19 November 2007

Chinese Food - The Ugly

Organs & intestines at a street vendor in Hong KongContrary to popular stereotypes, most Chinese people don't like weird foods. Shenzhen is known as a town that pushes the limits, where you can find poisonous snakes and dogs and turtles available for dinner. However, most Chinese people have been afraid to eat anything wild or exotic since the mysterious SARS outbreaks a few years ago...

I think when uninformed Americans think about what they might eat in China, their biggest fear is that they will unknowingly eat a dog or cat that someone is trying to pass off as beef. What they don't realize is that such a thing is much more likely to happen in the United States than in China.

DogChinese people have too sensitive of a palate to ever mistake dog for beef. When they taste a dish, they not only know what animal they're eating, but which part of which animal. They eat more different kinds of green leaf vegetables in China than I have ever seen in my life, yet they can tell which vegetable they are eating, too. Can you tell whether the cooked "greens" you are eating are collard greens, kale, turnip greens, or mustard leaves? I know I can't.

It would be silly for a restaurant in China to serve the wrong meat intentionally, since it would undoubtedly be sent back to the kitchen. The customer would demand to get what they ordered, and would probably negotiate a discount on the price of the correct dish because they had to wait for it (the Chinese are unbelievably good negotiators). Even if the customer agreed to eat the wrong dish to avoid sending it back to the kitchen to be thrown away, they certainly wouldn't pay for it.

Half of a DogNo, in China you get what you order. You may just have more things on the menu than you're used to. For a Chinese person, criticizing a restaurant for serving dog is like complaining about a restaurant that serves pork in America. Not everyone likes pork, and certain religions forbid consumption of pork, but Muslims in America count themselves lucky if a restaurant will honor their request to leave the bacon out of their salad. They don't typically complain about the pork chop on the menu, they just don't order it.

I am apparently less reasonable than the average Muslim in America. As soon as my favorite local seafood restaurant hung a dog up in the glass box usually reserved for roasted ducks and chickens, I had to stop going there because it gave me the creeps.

In the end, even though weird things are available, it's actually hard to get Chinese people to eat them. A French colleague who was in Shenzhen for a short time went to dinner one night with one of our Chinese colleagues who ordered head of rabbit. The rabbit apparently looked very strange (to the Frenchman), sitting on the plate with its little rabbit teeth and no ears. It must have looked even stranger as its face was being chewed off by our Chinese colleague.

Head of LambHowever, for two weeks after that, I tried to get someone to take me to the same place and order the rabbit so I could take a picture. Apparently that one Chinese colleague was the only one who would eat it, and several other Chinese colleagues didn't even want to witness it, so it was hard to convince the group to go there for dinner.

Although the Chinese don't typically eat entire animal heads, they do tend to eat more of the animal than we eat in America--especially ears, internal organs, and feet. They don't seem adverse to eating brains either, because they say it makes you smarter. However, I've never witnessed the eating of brains.

Chicken FeetI actually like pig's ears and most chicken organs, although I wouldn't go out of my way to find them and I wouldn't want to eat them often. I don't care for pig feet (which the Chinese call hands) or chicken feet, although I think it's more about difficulty than taste. The small amount of meat in a pig's foot is so tightly attached to the bone that I haven't figured out how to get enough meat to make it worth the trouble. Chicken feet are even more difficult, since you have to take a bite and then sift through bone and cartilage in your mouth to find the edible parts. Unfortunately, without more practice, I can't really tell which parts are edible.

I can understand and actually admire the practice of eating the whole animal, since it's less wasteful, even if some of the parts seem strange or difficult to eat. I can even try to become more tolerant of people eating what I would consider pets, as long as I don't have to eat them, and as long as there are no monkeys involved (too close to cannibalism for me). However, the one thing that Chinese people love to eat, which really bothers me, is shark fin.

Shark Fin and Chicken SoupShark fin is very expensive, and so if you are able to serve it at a business dinner or wedding it is a sign of wealth and high status. It is also supposed to be good for you--something about how sharks never get cancer. However, unlike the Chinese approach to every other animal they consume, only the shark fin is eaten and the rest of the shark is thrown away.

I actually ate shark fin once. It was part of a set menu at a very nice restaurant in Shenzhen, and the colleague who ordered it wasn't aware of my moral objection to the Chinese cruelty to sharks. It wasn't impressive. It had an interesting texture but no real flavor of its own. It was served in chicken soup, so it just tasted like chicken.

No comments:

Copyright @2005-2009 by Tamra Hale. All rights reserved.