酪 魏 Nanlai Wei), and filled sausage (炸 灌肠 Zha Guan Chang). The stinky tofu was tasty, but the smell is more potent than the taste, I thought (after having eaten some serious cheese, I found stinky tofu to be less intense). One dish that Xu Er loved (she insisted that we each get our own bowl, as she knew she’d want to eat a whole bowl herself), featured intestine, kidney, and stomach in a soup with a wheat cake (卤煮火烧 Lu zhu huo shao). While I’m not usually a huge fan of most organs (liver aside), I’d recently read a book, The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones, that elucidates the profound thought and intentions behind Chinese cooking (against the backdrop of an engaging, fictional story). I remembered that one of the important principles is texture. When I ate the soup and its organs with that idea in mind, as none of them were particularly flavorful, the experience was better than I’d have thought and for the most part I appreciated the organs as a conduit for bringing out the flavor of the rich, dark, meaty broth.
Although Xu Er and I went out for a couple of other Chinese meals with more conventional ingredients, our last adventure in the unusual was the most dramatic, as we went to the touristy Donghuamen Night Market, where many non-Beijing foods and snacks are available, which is especially appealing to tourists looking to challenge themselves (many of the specialty items are traditionally eaten in the south, but they’re always available at this market). We had a great time walking past the entire line of lantern-lit stalls before making our purchases. Two of the most unusual things we tried were pigeon on a stick (tasty, but a little dry, not like the velvety pigeon Manu and I ate at Temple Restaurant, Beijing) and deep fried scorpion, which was more crunchy than anything else. A few of the things we saw, but didn’t try, were: large black spiders; large black scorpions; starfish on a stick; snake on a stick; large centipedes; and sheep testicles, also available on a stick (maybe next time…).
Thinking back over the past months, two other foods that I tried for the first time stand out as being particularly good: horse meat and bullfrog. We had horse, which was cured and served in thin slices, at a Xinjiang (the far, northwest autonomous region) restaurant with our friend, Iliyar (and family), who’s from the region. I found that the meat reminded me a little bit of Spanish lomo, but dry, rather than oily-moist. Bullfrog surprised me. I’d read that Chairman Mao loved to eat bullfrog with hot chili peppers, a dish popular in his native Hunan province, known for food even spicier than Sichuan’s, but was not drawn to try it. Then I was at an Imperial style (known especially in the last dynasty, the Qing, for gathering and perfecting the best dishes from all over China) restaurant with my friend, Betty, who remembers eating frog as a child when her family visited Hong Kong, and told me that it’s often served to children because it’s an easy meat to eat. She was happy to order it, so we ate the tender chunks of white bullfrog meat with hot red and green chilies (what a pretty combination!). It’s true that the flavor of frog is a bit reminiscent of chicken, but the texture is more like seafood, reminding me of squid.
During these last six months, my appreciation for Chinese cuisine has deepened a lot, and I know that I’ve only scratched the surface. Understanding some of the philosophy behind Chinese cooking, I’m eager to continue to try more foods that I’d not have thought would appeal to me and I’m hoping to have more opportunities in the future (maybe we’d even live in China again for awhile). And maybe one of these days I’ll even get up the nerve to eat one of those chicken feet I always see people munching on in the street.
P.S. You may be interested in checking out this article (http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/beijing/articles/blogs-beijing/the-dish-bj/beijings-weirdest-and-wackiest-food/) about Beijing’s strangest food offerings, including penis hotpot (of various animals), which is supposed to enhance virility!