Tag Archives: Chinese food

I want to eat your brains!

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What is it with zombies and eating brains?

I’ve always been curious about that, and to a lesser extent, what brains might taste like. At a hot pot restaurant In Beijing recently, I got the chance to find out.

Don’t worry, it wasn’t a human brain. At least, I don’t think it was. As far as I am aware, it was a pig’s brain.

I’ve been lucky, or unlucky enough to eat a lot of things during my time in China that aren’t considered pleasant to the spoiled Western palate, including chicken’s feet, duck’s windpipe, pig’s ear, cow penis, meal worms, and scorpions. The brain, however, was the hardest hurdle to overcome. When various body parts are chopped up and cooked, they could be anything. But a brain looks just like a brain.

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It’s common knowledge that sometimes, eating brains isn’t a good idea. That’s how mad cow’s disease happened. But it does have some nutritional value. Specifically, it contains a lot of DHA, an important Omega-3 fatty acid, which isn’t surprising as the average brain 29% fat. Brains are also very high in cholesterol.

In China there is a general idea that ingesting specific parts of animals has a positive effect on the corresponding area of your own body, which may or may not be true. The same belief manifests itself in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Living in China made me much less picky about my food. But still, this was a new experience. As the cooked brain finally emerged from the boiling pot dripping hot oil, I was filled with a strange mixture of trepidation and nervous excitement.

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The consistency was as you’d expect, soft, spongy, even a little creamy. Weirdly, though most of the taste was masked by chilli peppers and spices, to me it tasted a bit like a boiled egg. Overall, I don’t think pig brain, or any other kind of brain, is something I’d like to eat on a regular basis. If eating brains is a dietary requirement, I’d make a shit zombie.

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The Snake Shop

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Between 2007 and 2013 I was an English teacher in China. Now, I still receive lots of bizarre messages and have some quite random conversations with ex-students. This one, with a girl called Sarah from Changsha, Hunan Province, is of the most entertaining I’ve had in a long time. Not only is it a perfect example of a classic communication breakdown, but it highlights a few endlessly fascinating cultural nuances. If I sat down and tried, I couldn’t make this exchange up.

S: Hello Christ, long time no see!
M: Yes, long time. How are you?
S: I fine. And you?
M: Fine, thanks. What do you do now?
S: I have own business in Shenzhen.
M: Great! What kind of business is it?
S: Snakes. Sell snakes. Snake shop.
M: Cool! Do you have any photos?
S: Yes photos. But why?
M: It’s interesting.
S: Snakes interesting?
M: Yes!
S: So strange. Just snakes.
M: You sell them for food?
S: Of course food. What’s wrong?
M: Nothing. It’s just a little strange for us.
S: Sell snakes?
M: Yes, and eating them.
S: You don’t have snakes in you country?
M: I think we have snakes in the UK. We just don’t eat them.
S: Why?
M: I don’t know. Call it a cultural difference.
S: So what do you eat?
M: Not snakes.
S: Just you dinner?
M: What? Er, I guess so. And breakfast and lunch.
S: So strange. Why have snakes but not eat them?
M: I don’t know. We don’t have many snakes, and I guess people would rather eat other things.
S: Oh. Wait. I make big mistake.
M: What?
S: I mean snacks. Not snakes. I sell snacks in snack shop. No snake.

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Chinese Spring Festival Story

Or…

Weird China Experiences No. 11782327

A couple of years ago when I lived in Changsha, Hunan Province, I woke up early one morning during the annual spring Festival holiday to the sound of my then-girlfriend sobbing and complaining loudly of period pains. She didn’t want to take the Neurofen I had with me, having a natural aversion to western ‘drugs’ and instead insisted only a chicken would alleviate the pain. But not just any chicken. This had to be a black chicken ‘raised on corn and permitted to roam free,’ which I took as meaning free range. This is TCM. Traditional Chinese Medicine.

I’m not a believer. Personally, I think its success is mainly down to the placebo effect. But there was no way I was arguing about 5000 years of history with a girl on the blob. I’m not stupid. And who am I to judge? So, I gamely volunteered to go out and try to find a black chicken that had been ‘raised on corn and permitted to roam free,’ not having any idea where I was supposed to find such a thing.

When I set out on my quest it was a cold, misty morning, and the city seemed almost deserted. Yet by some weird coincidence, as I rounded a corner, I came across a black chicken tied to a lamppost with a piece of string.

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I stopped and looked around for the chicken’s owner, but there was nobody in the vicinity. The chicken appeared to have been left there for me to find. I was just debating whether or not I could get away with nicking it when suddenly, a little old lady appeared out of the swirling mist. She didn’t speak any English, and I only had very basic Chinese, so we communicated mainly through grunts and wild gesticulations. She asked if I wanted the chicken. At least, that’s what I think she said. I replied in the affirmative and money changed hands. Quite a lot of money. Around 60 RMB, if I remember correctly. That’s about £6. A lot of money for a scrawny chicken in China. No doubt the asking price was inflated because I was foreign. Normal practice in these situations is to haggle, but that only winds me up and often proves a big waste of time, anyway. It was cold, I was tired and a bit freaked out. I just wanted that fucking chicken so I could go back home. I handed over the money, and the little old lady untied the chicken and gave it to me.

Now I was stumped. What the hell do I do with it? Do I pick it up and carry it, or lead it home on a piece of string?

I started to walk off, giving the chicken some mild verbal encouragement. I have no idea why I did that, it just seemed appropriate. After I had walked for a couple of minutes, I realized it was still alive. I didn’t want to be the one to kill it. I’m no vegetarian, but I like a degree of separation between me and my meat. Even if my girlfriend was the one to do the deed, the short journey back to my apartment would be ample time for me to bond with it. I turned back. The little old lady was still in the same spot. Just standing there. When I approached she looked at me questioningly, said something in Mandarin, and took the chicken back. She made a chopping motion with a hand. I nodded, and she disappeared around a corner for a few moments, only to reappear moments later with the chicken in a plastic bag minus its head. It was still warm and twitching.

I proudly took the chicken home like a returning hero, where my girlfriend made soup with it. Despite our mini-bonding session, the black chicken that had been ‘raised on corn and permitted to roam free’ tasted pretty damn good. Weirdly, though, not only were its feathers black, but so was the skin. The meat was a kind of mottled grey, and even the bones were covered in a black chalky substance that came off on your fingers. I don’t know if the soup had any effect on the period pains, but at least making it kept her occupied for a while!

Chicken soup


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