Have you ever wondered what the equivalents of some of our stranger delicacies like toad in the hole and jellied eels are across the world? What better place to start exploring slightly strange and confusing foods than China – here are just a few examples of Chinese delicacies you may come across:
Confusing cuisine: from stinky tofu to century eggs in China!
Not usually the part of a chicken you’d think of eating, but in Chinese cuisine, chicken feet are often an option at dim sum restaurants, served as ‘phoenix talons’. The feet are deep fried or steamed first, in order to make them puffy, before being stewed and simmered in a sauce flavoured with black fermented beans, bean paste and sugar. You can also find chicken feet vacuum-packed and ready to eat in supermarkets.
This dish is renowned for its pungent odour. A block of tofu is soaked in brine made with shrimp, vegetables and salt that has been fermented for months. Stinky tofu is like marmite – you either love it or hate it. Asian tourists who follow their nose will have no trouble finding a stinky tofu stand – it’s even known for street sellers to be fined for breaking air pollution laws! Several restaurants have been dedicated to the smelly curd for those wanting to enjoy their stinky tofu in a more formal atmosphere.
Wander into any Chinese medicine shop and you’ll spot what looks like a chunk of cement on display. This is the dried form of sea cucumber, also known as sea ginseng. This strange looking ocean creature looks exactly like a cucumber with the addition of tube feet and a ring of tentacles around its mouth. Unfortunately, its taste doesn’t live up to its appearance though – rather it’s quite bland. Nonetheless, its alleged medicinal value and reputation as an aphrodisiac make sea cucumber a popular dish at Chinese New Year banquets and other celebrations.
Bird’s nest soup
The main ingredient in bird’s nest soup, a Chinese delicacy, is the nest of the swiftlet, a tiny bird that lives in caves in Southeast Asia. The swiftlet makes a nest from its own saliva rather than sticks and straw – the only bird in the world to do so. Harvesting these nests requires skill – men must balance on tall bamboo poles to grab the nests from inside the dark caves. Like sea cucumber, bird’s nest doesn’t actually taste much of anything. It’s enjoyed a rise in popularity from its growing reputation as both a health tonic and an aphrodisiac.
Thousand-year old eggs
Thousand-year-old eggs, a Guangdong delicacy, aren’t really that old. A more accurate name for this pungent hors d’oeuvre would be salted or preserved eggs. To make thousand-year-old eggs (also called century eggs or hundred-year-old eggs), duck eggs are preserved in ash and salt for 100 days. This turns the white of the egg a gelatinous consistency and dark brown colour and the yolk green, giving the eggs their ancient appearance. Definitely an acquired taste, thousand-year-old eggs have a creamy, cheese-like flavour and a strong smell.
Western cuisine doesn’t escape raised eyebrows from the Chinese either – they consider many of our foods strange. For example eating a plain cooked steak is considered primitive and unappetising and many also regard eating cheese or butter as distasteful … not to mention the habit of putting vinegar on chips!
Read other Velvet Escape foodie posts.
Lovin’ the Stinky tofu!!
Well, i have tried all the above mentioned dish. The smelly tofu made me lost my appetite for 2 days! However i was not dare enough to try the worms and scorpions.
I love this !!! I was just about to post a similar story 🙂 btw chicken feet … too chewy 🙂
I don’t consider myself a picky eater but after reading this I am rethinking that position! I don’t know that I would eat anything mentioned in this post.
I did find it interesting reading about the different types of foods.
I thought of myself as one who tries everything food-wise. In China, between crickets and worms, I’m gradually changing my attitude. I’d like to try smelly tofu at least once, as Chinese adore it, but it’s too smelly I can barely keep my breathe and walk away as fast as I can!
Thank you for your wonderful comment and the excellent tips. I especially like the tip about how to eat century eggs. That’s how I ate them too… in congee. 🙂
All of these are very common and traditional in Taiwan as well. Perhaps I have just become used to them living there for two years, but I don’t find any of them odd. LOL Stinky tofu is often considered the unofficial “national dish” of Taiwan — you can’t walk within 100 feet of a night market without the catching a whiff of the stench!
You have to be careful with birds nest as many places serve fake versions and charge high prices. If you are set on trying it, make sure it is from a reputable restaurant. I recommend trying birds nest in a dessert — it is a better way to experience the actual “nest” aspect and it’s often less expensive than the soup (sometimes the soup can run $100 US whereas a dessert can be $25 – $50).
Another tip — an easy way to sample century eggs without eating them straight — congee. Congee is a breakfast staple and you can order different varieties or toppings. One of the best congees I’ve had includes bits of century eggs chopped up.