Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 5 News List

China opening up to gastronomic delights

MARKET FORCES Besides fried silkworm grubs and various animal genitalia, Beijingers are now trying out raw fish from Japan and even bangers, mash and baked beans


It was one of the best promises I have ever broken: "Go on, you have a bite first and then I'll try."

My friend Dominic -- a trusting, adventurous visitor who was determined to savor Beijing's most alternative tastes -- needed no further prompting.

Ignoring the unpleasant odor, the unappetising appearance and the disgusting name, he picked up a skewer of fried silkworm grubs and slid one between his teeth with an audible crunch.

As he nodded bravely while his teeth cracked the dark grey outer shell, I thought for one horrible moment that I might really have to follow his lead.

But to my immense relief, his face quickly contorted into a this-shouldn't-be-inflicted-on-anyone grimace (at least, that's how I chose to interpret it) when his tongue and his tastebuds confronted the gooey bug entrails inside.

As he spat out the contents and let his tongue air for a while, I silently thanked the Kitchen God for getting me off the hook.

The remaining bugs were binned. My measly punishment for failing to fulfil my share of the bargain was to chew my way through a grilled goat's testicle and lick the fluff which passed as meat from the inside of a brittle deep-fried starfish.

It could have been far worse. The exotic food vendors of Xiaochi Jie (Snack Street) are made for games of culinary dare.

Illuminated by red lanterns and strip lights, the stalls sell kebabs of roasted scorpion, cicadas, sea-horses, chicken hearts, frogs, sparrows and various animal genitalia.

Horror of horrors, there are even battered strawberries dusted with sugar.

China has a longstanding reputation as a nation where -- as the writer Xinran has noted -- people eat anything in the water except a submarine, anything that flies except a plane and anything with legs except a table and chairs.

But the impressive variety of peculiar tidbits offered by the street stalls near Tiananmen Square is testimony to a distinctly modern feature of the country's economic landscape: the liberalization of food.

Older Beijingers can still recall the coupon system of the 1970s, when even basic goods like sugar were rationed. Foreigners who were here in the 80s delight in telling newcomers of a time when they could only dine in state-run "Friendship Restaurants," where the rude waiters, dire menus and chronic overcharging of non-Chinese customers were a constant source of amusement.

But in recent years, the cuisine of the capital has been trans-formed by entrepreneurs, competition and a growing desire among consumers to try something new. Beijingers -- who are traditionally far more conservative in their tastes than people in the south of China -- do not usually eat anything stranger than rice, soup and dumplings, but rising incomes and the loosening of restrictions -- first, of people, and subsequently, of the food they eat -- have transformed the dietary options of the average city dweller.

Inevitably, there are McDonald's, KFC franchises and Starbucks coffee shops, which can be found even on the lakeside of the romantic and modish Beilu nightspot.

The huge influx of migrant workers from the provinces has also brought an explosion of restaurants and street stalls selling Uighur mutton kebabs, spicy Sichuan dishes and Korean dogmeat, and "gruel restaurants," offering a cheap and tasty range of glutinous dishes from the north-east of China.

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