In western society we have grown accustomed to a multitude of foods from various countries. It is quite normal to go out on any given night and enjoy fine cuisine from whichever country you desire. However, these watered down and adapted versions of the foods that we have enjoyed are not necessarily authentic meals. One would not claim to have an authentic Indian Chicken Masala Curry unless they were indeed dwelling in that region. This applies to Chinese food as well. Fortunately for you, you are in China! But like most culture shocks, (food in this scenario) it is not what one could anticipate. But do not let one’s own bias pallet stop one from enjoying the delicacies of a people’s fine culture. In fact, if you try new foods you may surprise yourself and enjoy a new meal. However, for the sake of the season, the foods we will discuss today may be a bit intimidating to say the least. Here are seven Chinese dishes that will surprise you.
1. Quail Egg (Century Egg, 皮蛋 pídàn)
For the sake of culture shock, this article will slowly transition, you the reader, down the rabbit whole of China’s unique fine dining. So why not start with eggs? No, not the egg of a Chicken but rather the egg of a Quail. Though it is not large in size, the consistency is both richer and delicate in taste. Like any egg, you can use these beauties in any fashion to satisfy your pallet. However, be mindful of the egg to yoke ratio. There are less egg whites and more yoke. In addition, it takes roughly four Quail eggs to equal one Chicken egg. But do not let this stop you from trying it, Quail eggs are rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. Which is healthier? The Chicken or the Quail egg? This topic is entirely up for debate, so I’ll let you decide. You can purchase these eggs from your local market and or grocery stores in your area. One of the famous Quail egg dishes eaten in China is known as the Century egg or 皮蛋(pídàn). It is black in color and was developed in ancient china as a method to preserve food for many weeks. But be aware of its strong flavor, it is made with quicklime, salt, ash and Clay.
2. Living Egg (毛鸡蛋 maojidan)
Next in line is the Living Egg (also known as the 毛鸡蛋 maojidan). It may sound unusual to a westerner’s ears, but this is a delicacy that is not only eaten by individuals from the southern borders of China, but it is consumed in the Philippines as well. I must admit that this dish in particular takes an acquired taste. Why? Well to be blunt it is a fully developed Chicken, Quail or Duck fetus (all intact) right before it hatches. It is boiled, peeled and eaten. In despite of its intimidating characteristics, it is magnificently nutritious in vital proteins, vitamins, nutrients and … pretty much everything thing your body needs. If you are lucky, you can find these babies (no pun intended) at specific restaurants in Shanghai. But I must inform you to the fact that this dish is not commonly eaten in mainstream China. If you are adventurous, this cuisine is yours for the tasting!
3. Chicken Feet
Because our discussion has been progressing towards the topic of birds, it would only be appropriate that that our next step (or dish) involve some sort of bird. How about Chicken feet? Unlike the previous dish, Chicken feet or 鷄爪 jizhua is fairly ubiquitous around all the regions of China. Because of this, there exist a multitude of variations and flavors of this delicious ingredient in particular. Chicken feet can be a snack, main dish, served hot, served cold, boiled, fried etc. The point is that you can eat this just about everywhere. You can find them at your local Family Mart for crying out loud! On a serious note, there are a couple of health benefits to consuming this meal. For example, it is rich in gelatinous collagen and cartilage, which is great for your nails, joints and bones. I have personally enjoyed this cuisine a couple of times. I would advise that you prepare a separate plate or napkin for bones. Why? Because this meal is quite generous with them.
4. Fried Cicada
Look, I’ll be honest with you, I’m unsure about how to transition smoothly into this snack. So let’s just jump right in. Have you ever tried fried Cicada? No? Well, contrary to what one may think, the practice of eating Cicadas has been going on since the times of the ancient Greeks. This fun little snack is plentiful in protein, and provides one with a large crunching sensation. They can be ordered offline and eaten from a bag, or they can be thrown on a stick and purchased off the street at a market. Yes, at the end of the day they are indeed bugs, but if you can get past that, it is really no different than a bag of chips. You can get them in various flavors and enjoy a simple but healthy snack.
Whether you were born from western or eastern civilization, this snack can be a tough one to swallow. But if you consider yourself daring and or an adventurous eater, then this one is for you. Like the Cicada, it is a creepy crawly. The Cockroach. There are a few Cockroach farms you can order them from in China. And like everything out here, you can purchase them offline. They are fried in peanut oil, not once, but twice; and like the Cicada, you can get an abundant amount of crunches out of them. It is said that they have a lingering taste or aroma in your mouth after you have consumed them. But be mindful of the species you purchase, they can vary in size and may demand more than one bite. Cockroaches, like Cicadas are extremely high in protein. And who knows, if you come to like them, you can grab them straight from your apartment and fry them up for a quick treat (I am obviously joking about the last sentence).
6. Rabbits head (兔头菜)
We have come quite far down the rabbit whole in this article. So we must be polite and pay respects to our dear friend the rabbit in the next dish. Rabbit head or 兔头菜 tutou (as referred to by the Chinese) is a famous dish eaten mostly in the Sichuan province of China. It is a cuisine that is typically eaten by friends and families at celebrations and large social gatherings. If you have had the luxury of tasting food from this province in particular, then you are aware of the spicy kicking sensation to the mouth. Sichuan is known for their notoriously spicy food. Because this dish revolves around the cranium of a rabbit, the meat may be difficult to find. However, from what I have heard, it is a succulent and enjoyable flesh to consume. You can find this dish at most Sichuan restaurants in Shanghai, and again be mindful of the spice.
7. Pig brain
As the saying goes “save the best for last”. Do you like hot pot? Great! You can enjoy the sensational and exquisite taste of Pig Brain. I have personally eaten this dish at hot pot, and what I can tell you from experience is that you are in for an experience. It is served as it sounds, a pig brain displayed (completely intact) on a plate. If you are familiar with hot pot, then you are aware that you can order in it in many flavors. So naturally, the taste of the hotpot will affect the taste of the brain. What it will not alter is the texture. The texture this delicacy is that of a thick warm mucus egg. It is not like the other fibrous muscles of the animal. If you can get past that, it doesn’t have much of a taste outside of iron. But like most foods it is rich in nutrients, proteins, minerals and neurons (joking about the neurons… I think). But if you are an adventurous eater them this will be one dish you must try on your list.
I have only scratched the surface of the intriguing and exciting things one can eat in this amazing country. What is even more exciting is that there is so much more to explore and learn. China is an enormous country that is rich in culture, food, history, art and literature. Western culture can jade one’s perspective and prevent one from seeing what else is out there (and vice versa). It is nice to practice one’ s own culture and celebrate these unique characteristics of our upbringings. But it is more important that we look for the similarities between all of us. And by all means, in the few years that I have existed, I can say first hand, that we share more similarities as a people than differences. So go out and try to eat something unusual and cool, and remember to have fun. And as always, continue to explore, continue to discover and try everything. You never know what lies ahead!
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Post by Javier Chaney
Javier enjoys studying theology, culture and history. He is a self-proclaimed illustrator, writer and musician. He feels the world and its culture’s share far more similarities than differences. If one is given the opportunity to journey out beyond one’s comfort zone, it is their duty to share their learnings with others. Through empathy, patience and pure expression we cannot only progress in the right direction, we can solve global issues as well.