“Don’t worry – it’s a local delicacy.”
When I hear those words I know I’m going to suffer.
While traveling abroad it’s impolite not to try the local fare when offered, especially in a business setting, and Asian cultures in particular see a refusal as disrespectful. This is usually not a problem as I’m rather fond of Asian food. Occasionally, however, “being respectful” and “overwhelming gag reflex” meet and battle it out for supremacy. Tonight was one such night.
On the way to dinner with friends I heard the dreaded phrase. I smiled, assured my hosts I was eager to try their famous dish, and silently prayed to the Gods of Food for mercy.
Once at the restaurant we were seated at a table with an open flame cooking area in the center, much like you’d find at a fondue place. This was looking up! I like fondue! How bad could this be? I was quickly relaxing, enthusiastic and ready for a great new discovery.
As I chatted with my friends the waiter began to place food on the table. All seemed to be in order. We had a beef dish, a pork dish, some veggies, and a dark pile of fat wiggling slugs.
What the holy crap!?!
I stared aghast as my plans for a torture-free evening crumbled around me. What was I looking at, why was it moving, and why was I the only one bothered by this?
It’s rare that I worry whether my dinner could take me in a fight. Tonight I wasn’t so sure.
Tonight’s local delicacy, to my great horror, turns out to be live cicada larvae. Let me say this again; LIVE CICADA LARVAE. To eat them you take your chopsticks, hold their 3-inch thick, wiggling bodies over a flame (not to kill them – just to get ‘em warm and angry), then pop them in your mouth, squish out the juice and innards, and spit the shell on your plate.
I know it sounds disgusting.
It’s so much worse.
I wish I could equate the taste to something you could identify, but until you’ve actually had one you simply can’t imagine. Perhaps strolling down Bourbon Street the morning after Fat Tuesday and then licking the bottom of your shoe would get you close. Eating just one of these things took all I could muster. Not wanting to appear disrespectful, I had three.
It took me thirty minutes and three cans of Coke to down three live cicada larvae. I even managed to smile during the process.
That wasn’t the end of my horror. Whilst I was busily congratulating myself for successfully ingesting live bugs, the next course was brought to my table, and presented for inspection.
This time I was certain my food would wind up eating me. Staring me in the face and hissing was a very-angry 6-foot long snake. I never found out what kind.
I was encouraged to hold my still-alive meal to be as the waiter cut out its pancreas and popped it in my mouth. (My friends assured me this would help my vision. It did not.)
You might think nights like these are your biggest culinary concern in China.
Not so much.
Though China works hard to suppress news damaging to its image, do a little research and you’ll learn that the biggest health threat in Chinese eateries is “gutter oil,” which, believe it or not, is even fouler than it sounds.
Cooking oil is like gold in China, where virtually every recipe requires a wok full of it, and goes for a premium. In recent years an entire industry trafficking in filthy used and sometimes fatal oil has emerged. Black market villains dredge up used oil from gutters and sewers around restaurants, selling the putrid but still useable product back to restaurants, who happily buy it dirt-cheap (pun intended here.)
The Wall Street Journal reported that police broke up a criminal network operating in 14 Chinese provinces last month, arresting 32 people and seizing 100 tons of gutter oil. Li Xiang, a prominent Chinese journalist known as “The Gutter Oil Reporter,” was stabbed to death just after the crackdown in what police term “mysterious” circumstances.
The 100 tons seized by authorities didn’t even put a dent in the industry.
It’s estimated that two million tons of thepotentially toxic mix are consumed by unwitting Chinese diners annually, and gutter oil probably accounts for at least one-tenth of all cooking oil used by restaurants. (The actual figure is presumed to be much higher, but isn’t actually known. Chinese officials admit privately that detecting gutter oil can be tricky.)
I was so disgusted I determined to eat only raw food the rest of the trip.
So, unsurprisingly, my colleagues took me out for a special treat that night: Chinese “hot pot,” a tradition where food is actually cooked in a pot of bubbling oil right at your table. It’s the Chinese answer to fondue, and I was utterly convinced that the sludge had been scraped off the streets and brought directly to my table.
My friends thought I was turning green over the blood tofu (literally squares of congealed blood) or the ox intestines. In truth I was just trying to hide my panic over consuming anything fried in their country. But I sucked it up – literally and figuratively — and while Soo fought down vomit I chucked back mouthful after mouthful of tasty but terrifying tidbits, which I assumed would presently kill me.
I survived, but I’m planning to get some shots as soon as I’m home. I don’t even care what shots. I just want my doctor to stick needles in me and tell me everything will be ok.
I may also need a hug.
This is really a tragedy. I’m a big fan of Chinese food, both the authentic stuff and what passes for it in America. But now it’s going to be difficult to eat the real stuff with gusto. The Chinese may well be the most industrious people on earth, but sometimes their very industriousness, when untempered by morality or decency, can be disastrous. The culture has been thus for a millennium, and is unlikely to change anytime soon, so best be careful what you eat.
I wish I could tell you that I was able to distract myself by going to see the Christmas lights around the magnificent city of Shanghai. But the Chinese don’t celebrate Christmas, not even a little. The Koreans, Thai and Japanese celebrate to varying degrees, most centering around commerce and catering to Western tourists, but not so China.
The New Year, or Spring Festival, is the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar, and the dates for it change each year (it started in February this year, and next year, the Year of the Dragon, begins January 23.)
Celebrations in mainland China last a week, during which friends and family travel great distances to be together, exchange gifts and hang jillions of brightly lit paper lanterns. It’s totally alien to our holiday celebrations, yet somehow familiar. And ever so much more fun than eating bugs and snakes.