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Jasmine Dispatch

"One Man's Insects Are Another Man's Steak"
July 26, 2000

There is a saying that you've probably heard a million times that says, "You are what you eat." All I can say is that if that saying were true, I would be a very strange-looking critter right now!

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Tummies full, Mickey and I took the rest of our meal in a doggie bag (or a critter bag).
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I knew that food in China was "exotic and different," but the feast of peculiar insects and amphibians that was spread out before me was not exactly what I had in mind. My dad has always said that one man's hamburger is another man's steak, meaning, "Different strokes for different folks," and, "Variety is the spice of life," but this experience gave these familiar sayings new meaning! I've always prided myself on being the spokesperson of adventure and open-mindedness. I have never wanted to live a life limited by the confines of familiarity or reluctance to try new things... but China was putting me to the test! I'll tell you the story.

Map
It was just another day - nothing especially exciting was going on as I wandered through the busy streets of yet another new city trying to acquaint myself with China. Yang-Yang went to visit a town, not too far away, called Qufu (and came up with some adventures of her own to tell), while I handled the logistics of our travel in Jinan. I caused a substantial ruckus at the train station, because, not speaking Chinese, I was pantomiming my request. Everyone around was yelling his or her guesses to the ticket attendant to no avail. Finally, a man in the crowd spoke enough to decipher that I wasn't just a happy traveller waving the peace sign, but that I wanted to purchase two tickets. Hurray! Tickets purchased, I left, proud of my success and free for the rest of the evening.

Vocabulary

confines - limits
logistics - specific arrangements, plans
decipher - make sense of
astonishment - surprise

I wandered into an Internet cafe to chill out (literally chill out, as the blazing heat of Chinese summer was on full blast outside, and Internet cafes always have air conditioning), but didn't end up staying too long. The owner of the cafe was concerned about what I would be doing on the Internet and almost made me leave. (Go figure...) That's when I met Mickey, my hero. A Jinan local who learned English during his studies at a local university, he quickly spoke up in my defense. Knowing the proprietor was just nervous because I was a foreigner, he explained that all I wanted was to log onto a Hotmail site to send news of my whereabouts to friends in the country. Somewhat satisfied by Mickey's explanation, the owner let me stay. With a gruff wave of his arm, he directed me toward the computer stations.

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The impressive dinner menu at this street stall included everything favorites like frog legs, crickets, beetles, and snails and worms!
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I thanked Mickey for his help, and we instantly hit it off. We decided to find a friendlier atmosphere and thought it would be nice to grab a bite to eat. Once outside, he pointed to a restaurant that had a picture of a hamburger on the outside. I quickly explained that I would much rather have some traditional Chinese food.

"I know just the spot," he smiled, "You'll love it!"

Now, we've seen all types of exotic food on this trek but, as I would soon find out, China takes the cake! From crunching on black fuzzy worm delights in Zimbabwe, to slurping gooey snails with our friend Ali in Morocco, I'd thought we'd seen it all. Thinking back, I was thoroughly impressed by the way the nomadic Bedouin people of the Sinai desert in Egypt bake bread in the sand. But not even that could top Chinese ingenuity and creativity when it comes to making something out of nothing and living off the land.

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I asked for traditional Chinese food and that's just what I got - a crackling hot skillet of fried silkworms!
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"Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it." My grandmother's favorite proverbial jewel of wisdom rang in my ears as Mickey smiled gleefully at the wide variety of delectable treats I had to choose from. The dim lighting in the back alley market made it difficult to make out some of the ingredients in the round tin bowls on the table. It even looked like some of the contents were moving. On closer examination, I realized they really were moving!

Along the small alleyway, which was heavy with the aroma of grease frying and packed with hungry people, and where vendors set up small tables and blaze up woks overflowing with tender treats, I learned that some Chinese favorites include silkworms (which wriggle around in the bowl and are made to order for ultimate freshness) crickets, beetles, and all types of snails. There was also a variety of seafood, from small whole octopus, frog legs, fish, crawfish, crab, and eel.

Since I was the guest, Mickey gave me the honor of selecting our meal.

"On second thought, a hamburger sounds great," I smiled.

Mickey laughed in astonishment to learn that I'd never eaten such delicacies and became even more insistent that I try. By now, a crowd had gathered around to help me inspect the dishes. Everyone in the crowd had a favorite dish, and it seemed each person had a different suggestion as to what I had to try!

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We had silk worms, frog legs, and stir-fried crickets, in true Chaozhou tradition. Bon appetit!
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Mickey explained that there are four regional types of food in China. Mandarin style, from the Beijing and Shandong region, is most popular and well-known for Peking roast duck. Sichuan cuisine is world-famous and known for being the spiciest of the four. Eastern is the most exotic and different style to foreigners. It utilizes a popular technique called "red-cooking" in a mixture of soy sauce and red wine, which produces a yummy stew. Cantonese and Chaozhou incorporate a lot of steaming, boiling, and stir-frying. Cantonese just so happened to be the region of choice for the night. Did I mention that this southern cuisine also prides itself on dishing up some of China's most exotic feasts? Anteaters, cats, rats, owls, monkeys, turtles and frogs are all included.

"We are in the South," he said with a proud smile, "where people eat everything with four legs except the table!"

The wriggling bowl of silkworms was too tempting to pass up. In addition, I chose frog legs, and giant crickets. First in the fire were the worms. They burst in the heat and oozed a gooey creamy liquid into the oil. (I have to admit, at this point I got cold feet.) Next came the crickets and finally the frog legs, which were stir-fried in a delicious, fragrant mix of bell pepper and onion. The spicy aroma of fresh hot peppers and Chinese spices filled the air as flames crackled above the small stove in the well-trained hands of the chef who tossed the wok contents high into the air.

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Here goes nothing!
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Out of the kitchen and at the table, it was now time to separate the mice from the men. First, I dipped the worm in a mix of spices and popped it in my mouth. I did it just the way Mickey had as he rubbed his tummy making the "mmmm" sound to assure me that I wouldn't be disappointed. The crunchy worm had a distinct flavor that blended with the mixture of spices in a surprisingly delicious way. It was totally crunchy, more like eating toast then worm. I was relieved.

Related Links

Pictures of silkworms, and even a clip of silkworms eating!

To buy frogs legs online

A whole page with lots of bug-eating photos!

Now for the cricket...This was more difficult because the legs and head were attached. I could not trick myself into imagining that it was something else. This was a giant cricket and I was about to eat it. In slow motion I stared at the bug, which seemed to be staring back at me from my chopsticks. I questioned if I could do it - I almost backed down - and then I looked at Mickey's huge smile. He would be heartbroken if I didn't at least try. In it went. I closed my eyes tight and bit down on yet another crunchy morsel. It didn't feel like a bug crawling around in my mouth. Come to think of it, it didn't feel like a bug at all.

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One man's insects are another man's steak!
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"This is really good!" I exclaimed, digging in for another. And so the story goes. We ate until our hearts were content. I would have to say that crickets and worms are an acquired taste but definitely yummy. The frog legs tasted like tender chicken wings, with less meat, of course. I was pleased and glad that I took the chance. While I would never have thought to turn insects into such a wonderfully scrumptious dishes, it made me realize how right my father is. One man's insects really are another man's steak!

Jasmine

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...jasminehamlett@bigfoot.com
 

Kavitha - Learning the Way of the Peaceful Warrior - Mastering the Art of Kung-fu
Yang-Yang - Finding the Confucian in You!
Abeja - Here we are in China! No wait, I mean Istanbul! No, no, this must be Tehran!
Yang-Yang -The Price is Right…but at what cost to Chinese culture?

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