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Eating For Shock Factor

August 28, 2010
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Americans seem to get a rise out of watching other people eat foods, particularly animals, that they wouldn’t eat themselves. Examples: bugs on Survivor and Man vs. Wild, where the guy catches a huge salmon, says, “Well, I really like sushi,” and takes a bite out of the still wriggling fish.

“Don’t they eat dogs in China?” these people ask in a kind of horrified delight.

Well, yes, they do, but it’s not like eating dog is a commonplace occurrence or something everyone has experienced. It’s more in southern China that any creature, provided it isn’t poisonous (although that doesn’t stop the Japanese from eating blowfish), is edible. My dad once had an experience in Guangzhou province where the waiter announced apologetically to the table, “I’m so sorry… we’re all out of owl today.”

Anyways, what am I trying to say? Eating these so-called “exotic” dishes has long been a part of certain cultures, who wouldn’t find them exotic at all, but as restaurants catch on to foreigners’ fascination with food that creeps them out, it becomes a new kind of “food tourism.” The question is, are people eating these foods purely for shock factor?

Being someone who eats very little meat, you might find it strange that this summer I sampled not only bat, cobra and snapping turtle, but also armadillo soup, cicada, and scorpion. You see, I generally have no desire to eat something like pork– I know what it tastes like and I don’t particularly enjoy it. But bat? I won’t know unless i try it.

Still, don’t think I downed these dishes with gusto or even had more than a bite or two. I suppose I have a long way to go when it comes to being a foodie, because I could never get rid of the voice in my head that bragged, “I just ate insects and arthropods!” Eating in this case became a kind of game that had nothing to do with hunger. It was simply the physical action of putting something in your mouth, the opposite of the natural instinct that tells us that when we’re hungry, we should eat. At least, I was too jaded to feel otherwise.

Maybe it’s too bad that even people “brave” enough to eat out of their comfort zone have trouble shaking these prejudices, because more often than not, the dishes don’t end up tasting as unusual as you would expect. I’m not going to say everything “tastes like chicken,” because that’s bull. Still, if it’s fried, it’ll taste like a french fry. If it’s cooked in a heavy sauce, it’ll taste like the sauce. And if it’s served quite plain? Well, you have to try it to find out.

The bat, which we ate in Bali, was… not my favorite. It may have had the texture of a very lean free-range chicken, but it certainly didn’t taste like it. Served in a curry sauce, its jagged black wings sticking unappealingly out of the dish, I felt like a witch cooking up some sort of Black Spell Brew.

The bat was served alongside a whole roasted pig, which, ironically, freaked me out way more. Being Jewish, even though I’ve never kept kosher in my life, may have had something to do with it. Let’s just say I was quite glad that I eat vegetarian for the most part when I’m not trying crazy things.

The turtle. snake and armadillo soup were served at a Chinese restaurant in Jakarta, the kind I hate– I really felt that they were serving these animals (some endangered, some not) just to say that they could. No consideration for ecosystems or suffering– I refuse to eat tiger or abalone. Unfortunately, that night I just wasn’t in the right mindset for eating so outside of my comfort zone. I watched, slightly nauseated, as dishes of snails were placed on the table. The meal was literally animal after animal after animal– when a plate of stir-fried vegetables finally arrived, I felt almost too sick to eat any. It was impossible to look away from the armadillo, strangely bunchy joints of meat floating in a soup that was, admittedly, quite tasty. Turtle (snapping turtle, which bears no resemblance to the kind you’d have as a pet) is actually quite mainstream and tastes like fish with the texture of chicken. But like I said, I didn’t feel like eating much.

It was impossible to tell what the cobra tasted like because it was breaded and fried. It seemed to be literally skin and bones, with no meat on it to speak of.

I went back to the hotel that night with a stomach of bites of this and that, plus some vegetables and rice. My appetite had flown out the window.

“That was the best meal of my life,” my dad declared happily on the car ride back.

Finally, we come to the end of my eating adventures: creepy crawly things. Wang Fu Jing, a super touristy area in Beijing, is the epitome of the “food tourism” and “eating for shock factor” mentioned earlier. Snaking between malls and restaurants is Xiao Chi Jie, or “Little Eats Street.” There you’ll find all kinds of street food, all of it pretty authentic, but the crowd is more non-Chinese than Chinese. Are they there to eat? Well, some of them are. Others seem more content to hide their cowardice behind big black cameras, buying nothing for themselves.

Wimps.

Decisions, decisions: should I try seahorse? Sparrow? Or maybe worms? In the end, I chose cicadas and still crawling scorpions (don’t worry, they fried them first). The vendor wouldn’t let us put hot sauce on the cicadas, insisting that they tasted fine with just salt. I accepted the skewer. I looked at the cicada. It looked at me.

“Oh, just eat it whole!” my friend Jojo said scornfully. So I did. And I crunched, trying not to think about the fact that those little bony bits between my teeth were six legs. Again, it tasted fried, and not particularly interesting.

Jojo ate two, then said, “let’s put chili pepper on it this time.” So we did. Now it tasted spicy and fried. Much better. I was so pleased with myself that I immediately sent out a few text messages. It was a rush, similar to what you might feel after cliff diving or a roller coaster.

The scorpion was actually pretty tasty, almost like shrimp. “Do I eat the stinger too?” I asked incredulously. Again, I was told to just not look at what I was eating and eat it in one bite.

I never ate “dinner” that night. After eating two cicadas and one scorpion, I felt I more than deserved a frozen yogurt.

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