Scorpion kebab, anyone?

THERE IS a Cantonese saying that the Chinese eat everything that flies, except aeroplanes; everything with four legs, except tables; and everything that swims, except submarines - and visitors to Beijing’s fast-food market during the Olympic Games will be left in no doubt of that.

By (Daily Mail)

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Published: Tue 5 Aug 2008, 11:57 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 2:48 PM

A stroll among the food stalls of Wangfujing Snack Street, not far from Tiananmen Square, reveals delicacies of every conceivable kind.

Laid out in trays and boiling in cauldrons are everything from goat lungs with red peppers to scorpion brochettes, seahorses on skewers, iguana tails, dung beetles and silk worms on a stick, by way of fried sparrows, grilled snake and turkey vulture schnitzels.

The locals insist that Western visitors shouldn’t be put off the food on sale on this street - after all, it is mostly “conventional”

Chinese cuisine and great for lunch or dinner.

Indeed, even though dog meat is off the menu for competitors during the Games - they’ll be filling themselves up with highprotein drinks and masses of carbohydrates - tourists can still sample dog brain soup or dog liver with vegetables.

Travel guide

As the official Beijing travel guide points out, Westerners should not turn up their noses at these dishes.

“While you might consider things eaten in China to be distasteful, you must bridge the cultural gap and look at it with an open mind,” it advises.

And an open mouth come to that - for as the guide also points out: “There have been times of severe famine (in China), even as recently as the late Sixties, when tens of millions died of starvation in the Great Leap Forward. Back then, you would have been glad to have had what’s on today’s menu.”

The half-a-million visitors from around the world who are expected to flood into the Chinese capital over the next three weeks will have the opportunity to try these home-grown specialities - if they have the stomach for it.

And many do try, even if they struggle. One US visitor, Jackie Siegel, could not resist starfish fried in shark oil, though the centipedes, worms and scorpions on offer “kind of bothered me a little.”

“I’m trying to down the sea urchin, but I don’t think I can do it. It doesn’t even taste cooked.

You know what it looks like?

Something really dirty,” she said.

It’s not a view shared by the Chinese, who take great pride in their cuisine - dog, in particular, which is a speciality in the Korean restaurants of Beijing, where it is known as gou rou (which is pronounced ‘go row’). But Chinese chefs insist they do not cook pets - they say the dogs are specially raised for cooking, “just as cow, lamb or chicken would be in the West.”

So the visitor must put their ideas of good taste on hold for the duration of their visit and try a freshly fried and seasoned skewer of farmed scorpions, one of the most famous of the delicacies on offer, which costs about £3.70.

At the weekend, one 19-yearold British tourist plucked up the courage to try a seahorse on a stick for £1.10. “It’s not too bad,” he said, while biting into the cooked tail. “It’s definitely a different experience.”

Medicinal properties

But the delicacies of Wangfujing Snack Street are not only about taste and appetite. The Chinese also believe that certain animals, or their limbs and organs, have medicinal or life-enhancing properties, such as deer’s antlers boiled as tea or snake pickled in China’s popular baijiu alcohol.

“Seahorses are good for men’s kidneys and their virility,” says Sun Hainan, a young food trader from the Anhui province in the east of the country, who has a stall in the street.

“Crustacean are good for girls - they improve their skin and looks - and lizards boost virility.”

Scorpions are said to make your blood hotter in cold weather and to cure “certain conditions,” although no one seems sure what grasshoppers on a stick are a remedy for, or mixed cow and horse soup, come to that.

Ever since the first European merchants and missionaries visited China, Westerners have been appalled by what the Chinese eat.

In the late 13th century, Marco Polo noted with distaste that the Chinese liked eating snakes, dogs and, in some places, even human flesh.

French Jesuit historian Jean-Baptiste du Halde recorded a Chinese banquet in 1736 in which guests ate: “Stag pizzles [penises] . . . bears’ paws . . . nay, they do not scruple eating cats, rats and such like animals.”

Cook books

As Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop writes in her fascinating book Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper, the 19th-century British surgeon C. Toogood Downing described British sailors in the port of Guangzhou picking carefully at their food “lest they should detect themselves in the act of devouring an earthworm, or picking the delicate bones of a cat.”

Dunlop describes a Chinese cookbook she came across with full colour photographs in which the heads and feet of various fowl loll over the rims of serving dishes.

On one page, 11 lizards have been partially skinned and deep-fried, “so their bodies, golden and crisp like chicken nuggets, are sandwiched between scaly tails and heads in which the ruined eyeballs have been replaced by fresh green peas.”

There is a whippy egg-white pudding decorated with cherries and what look like chocolate sprinkles, but on closer inspection turn out to be dried ants (good for dispelling rheumatism).

And then there is the piece de resistance - a whole puppy, roasted crisp, with a garnish of coriander and flowers made from pink radishes.

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