Delicacy… this word seems to exist only in reference to Chinese food, a euphemism too laden with contempt, and that’s not what I want to convey in this post. I want instead to express my fascination with the range of meat dishes and meat parts that exist on the Chinese menu. It’s no great news flash that so much of the cultural difference between American and Chinese food lies in these differences, and the most striking lie not only in the different edible animals: cat, dog, turtle, frog; but also in the parts: stomach, feet, head, tongue.
Americans, despite comprising a nation that eats more meat per capita than anyone in the world, are among the finickiest eaters. To generalize, we are squeamish, which goes a long way to explain why hamburgers and hotdogs are our national favorites. Ground and boneless, they are meat reduced to protein patties and extruded tubes. Come to China, and you find meat in more recognizable animal forms: claws, hands, and a complete anatomy lesson in internal organs.
Perhaps the biggest difference is in what is considered the best cuts. As a foreign guest, it’s usual to have food foisted upon you. And as a foreign guest, you’re likely to be given extra helpings of the best of the meal: more chicken feet, more gelatinous pork knuckles. The American nibbles at the pasty cold chicken claw… while the host watches on proudly.
Anyway, I thought I’d just mention some of the interesting meat dishes, and food experiences that I don’t think would be common in the U.S. One of the best meals I’ve had here was at a local restaurant serving up Jiangsu specials. One of the dishes was a huge “lion-head” meatball (the name is just a flourish, it was beef…), sweet and sour, but not in the gloppy, cloying form that “sweet&sour” seems to suggest in English. Anyway, another dish came, presented in a multicolored pot. The host lifts the lid, and inside are translucent, pearly shrimp about the length of a little finger “Zui-Xia,” Drunken Shrimp. Shrimp, spices, and bai-jiu, the wheat liquor famous in China. I am prodded to take the first bite. I plunge my chopsticks in, the dish starts to wriggle, several of the shrimp flop around in the alchohol. I’m guessing this is not Kosher, but it is fresh, and I am game to try most anything. I tweeze one out, and bite into the little shrimp, peel the skin and eat. It was quite good, in fact.
Central to my self-conception is that I will try anything that’s not endangered and not too cruel a preparation method (come on guys, shrimp don’t even have brains…) I have been shaken by one dish I am not going to try, at least not until I am doused in Baijiu and spices… and that is “Huo Zhu-Zi” living pearls. They are the not-hatched, fully formed chicks still in the egg. Some bones (I am told) and the early bits of feathers, they are pretty fully articulated, as they are sold fried on the side of the street outside my house, little chickens, still curled in egg shapes. I will try to get you some pictures….