Here's a partial list of what we ate at the Donghuamen Night Market:
A friend e-mailed me and said, "Did you do this because of a story, or a dare?"
I wrote him back and said, "Both."
We wanted to get an idea of what things are like on "Snack Street" (the Western name for it). It's a long line of stalls lining a main street in downtown Beijing. Yes, it's a tourist trap, but it's also a study in how the Chinese eat, both now and many years ago.
The brave sport who agreed to join me was Diana Kuan, a food expert in Beijing who writes a blog called "Appetite for China."
The first unusual dish that really struck me was centipede. This long bug is presented on a stick, tossed in a large wok, and deep fried. Everything here, really, is deep fried, which creates a pungent smell in the marketplace. Not the kind of sensation that whets your appetite, but there was eating to be done, ready or not.
Before the centipede touched my tongue, I'll admit I was reluctant. I'm usually game for anything at the dinner table; this felt like eating in the garden.
Neither my palette nor my writing skills are sharp enough to describe exactly what the centipede tasted like, but let's just say it wasn't good. It was bitter, with an aftertaste that was even more bitter.
The bees were better. So was the snake, actually, which was crunchy, maybe even a little sweet.
Granted, I wasn't wolfing down Hungry Man-size portions. I nibbled, if anything, especially with the starfish, which came next. The guy behind the counter sliced it open and told me to eat the guts, which looked like green cottage cheese. Against my better instincts, I obliged.
While it may have looked the worst, the starfish probably tasted the best. Diana said it reminded her of "saltwater eel." In a penetrating piece of culinary analysis, I observed that it was reminiscent of... chicken.
If it sounds outrageous to do all this, well, it is. But believe it or not, there is a history here. Many years ago, Diana explained, if you had to eat, and there wasn't a nice hunk of beef or pork or lamb sitting around, you ate insects, or whatever else was available. It beat starving to death.
I was also intrigued by the lack of waste in Chinese cooking. Diana told me when they butcher an animal, they use it, whether it's the lungs or the kidney or the brain. Diana said, "They'll take a whole sheep's head and make a soup out of it."
Plus, there's ancient Chinese medicine behind many of these unusual dishes. Seahorses, for example, are supposed to increase your virility. As a long-suffering victim of back pain, I was encouraged when they told me centipedes would help my spine.
I'm still waiting.
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