originally published October 24, 2012
Approximately every three to twenty-one days, I endure a quiet internal churning for Chinese food. This could be a low-boil addiction to MSG, or maybe it’s just a hearty appreciation for the delicious Szechuan Chicken at my favorite place. So when I awoke to discover today’s topic was Chinese cuisine, my brain’s stomach began to rattle with untempered glee.
Then I got a look at the content.
This is not a list akin to the take-out menus that so often burrow their way into my mailbox. Nothing in this group of dishes is chicken-fried, and none of it gets doused in that Chernobyl-red “sweet and sour” sauce that so often adheres to the sweet and forsakes the sour. This is real Chinese grub, and I’ll put the warning out there now – some of this may disturb you.
Like maybe the deer penis. Oh sure, here in the West we gobble down chicken livers and succulent, delicious piggy undersides, but we tend to veer away from the dong-as-food school of gustatory thought. Over in China, they hold no such reservations.
Deer dink is reputed to have tremendous therapeutic properties, though it’s been said (on Wikipedia, and presumably elsewhere) that the medicinal oomph of the tool-food is lost if the penis is not extracted from a live deer. This is likely a philosophy invented by someone who really, really hates deer. Sexual potency is the medical benefit being targeted here, and before you brush this off as some far-fetched far-East hooey, it should be noted that Hippocrates also prescribed deer schlong for the same purpose.
Hungry yet? Wait until you sample the balut.
A balut is what happens when you decide you want eggs but you waited too long in your poultry’s pregnancy to make a good omelet. This is an egg deep into a trimester beyond qualification for a plate at Denny’s. It’s also a duck egg. A balut should be showing up on Daisy Duck’s ultrasound, not on my plate. Chinese chefs will still cook the balut of course. I mean come on, to eat the thing raw would be weird, right?
These embryos are a delicacy all over the region, and there are numerous methods of preparation and seasoning. Diners are still expected to eat the thing whole though. There are no feathers yet and no definable beak, but the bones are made tender and edible after cooking. ‘Edible’ here is a judgment call.
On to the soup course. I’ve sampled shark fin soup at a wedding or two, and it’s not really my thing. I find the texture to be – and I say this with all due respect – a tetch on the slimy side. Still, I might venture into a bowl of Buddha Jumps Over The Wall.
This strangely-named soup is big on the Cantonese circuit. The idea behind it is to cram as much stuff into a single dish as possible, keeping the shark-fin base. Some recipes call for up to thirty ingredients, including quail eggs, scallops, pork tendon and mushrooms. It takes two days to prepare, and reportedly has a strong, rich taste. With that many ingredients, it had better pack a punch.
The name comes from a saying that the soup smells so enticing, it would cause a vegetarian monk to leap over the wall of his monastery to run over for a sample.
Okay. But I’m going to venture a guess that nobody is jumping over anything for a taste of donkey burger.
There’s no burying the lead here – this is a burger made from a donkey. There’s saying over yonder in Baoding: “In heaven there is dragon meat, on Earth there is donkey meat.” Well guess what, Baodingans, there’s other meat here too. Just saying.
The origin of this dish goes back to the Ming Dynasty. Soldiers ran out of meat so they began to eat their horses. Turns out horse meat really hit the spot, and it became a thing among the locals as well. Since horses are a little harder to come by than donkeys, switching to donkey meat seemed an acceptable compromise.
I’ll let you insert your own “tastes like ass” joke here.
I have tried on numerous occasions to embrace the vegetarian delicacy of tofu, but it just never makes my taste buds sing. The food doesn’t offend me, but it doesn’t tempt me to lay down my bacon fork either. Yes, I have a fork just for bacon.
Hook me up with some Stinky Tofu though, and I’ll bolt for the door. This is fermented tofu, often sold by street vendors for a snack. We do hot pretzels, the Chinese opt for stinky tofu.
Usually this dish is made in a brine constructed from fermented milk, veggies and meat. No place that manufactures stinky tofu in Asia is monitored or licensed by the state, so you might not know what you’re getting. Since the stinkiest tofu is considered to be the best, its cooks will stoop to some weird lengths to achieve this.
And by ‘weird’ I mean ‘unbelievably gross.’ Some will encourage flies to lay eggs in the brine so that the live maggots will ferment the tofu more quickly with their digestive juices. Disgusted yet? Some vendors will artificially stinkify their tofu by using rotten pork juice or human excrement.
Once again, feel free to recycle that “tastes like ass” joke.
Alright, so this is actually a thing. I couldn’t make up the story of the virgin boy egg.
Hard-boiling eggs in water is so western and boring. China is the land of chicken feet and fish-head casserole – why would they do hard boiled eggs like everyone else? Well, sometimes they do… but virgin boy eggs sell for double the price.
The secret is in the pee.
That’s right, these hard-boiled eggs are cooked in urine. And not just any urine – the urine of young boys, preferably under ten years old. Residents of Dongyang (heh… dong…) believe these eggs promote better blood circulation, decrease your body heat and invigorate you.
Depending on the level of psychosis of the cook and/or local school system, the urine is either collected from school toilets or in buckets set out by vendors. The eggs are cooked all day, then sold as health food. The last line of the Wikipedia article on this food is probably the best: “Other doctors say that urine is unsanitary waste unfit for consumption.” Really? That warning is tacked on as an afterthought?
I don’t like to judge other cultures. The culture in my community worships hockey and beer, and that isn’t everybody’s bag, I get that. And I’d like to think I have a slightly adventurous curiosity about food.
But everyone needs a line they won’t cross. I think I have reluctantly found mine. Somehow, I’m still hungry though. I think that disturbs me more than anything.