When you go backpacking for a year and a bit, you expect to eventually eat some truly weird food sometime, somewhere. Food that tests and bests the limits of your usually adventurous appetite.
I just didn't expect the strangest food on our odyssey to come from my own people.
Did my newly acquainted Hakka relatives in Dabu, Guangdong, know and secretly agree that the food coming to our table was on the far end of exotic, and therefore decided not to scare us off too early? Or did they just by sheer coincidence save the strangest stuff for the last 2 days of our visit?
Let's start with something easy. Eggs. Eggs are pretty innocuous, right?
But what if those eggs haven't yet been laid, and are served up in situ in the chicken's er... fallopian tube?
It tasted like... well you know what hard boiled egg taste like. Except this one had a skin instead of a shell, since the shell is the last part of the egg to take form. It also had a much higher yolk-to-white ratio, and so tasted creamier than a regular egg. Not a bad proposition from a taste point of view.
So there it is. Lunch, with a side of Chicken Anatomy 101. The photo on the right below? Chicken ovaries, enroute to being eggs. A real delicacy, says my Dad's cousin's wife Pak Meh.
I'll take her word for it.
Served at the same lunch: Snails. I'm cheating a bit here, really, because I actually really like snails. These tasted much lighter and grassier than their meaty French-escargot cousins, although their sluggy shape looks much more gross. Coaxing these buggers out of their shells with a toothpick is quite the art form.
I couldn't quite figure out the name of this restaurant. All I know is that it's on the 2nd floor of the Dabu Dong Han Le Research and Cultural Centre in the town of Xi He, or West River. A photo of the frontage below, if that helps.
And then there was Guang Ming Restaurant in Yongding -- the same town as the Hakka tu lou or earthern mansions in south-western Fujian -- which serves a nose-to-tail menu of beef. We had novice dishes like beef meatballs and ribs, and then intermediate-exotic dishes like tongue and tripe.
But today would be the day I would try beef skin. Unsurprisingly quite tough and chewy. Probably more about texture than taste, this one.
And cow brain, lightly coated with flour and pan-fried with spring onions. Babs and I gingerly nibbled on a spoonful each. I don't mind the savoury coating and pan-fried ultra-thin crust bit. But I obviously do not have a sophisticated enough palette for the too-rich mush within. Or maybe I just don't have a sophisticated enough brain to block out images of mad British cows slipping sliding and slobbering all over the English countryside.
The meal that took the extreme eating cake was also our last one in Dabu. (Coincidence? I really wonder.)
It was at Ji Shan Yuan (signage on the right), halfway up a hill outside of town, at the summit of which is the local TV transmission station. My Dabu relatives describe the cuisine here as "wild food" or "mountain food". A good amount of the food here is hunted and foraged, rather than farmed, and is said to be high in herbal and medicinal qualities.
It was quite possibly the most rustic restaurant set up I'd seen thus far. Well, maybe not nearly as rustic as Captain Hadji's lovely front-porch BBQ pit in Zanzibar, but beach shacks are held to a different architectural standard, surely. There was a bunch of brick and concrete, but much more wood and aluminium siding overhead.
Here's the restaurant's front-of-house.
The indoor and outdoor kitchen.
On the left, the specials of the day, perhaps? And on the right: you know how some restaurants have an attached takeaway deli store to sell signature produce, sauces, chutneys and such? Ji Shan Yuan has one too.
Each hut along the slope on the compound is a private dining room.
Here's ours. What a view!
And now to the food. Let's start with something exotic but easy on the palette. Freshly dug up oh-so-tender bamboo shoots, stir fried with salted vegetables with just a touch of shredded pork.
I'm convinced these long, slim, fragrant stir fried green leaves are the equivalent of wild garlic in the UK -- a dish I'm going to try and recreate when spring rolls around.
Moving on. Below is what I'm calling The Food Chain diptych: A medicinal-tasting rabbit stew on the left, and braised fox on the right.
Fox is definitely a first for me. I was told that it would usually cost a fortune -- maybe 1,000 RMB -- in China to eat a dish like this, if you could get your hands on any at all. Typical. Stick a high enough price tag on anything and the status-conscious Chinese will immediately put all their energy into eating said item into oblivion. Tell you what. I'll tell you for free that fox tastes mostly like lean pork. There. Done.
I'll eat just about anything, but thus far I've drawn the line at food that's still moving, and insects. I've been bested by the wet-wood stink of steamed silkworm pupae in Seoul (a popular street snack), and I stayed far away from the satay sticks of baby scorpions at the touristy food alleys of Beijing.
But where is the wriggle room when your own family puts down a platter of deep fried cicadas right in front of you?
So Babs and I grit our teeth (literally) and crunched down on a cicada each.
I don't remember it actually tasting of much. Like the deep fried batter of anything, it was crispy on the outside, and had a touch of softness on the inside. Deep frying is the fail-proof solution to making any questionable food vaguely palatable I guess.
Not that Babs or I could bring ourselves to eat a second cicada, however. Those beady eyes and stripey thoraxes still freak me out as I go over these photos now! Why the same doesn't bother me with prawns, crabs or lobster is a mystery. I am a confessed lobster nut, but one really must ask, who was the first loony-toon who convinced himself to eat the oversized insect-looking creature from the deep?
It's probably the only time during our visit that I'm actually thankful that my Dabu cousin Zhiguang is well stocked with maotai. I am highly amused that this evening's firewater is packaged in a rocket-shaped bottle. Maybe we were supposed to light and launch the bottle rather than decant it, but we'll never know now.
Towards the end of our meal the owner of the restaurant joins us at the table for a few drinks. He's a handsome ruddy-faced fellow, with gorgeous shock of white hair. There's a lot of chitchat in Hakka that follows, a good portion of which I can't follow.
I do remember, however, that the conversation ends with the owner insisting that he give us some chicken to take home with us. I think to myself: we've left almost half the food on the table (it's a Chinese custom for a host to grossly overcater a meal to prove his generosity) and he wants us to take home a whole different dish?!
Just before we drive off I glance into the boot of the car to check out our goodie bag. The bag flutters as my cousin opens the bag, and a live chicken, beak, comb, feathers and all, looks up and blinks at me.
Best. Chicken. Takeout. Ever.
On the way back into town I ask another Dabu cousin: "Do you eat at this place quite often? You seem to know the owner quite well. Or is the boss just very friendly?"
"Oh yes, we like eating there," he replied, "he's my wife's relative. So we're all family."
Deep fried insects notwithstanding, I could not be more delighted that such crazy cuisine springs forth from closer to home than I'd ever imagined.