To celebrate the 50th (yes, it’s been that many) post of expedition expat I bring you a special topic near and dear to our hearts: food. If you ask David he will tell you his favorite part about traveling is getting to try all sorts of new foods, and I will concede it ranks rather high on my list as well. China has a surprisingly vast range of foods to choose from from the spicy Sichuan hotpot dishes of Chengdu to the dumpling laden land of Harbin in the north you can find so many foods you would never have guessed to be “Chinese.” The area where we live in Suzhou (near Shanghai) is known for sweeter dishes and who can forget the delicious Muslim dishes of Xinjiang that we found in Xi’an. And of course, when in China one must try Beijing duck.
Then there was that time we ate mud covered baked chicken in Hangzhou and loved it.
…and that amazingly delicious dessert in Sanya.
There have been lots of opportunities to try new things, so narrowing this list down to my top ten most unusual foods that I would never have expected to try was rather challenging. Some dishes stood out obviously, while for others I had to carefully consider their novelty. I now present, in order from less to most strange, ten of the most bizarre things I have had the pleasure of eating in China.
10. “Squirrel Fish”
While the name itself is quite unique 松鼠桂鱼 (songshu guiyu) is actually a very famous dish in our city of Suzhou. If you like deep fried carp covered in sweet and sour sauce and cut in such a way that you are highly unlikely to ingest any bones then this is for you! They must use an interesting cutting technique to get the fish to “explode” in this fashion when deep fried. We have since started referring to this dish as the “bloomin onion fish” when trying to describe it to friends and family. What do you think? Would you give it a try?
9. Super Spicy Snails
Another of the Guilin adventures was trying to suck out the insides of these super spicy snails. I only had one or two because spicy is just not quite my thing, but it was interesting to try nonetheless. We abstained from the fish because it looked like it required too much effort. We still have not mastered the “putting things in your mouth and spitting out the parts you are not supposed to eat” technique that the Chinese seem to have mastered. Just ask my boss about the time she tried to teach me to de-shell a shrimp in my mouth during lunch. I am pretty sure her exact words were “ok, maybe you do not eat shrimp anymore…”
8. Cow Tongue
The first time we tried this delicacy was at a Korean BBQ restaurant near our apartment. Obviously we thought it tasted pretty good as we have since ordered it in hotpot restaurants as well. The hotpot version was admittedly prettier though as they fashioned it into a nice rose shape.
Nothing like a fancy cow tongue for a traditional thanksgiving hotpot dinner!
7. Pig Stomach
Edit: I have been informed this was actually pig stomach, not sheep stomach. Re-illustrating the point that many times I have no idea what I’m eating…
You may start to notice a theme emerge, but many of these unusual foods we have tried come with a hotpot experience. In this case the non-spicy soup was a broth flavored with sheep stomach and we were encouraged to eat the stomach as well for the flavor. Our opinion on sheep stomach prepared this way is somewhat neutral, I think it is good and David finds it to be just ok. Perhaps not something we will order frequently ourselves, but definitely something we will eat with our Chinese friends who like to order it.
6. Cow Stomach
While similar sounding in name, cow stomach bears almost no resemblance to the sheep stomach we just discussed. This food is very chewy which I think may add to its appeal in China. We found it to be fairly bland and require a lot of chewing, though its flavor is slightly enhanced by the hotpot it is cooked in. Overall we will only partake of the cow stomach when served to us by Chinese friends or co-workers just because it was so much work to eat!
5. Duck Intestines
Fortunately I managed to delay this post long enough through sheer force of procrastination that I was able to add both my number five and number two foods to this list…all in the last week! Last weekend we celebrated a friends birthday and someone wanted to order the duck intestines. This was rather ironic for us because our first hotpot experience almost resulted in us having nothing but a pot of spicy soup and duck intestines before we were rescued by our driver Jacky. Finally we were able to try the duck intestines we had missed out on a year and a half ago! Overall I found these to be pretty tolerable as far as internal organs go and while I am not likely to order these every time I have hotpot, it is entirely possible I will eat them again.
As you may or may not recall from our Guilin adventures we got to bite into this crunchy bit of dessert only to discover nuts and ants. At that point it was delicious enough that we decided to finish!
3. Duck Blood
Duck blood made it this far into the list simply because I had not even considered this part of the animal to be something worth collecting and serving. The Chinese people have put a lot of effort into ensuring no part of any animal goes to waste when it comes to eating, and collecting the blood to serve to you in a restaurant is no exception. The blood itself is a coagulated jiggly mass that is often found in hotpot restaurants. I do not care much for the texture myself (I do not really like squishy tofu either for that matter), but David really enjoyed it in the spicy soup.
2. Sea Cucumber
Our Chinese New Year party for work was where I had the pleasure of trying a quite expensive delicacy commonly referred to as a “sea cucumber” or “sea slug”. This was the only food I have encountered thus far that gave me significant pause before I tried it (especially because one of my co-workers said she did not like it and proceeded to avoid it for the entire meal). I figured I had to know what all the fuss was about though, so I ate it. It actually tasted pretty good, but I could not quite get past the appearance in the end. As such I only ate about half of it before moving on to other options.
1. Puffer Fish
The one dish David mentioned trying in Japan was puffer fish (called Fugu in Japanese and a large assortment of other things in English including blow fish), but we decided there was no point taking a risk of eating a known highly poisonous fish when we could not be sure if it was properly prepared or not. Well, thanks to a group team building lunch I had an opportunity to try one and let me tell you, I now understand why people risk poisoning themselves to eat this fish, it was delicious. As generally happens in China, I had no idea what I was about to eat and it was not until I was asked if I knew what kind of fish it was that I even considered it to be something more special than the standard river carp. Since everyone else was eating considerable portions of it, I decided it was ok to try and must be a well respected restaurant…or I happened to be sitting with the the first group of people to discover the antidote…
Of course there are several other exciting opportunities I have yet to partake in such as chicken feet (David has tried these, verdict is it is too much work for very minimal reward) and stinky tofu to name a few. We like to reserve these more unusual foods for our Chinese friends and colleagues to introduce us to as they will invariably come up at one time or another during our stay I am sure. We have a few team building dinners coming up this year, so I am sure there will be all sorts of new food adventures to share in the future.