China has one of the world’s great cuisines. There’s hardly a Western country where “going out for some Chinese” isn’t a part of culinary life. Trouble is, what we know as Chinese food doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the Chinese really eat.
Sure, most of the dishes eaten in Beijing do feature stir-fries, but when it comes to the featured ingredients, it’s a whole other ball game. In a week of eating at restaurants and browsing the food stalls of Beijing, I witnessed a parade of dishes featuring goose feet, shredded rabbit, black fungus, barley congee with jujubes, pig tripe, and the star attraction: an entire turtle, cooked right in the shell, swimming in soup. How you eat that with chopsticks — or whether you should — I have no idea.
But that’s not even mentioning bugs. Where we reach for a can of Raid when we see large, crawly insects, the Chinese reach for their woks and start cooking. Which brings me to the day I ate scorpions in China. At a street market in the heart of downtown Beijing, my friend Brian and I wandered past stalls selling everything you could imagine on a stick. That included things like squid, starfish and little birds; it also included grasshoppers, caterpillars and scorpions.
That’s right, scorpions. There were two kinds on offer — big, black, nasty-looking ones and smaller, more delicate critters, mounted three to a stick and roasted on a grill. Faced with such a bizarre display, there was only one thing a real traveller can do — try them. And that’s how I ate scorpions in Beijing.
I chose the little, delicate ones. The price was right — 20 yuan, or about $4, for a stick. And from what I could see, the stingers had been removed so my snack wouldn’t bite back. I handed over my money and the scorpion seller delivered my stick, smiling.
I looked at the scorpions. Was I really going to do this? Up close they didn’t seem that threatening, all roasted to a golden brown. Brian was waiting expectantly with the camera. I couldn’t back out now.
I crunched down on one of the little tails, which disintegrated into a kind of crunchy chaff. The body came next, not much more substantial. They didn’t taste bad — in fact, they didn’t taste like much at all, just a kind of toasty flavour, with a slick of oil on top. In a few minutes, they were gone, save for a few crunchy bits that weren’t going down. I spit them out, and we walked on.
That’s how I ate scorpions in China. In retrospect, I’m glad I ate them on one of my first days in Beijing. After that, nothing that appeared on a menu could really surprise me. Except maybe that turtle …
Photos of me by Brian Jamieson.