by Victoria Reay
by Victoria Reay

I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater, a game one. I tend to follow a monkey see monkey do policy when it comes to food; if I see someone else eat, and they’re not asphyxiated by disgust moments afterwards, I’ll give it a go. Still, I would be lying to say that in the past eight months of living in China I have been presented with nothing that made me blanche or hesitate or consider having a “there’s no way that’s going in my mouth” moment.

Chicken feet were one of the first things to give me pause for thought. They just look so unappetizing. Pimply and fleshy, resembling nothing more than a warty witches claw. And it’s not just appearance, you have to get past the texture too, the cartilage and bone that clacks over your teeth and has too be spat out like little machine gun pellets raining from your mouth. Then there were fish heads, their dead eyes staring limpidly out from a slick scaly mass. Dog was much more a psychological thing. Man’s best friend? Into the mouth it goes. Deep fried insects? When in Rome…

Yes I tried it all, and am still trying it, and I am usually pleasantly surprised by what my taste buds are presented with. Chicken feet are actually temptingly moreish; the flesh of a fish head, particularly the cheek, is delightfully tender; I wouldn’t write home about deep fried insects, but at least I could.

I am used to my western friends recoiling in horror at some of the things I mention I’ve put in my mouth, seeing on their faces the unasked question, “the Chinese actually like to eat that?” But it has never occurred to me that this is a two-way prejudice — that the Chinese, who are so open-minded about what they eat, might be horrified by some of our western eating habits.

Recently I was having lunch with a Chinese friend of mine and the conversation turned to food. My friend leaned across the table with a look of intense and perplexed curiosity on her face, “In the west I hear you like to eat eggs that are only half cooked?” It took me a while to figure out she was talking about soft-boiled eggs. “Yes”, I nodded enthusiastically, and launched into a reverie about how they could be enjoyed. I was halfway through my description of Eggs Benedict, which was making my mouth water, when I looked up. She was wearing a look of utter revulsion on her face. “Disgusting.”


  1. I always find it funny that chicken’s feet are seen as something that is totally disgusting, but yet a hot dog is fine and dandy. If you go through everything we eat in the West, there are probably more examples of western food that Asians would consider disgusting. The hypocrisy is rather amusing by both sides.

    That being said, the things you described make me pretty happy to be a vegetarian 🙂

    • Glen, the hot dog is possibly the most popular street food in China. It is in Beijing and Shan Dong anyway. Pork products are mafia controlled in China. So your point is neutered! But give other examples..

      Packaged meats like pigs ears etc are very popular. Some sweets are savory!

      Fish head soup is excellent. The fish head im not so sure about. Fried crickets in salt are ok..

      Jelly fish is alright..

      Scorpions? Chicken feet? Im ignorant..Never tried it..

  2. @Sarah: I would consider myself an adventuresome eater, but heads and feet I tend to shy away from. I’ve eaten both, but only for bragging rights back home in my early days of living here. Chicken feet don’t so much gross me out as pose far, far too much effort for reward – much like the damn little bony fish so popular in Chinese cuisine.

    Still, I certainly can’t fault the Chinese for being much more economical eaters than us in the West. And I think that’s where most of the gross-out factor comes from. Much of common Chinese food is born out of poverty. It seems only natural that tastes would follow necessity.

    @Yien: I think the raw eggs thing is like the raw [anything] thing in China. Bacteria lives in raw food — so when in doubt, cook it out. Fresh salads, raw steaks, sushi… all only becoming part of the menu of modern China (ie. with refrigeration and a clean/safe water supply).

    @Glen: They obviously haven’t told you what tofu is made out of. Bet you thought soy didn’t have lips and assholes. 😉

  3. I tried chicken feet 2 years ago or so – a one time experience. There are so many bones inside and almost no meat. Not my kind of a snack.

    Ryan: there are so many myths about tofu, especially the stinky tofu. Don’t believe everything you hear 🙂

  4. @Ryan: “Fresh salads, raw steaks, sushi… all only becoming part of the menu of modern China”. Actually, sushi was once very popular in ancient China (before Song I read).

  5. @Ryan: I’ve eaten a plate of chicken feet that had the bones already taken out, pickled and served with shreaded pickled cumcumber. Absolutely delicious and the effort-reward equation no longer an issue! It’s a texture and slipping-down-your-throat thing . . .

    I’m a hua yi – ethnically Chinese but born and bred in the West. I love chicken feet but i know plenty of other hua yi who dislike them as much as i love them!

  6. my favourite are the fertilized eggs with the fetal chick inside……not.

    yeah I tried it all before going vegetarian myself.

  7. No soft boiled ? That must be in northern China. In southern China, raw anything is OK. A delicacy is a hot bowl of rice, in goes a raw egg – I mean right from the shell, never get close to a fire raw – some soy sauce, a spoonful of lard. Yumm…

    Raw fish is also a delicacy, until the invention of hepatitis. Freshwater fish, sliced, mixed with oil, spice, some pickled vegie, sesame seed, may be some crushed peanuts. Down with some rice wine. But only in southern China.

  8. Interesting. Soft-boiled eggs are very popular in Japan, as are raw eggs (often mixed into white rice). I’m from the US and frankly I can’t stand eggs that haven’t been thoroughly cooked.

  9. Your friend will take the preserved eggs (皮蛋) with the green-gray sometimes-runny yolks over the fresh soft-boiled eggs?

    The same goes for the fermented tofu (豆腐乳 or just 腐乳) vs. cheese.

  10. Talking about deep fried insects. Being like the author, usually game for trying new food, I discovered that shrimp (to which I’m highly allergic) shares a protein with arachnids and other creepy crawlies. Long story short, I ended up in the ER room. :p
    I can’t believe how many Chinese cringe at the idea of soft-boiled eggs, but can still successfully swallow ‘thousand year eggs’. at least i tried it!

  11. Hi, Just found your blog when I was looking up facts on “chicken feet” and found your story about the eggs thing hilarious. Im half chinese and work in the family restaurant but of Scottish upbringing and constantly find myself in loggerheads about food, one of which is the nutritional values of chicken feet. I’m constantly being told that it holds amazing complexion benefits lol, I beg to differ hence my reason for looking up “chickens feet”.

  12. Actually my fa ourite dish is dippy soldiers. Its English. You half boil thee eggs and put them in egg cups in the shape of airplanes etc. You take tne toast, pjt butter and marmite on it and dip the soldiers into the egg yolk. Delicious!

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