First published on 11 Dec 2010. Updated on 22 Aug 2011.
The Chinese are highly efficient in the sense that nothing goes to waste, especially on animals meant for consumption. And in this era of eating sustainably, we should be eating or using everything if we’re to slaughter an animal.
These spare parts are usually castoffs and meant for those lower on the food chain. Historically, they were for slaves or animal feed. In China, they’re also used for texture, a necessity in Chinese cuisine. Other strange and ‘scary foods’ such as odd fungus and bugs, insects, and worms often play a role in traditional Chinese medicine and treatments.
A cook’s talent is to transform them into something palatable and delicious, something entirely subjective. It’s the psychology of eating the unfamiliar or taboo that goes against our psyche and means we dare not try.
The French are among the few who can glorify liver or a thymus gland (sweetbreads) to a golden existence and serve it with style while the rest of us beg for a taste. But all over the world, spare parts are no longer spared and are even prized. Meat cheeks, once avoided, now grace the menus at Michelin-starred tables. While liver, intestines, and tripe are common in Chinese and some old world cuisines, most foreigners turn their nose away, often missing something wonderful.
True, not all strange things are delicious. But it’s a shame to miss all the eating options in Beijing, so profit with your presence and try some of the following. Scary or not, you just might like it!
Cats and dogs for dinner has recently been under threat of being outlawed. It’s consumed with gusto in southern China and Korea and still has its fans. For now, you can still have a plate of Fido at several types of eateries including some Korean restaurants. It also figures in the cuisines of Guangxi, Jiangsu, Guangdong, and up north in Dongbei.
Westerners tend to be horrified at the very idea of eating a pet. Although a specific breed of dog is raised for consumption, it will always be verboten to some. Dog meat is favoured for its medicinal properties, having a nature that supposedly works to balance the damp southern climate. Distinctive in its texture more than its taste, dog is definitely nothing like chicken.
Try it: Pyongyang (Hai Dong Hua)
The souk of strange edible things
Beijing Jiumen Chuantong Xiaochi houses a bunch of stalls dishing up traditional Beijing snacks and is the perfect place for one-stop-noshing on many scary foods. When you enter, walk through the second doorway and find the cashier in the centre.
Everything is purchased on a card loaded with credit, so keep it topped up and swipe away as you please (you can refund the remaining credit when you’re finished). Go earlier rather than later; by evening, there’s not much left.
Hui muslim stalls serve baodu, sliced lamb or beef stomach or tripe, a Beijing favourite. This is about texture and a dipping combo of sesame paste, soy sauce and a smear of fermented red tofu (furu). Prices are 17RMB for a plate of book-style tripe, but lung is also available.
Here’s a chance to try scorpions, cicadas (good for the eyes), and silkworm pupae that are better than they look at 10RMB a stick. Alternatively, most provincial Yunnan restaurants serve their share of bugs.
You can get a bowl of pork liver potage or a plate of beef tendon slices among the many strange foods both animal and vegetable. Stinky tofu has a place here too. This is not just strange, terrifying food, it’s a true Beijing eating experience.
Try it: Beijing Jiumen Chuantong Xiaochi
Male members only
Guo Li Zhuang is known for its speciality in penis and testicles. Eating these is said to have medicinal benefits, being good for complexions and, of course, virility.
A 48-ingredient hot pot soup is what most folks try and has dog penis complete with bone (it’s the only animal member on the menu that has a bone) for 188RMB. For 1,288RMB you can have a sampler that includes the penises of water buffalo (not bad), lamb (scored to open like a flower), horse, dog, stag and yak testicles (a little hard to down), complete with a large red carved vegetable phallus. A dish of chili-doused water buffalo penis cross cut and scored to look like stars is cooked with Longjing tea leaves and is delicious.
Members are absolutely flavourless, a study in texture and vary among animals. Here, the prices are high and the variety is as broad as the preparation, with lamb being the most tender, almost gelatinous, and dog being the most fleshy and collagenlike. Interestingly, size doesn’t matter – the deer penis is the most potent.
Try it: Guo Li Zhuang
Donkey was first eaten out of necessity and remains a favourite. This restaurant chain from Hejian, a Hebei province city famous for donkey, is popular all over China.
The donkey meat here is hand-sliced to order before being sandwiched inside a crisp bing (a northern style flatbread) and served warm or at room temperature. The order lingo is huo shao (4RMB), but add a side of broth (qing tang; 2RMB) for the ultimate soup and sandwich combo bargain. This is China’s answer to an Irish corned beef or a New York-style pastrami sandwich.
Beijing boasts nearly 100 small shops, but one of the oldest and preferred locations is Lü Rou Huo Shao.
Try it: Lü Rou Huo Shao
Guts and eyeballs
This small Shaanxi eatery specialises in everything mutton. Yangza tang is a gamey broth with organ meats and entrails including liver and tripe. A headcheese sliced and served with chili, vinegar and cilantro is billed as cold mutton face (15/30RMB) and is not too different to French tête de veau.
However, a plate of lamb eyeballs (jiangxiangyangyan; 15/30RMB) almost wink at you. The reaction is mostly emotional, so give it a good camouflage of cilantro, close your eyes and pop one in. It’s deliciously tender.
Try it: Kings Mutton Soup