Discovering China - Bite By Bite

Fried scorpions, chicken liver soup and jellyfish - not exactly your typical restaurant fare, unless you're in China. CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen explains in this special Reporter's Notebook from Beijing.
There comes a moment in a traveling life when time stops.

I can tell you when that moment came for me: when a waitress proudly put a dish of fried scorpions on the table during a get-acquainted banquet with foreign affairs officials in the tiny town of Nanjie, China.

Fried scorpions? This was not good.

A plate of fried scorpions
I was the honored guest. That meant I had to take the first bite. Everyone was obviously proud of this local specialty. "People in the village raised scorpions just for this moment," our hosts told me.

Sitting there for several seconds (though it felt longer to me), staring at this plate of fried critters with nasty-looking turned-up tails, I contemplated the possibilities.

Saying no was out of the question - loss of face, insult to the hosts on the eve of shooting a story. No one wants to start off on the wrong foot.

Saying yes meant...?

The seconds ticked. The mind imagined scorpions running around their cages, being dumped live into a flaming wok and then headed for my own, personal, one-of-a-kind stomach.

I would like to say there was a smile on my face when, chopsticks in hand, I picked up Scorpion 1. My friends at the table tell a different story.

 
Correspondent Barry Petersen eats a scorpion.
But in it went and - guess what - if I didn't think about it, it tasted great.

Salty and crisp, not unlike potato chips - maybe a little crunchier. Maybe you really don't want all the details?

Having gotten their honored guest to try the scorpion, it was now no holds barred.

That night and the next day at lunch there were other local delicacies for the foreigner to try.

Ducks' feet - lots of bone, thank you. Turtle soup was not all that strange, until the waitress put the turtle shell next to me. There was soft meat on the edge of the shell. The honored guest got to chew on the side of the shell for this prized taste before passing it around.

 
A dish of ducks' feet
Here we go again, an here I went again. It was rather tasteless really, and I'm sure the turtle would be offended at my criticism since he made all the real sacrifices.

Shall we go on? The chicken liver soup. The frog. Spicy cooked cucumber, a personal favorite. The jellyfish, or so I am told that's what it was.

Ah, but my newfound friend had a very special surprise for me: an unusual soup. Suffice to say the arrival of this was preceded by a discussion of how men in China eat certain things to increase their sexual potency. Scorpions, by the way, are said to be a sure winner.

But the soup was a mystery. What was it, I asked with what I dearly hope was a voice showing no signs of fear.

"No, no," they said, as several of them grinned. "You must try it first and then we'll tell you."

Right. The mind couldn't imagine what the reality turned out to be.

In the soup were inch-long curls that looked exactly like corkscrew pasta. The taste was chewy, rather like squid. OK, I dug in. Loved it, I claimed. Not bad for a journalist sworn to tell the truth.

It was then they told me I'd had my first encounter with - there is no delicate way of saying this - ox penis soup. The mouth cooperated, the mind reeled.

 
Petersen looks quizzically at a bowl of unnamed soup.
Over a second cup of this special soup, Mr. Zheng Chang Fu, deputy chief of the Henan Foreign Affairs Office, mentioned that he had recently visited America - New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas and a few other cities.

"Did you," I asked, "encounter any strange American food that, to you, was like ox-penis soup to me?"

"Oh no," he said, with a mischievous grin. "On my trip I was very careful. I made sure to eat all my meals...at Chinese restaurants."

Written by Barry Petersen
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