Never trust an egg
Most people are aware that the Chinese are very adventurous when it comes to food. When immersing yourself into local life, it is imperative to try new things. My father always said, "You must try everything once before you can say you don't like it." I live by these words in all aspects of my life.
So let's start with the duck brain. I was invited out for lunch by a reserve manager; a hilarious man who chaperoned me around for three days even though he said my interviews "were so boring" (he would often snooze until I was done!), insisted on carrying my bag everywhere and even stole a whole bunch of oranges for me from a farmer's field. A real character! Safe to say, we got on like a house on fire.
Along with six of his colleagues, they took me to a local village restaurant one afternoon. It is quite normal to see an entire duck/chicken carcass in a soup. So I was not surprised when the duck showed up with one foot drooping over the side and its loose head bobbing in the broth. My translator smacked his lips with delight and quickly reached for the duck's head before anyone else could steal his prize.
I watched in awe as he chomped down on the beak (!) and then proceeded to peel back the duck's scalp with his teeth! Realising I was watching, he asked if I wanted to try the brain.
"Eek! Yes, why not!" I heard myself say. The brain was tiny (how can a duck function with such a small brain?). I probed by chopsticks inside the skull and picked out a small, mushed up segment and popped it into my mouth. It tasted just like liver pate. "Not bad!" I smiled. I looked around and the whole table of male reserve rangers had stopped eating and were smiling at me.
"You are very special, Tang Yuan!" said the reserve manager as he offered me a plate of oval meat rings. Tang Yuan is my Chinese name. "Try this." He said in Chinese.
"What is it?" I asked as I scooped some of the ovals into my bowl before hearing the answer.
"Pig intestine." My translator whispered in my ear.
Feeling my audiences' eyes upon me once more, I ate a few ovals. It was actually very good! I wouldn't necessarily choose this on a menu but I was converted.
Next was the famous Chinese 100-year old egg. It is believed that about 500 years ago, a Chinese farmer found preserved duck eggs in a muddy pool of water (containing calcium hydroxide). He hatched the idea of making this egg himself. Fermented in strong black tea, lime, salt, and freshly burnt wood ashes, the eggs are left for two to five months! Not a century thankfully (like the name suggests). Once "brewed" the egg white has a dark-yellow-to-black congealed consistency and the yolk is a dark gooey green. Not for the faint hearted!
Having been to China a few times before, I already know you should never trust an egg! I once stuffed what I thought was a hard-boiled egg into my mouth, only to find out that it had a half-developed chick inside - feathers and all! The crunch gave it away. I will admit I shamefully spat this out in front of everyone in the restaurant.
For the reasons explained above, I was therefore sceptical about this particular egg. It had only been fermented for two months so the yolk was still a bit yellow. I dipped a segment into some chilly sauce and squished the jelly egg into my gob. It was very chewy. Not too pungent as I had expected. Not grainy. It was bearable.
"What's next?" I said as the table erupted into laughter. I was given a glass of beer and a "GANBEI" drinking honour. My mum later pointed out that I am somewhat of an ambassador for the UK and Switzerland as more than 60% of people I am meeting have never met a foreigner before. I felt I did my countries proud on this culinary occasion.
I've had some other bizarre things in China: half-chewed duck tongue given to me as a gift by a small boy on the street, chicken feet of course (really don't know what the hype is about - crunchy and tasteless), pig tails, and just lumps of animal fat which I have mistaken for potatoes on two occasions. Never trust a "potato" either.
This trip, I have also been offered wild swallow nest soup in one of the mountain villages. Knowing I couldn't refuse, I accepted. Like the 100-year old egg, bird's nest soup has been a Chinese delicacy for hundreds of years. It is also one of the most expensive food products consumed by humans, selling up to £5000/kg! You can therefore imagine that this is a very exploitative trade. I accepted the nest soup as knew it had come from the wild.
A nest is placed into soup and boiled down to create a glutinous texture. I hope they removed the feathers and shit! The soup was actually pretty good! I tried a bit of the nest which tasted like burnt straw. I probably won't be having it again unless offered.
I want to end on a positive! I have highlighted some of the more adventurous things I have eaten but I actually love Chinese food! I have eaten like a queen in every village. Lovely fresh vegetables, rice noodles, dumplings filled with soup that explode in your mouth, and spicy meat dishes. Delicious! You could honestly visit China just for the culinary journey!
How adventurous would you be?