In China, many people are narrow-minded when it comes to the western world and its way of life. However, paradoxically, when westerners visit China, they need to have an open mind – especially when it comes to food. The Chinese have a saying: ‘We eat anything with four legs – except tables, and everything that flies – except airplanes’, and that is quite literally very true. Almost. China is famed for its range of cuisine from its different regions as well as known for its appetite for exotic delicacies of or from animals beyond chickens, pigs and cows, which has resulted in it being constantly criticised for the farming and killing of or fishing for animals for their meat. From insects to reptiles and from animals’ internal organs to their genitals, pretty much anything that is edible is available in China; in shops, restaurants and on the streets.
When I lived in China for a year I was open to trying almost any kind of food available, including dog, snakeskin and shark fin soups, ostrich, octopus, frog, pigeon, duck tongues and my least favourite, starfish – it tastes a bit like salty crab on the inside but the skin was worse than biting a stale crust of bread. I didn’t quite fancy bugs, although was told cockroaches were not too bad and are, as you can imagine, crunchy. If you’re already squeamish about eating chicken feet, a delicacy that is very common in Chinese restaurants in the western world, then China may not be the place for yet, if you’re ever in China and can stomach some of these specialities and brush off the shock or even disgust that some people may bear towards you for being brave, then you should definitely take up the chance to at least try.
Animals and their body parts have long been used for ‘medicinal purposes’ by the Chinese and so many of these foods are also apparently good for one’s health, particularly the genitals of animals – most of which are used to help treat or cure sexual health problems such as erectile dysfunction and lack of libido. For example, animal penises are good for the skin and wine made from a deer’s heart, penis and blood can act like a very effective viagra – with no side effects. Get in there! Literally. However, if you’re under fifteen, eating such things should not be allowed because the hormones can interfere with natural growth, and women should not eat testicles – unless they want to run the risk of having a deeper voice and maybe even a beard.
Apart from the wide array of animals you can eat, Chinese cuisine is legendary for its different flavours and distinct regional dishes, including the most popular worldwide, Cantonese (southern China) style and the renowned spicy cuisine of Szechuan and western China. Cooking styles vary across the whole country and some foods and ingredients or herbs and spices are only found or used in certain areas, making them unique; before going to different regions and cities, checking what the local style and speciality dishes are is recommended and trying them is a must.
When it comes to drinks in China, tea would obviously spring to everyone’s minds. Tea has always been a part of Chinese history and culture – the preparation and presentation of tea, the way it is drunk and the reasons for drinking it is still taken into consideration by many. With dozens of different varieties, flavours and grades of tea available, many of which have their own health properties, you’ll be spoilt for choice if you want to try some – and probably completely clueless as well. If you prefer alcoholic beverages, China’s famed Tsingtao and Yanjing beers are highly recommended, but if you’re looking for something stronger, then China’s wines and spirits could knock you out quicker than it takes to try and pronounce their names. Dynasty and Great Wall Wines are two of China’s most popular brands, while ‘Baijiu’ is China’s infamous liquor – between 40 and 60 percent ABV – that could put some of the strongest vodkas of the world to shame and test even the heaviest drinker’s alcohol tolerance.
Authentic Chinese cuisine is not for the unadventurous (are you brave enough to try something other than sweet and sour pork and chicken in black bean sauce?) or faint-hearted, but if you’re one of the courageous ones, then experiencing as many different kinds of food as possible is highly recommended – and doing so in their respective areas even more so – Szechuan dishes in Shanghai for example, are different to those found in Szechuan itself, and Peking duck in Beijing is far better than having it in Hong Kong. They say ‘Chinese food never fills you up and after eating it you still feel hungry’, but when there’s so much choice available and with many dishes costing less than half a meal in the UK, that should not be a difficult problem to solve.