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.”