by Robert Flawith, 30 Apr 2005
Everyone loves Chinese take away food, fried rice, spring rolls, sweet and sour pork, all so delicious! However actually coming to China and eating real Chinese food is an 'illuminating' experience. Dining in China affords one singular opportunities, chances to eat plants, animals and minerals you would never even imagine to be edible. Real Chinese cooking lives by the motto 'waste not want not' and I feel this philosophy is much more advanced than western culinary customs. But however correct Chinese cooking is from a philosophical standpoint, however practical it may be in theory, it does not guarantee that Chinese food is palatable.
Real Chinese food involves cooking and eating anything and everything you can get your hands on and this leads to some amazing taste sensations for anyone traveling through China. Any tourist who wanders a little off the beaten paths of Shanghai and Beijing will find themselves chowing down on amazingly obscure cuts of meat, or spitting some part of an animal's digestive tract politely onto the table.
I myself have had the delight to sample many exquisite Chinese dishes while living in China. Since arriving here I've had the pleasure of watching almost every anatomical region of pig, chicken, cow, and sheep pass my lips, all of them swimming in lethal amounts of MSG. On different occasions I have eaten duck's tongue, duck's blood and duck's intestines, and I'm on the look out for a bowl of duck's anus so I can complete the whole set. I've nibbled on a diced frog complete with blotchy green skin, munched on a jelly fish and quaffed the blood drained from a still living snake mixed with wine.
But for me, the most memorable dining experience in China occurred late in 2004, during a seemingly normal night out with some friends. We went to a hotpot restaurant, hotpot being a specialty of the region which involves cooking your own food in a spicy bowl of broth at your table. The first stage of eating hotpot is to order many small plates of food from a menu, an easy enough task provided you can read Chinese. However all the guys at the table that evening were illiterate morons and we were forced to stumble through the ordering process, rattling off any Chinese we knew and hoping to get a decent meal, in hindsight not the best policy.
Our mandarin served us well and we were able to order dumplings, beef strips, potatoes, chicken, lettuce and many other delicious morsels, what a feast! Suddenly one of us decided that one more dish was needed, a simple plate of green bean sprouts, those small tasty balls of germinated seed with a moist tendril of white root protruding from the end. Bean sprouts, delicious and healthy, what could go wrong? There was a pause... bean sprouts, bean sprouts, bean sprouts... none of us could remember how to say 'bean sprouts' in Chinese. In a moment of insight one of the guys at the table grabbed a napkin and a pen and proceeded to draw a bean sprout, from the pointed root tip to the long thin shaft to the ball shaped bean at the end. 'Ah,' gasped the waiter, a smile crossing his lips, 'yan bian! yan bian!' he repeated nodding. We nodded too, not having a clue what he said but trying to pretend we were fluent Chinese speakers.
Everything was going fine, there was beer, jovial company and the promise of a huge feast to come. Five minutes later it arrived, plate after plate of delicious food which we scooped into the pot of boiling soup in the centre of the table. There were strips of lean beef, rolls of pork, skewers of chicken and sumptuous dumplings which we cooked to perfection. So we feasted, and feasted and all was good with the world, and none of us even noticed the fact that our bean sprouts were nowhere to be seen. Towards the end of the meal however a strange vibe became noticeable amongst the staff serving us, namely they were all crowding around our table expectantly and murmuring amongst themselves. Then it arrived, with much fanfare, a small white plate piled high with short round rods of grey meat.
Realization hit me and I almost gagged in disgust in horror as I finally realized what the waiter had said while we were ordering our beans. Yan bian meant lamb's penis! LAMB'S PENIS!!! We grabbed the napkin which contained our attempted rendition of a bean sprout, and sure enough upon close inspection it did look exactly like a long, thin sheep cock. So we sat, four men, jaws agape, our eyes filling with tears, staring at the heaped dish of penis. There were over a dozen at least, some with foreskins still attached, others bare and sweating, a grey shining mound of animal manhood. We were being watched by the head waitress and all her lackeys expectantly, they all waited to see if we would eat the expensive delicacy they had prepared for us.
What were we to do? We each took a swig of beer, said a silent prayer and feebly picked up four quivering dicks with our chops sticks. We held them aloft at eye level for a moment, took a deep breath, and then the pride and joy of one slightly less than male sheep swam down my esophagus. My eyes bulged as the stiff, spongy rod caught in my throat for a second, but, with a swallow it was gone.
The taste will stay with me the rest of my life.
Every ex-pat, tourist or backpacker who has been to this country has their own Chinese cuisine horror story, so why not plan a trip here yourself and join the club? In my opinion you haven't really lived until you've found yourself staring at a pair of chopsticks laden with genitals.
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