Friday, March 6, 2009

Shark Fin Soup, Chicken Feet and Duck's Blood

It's been a fairly uneventful few weeks for me since coming back from Taiwan. Going to classes, reading for classes, studying Chinese. I'll be traveling later this month, April, and May, so I've been laying low a bit to save money. In lieu of final exams, I'm writing papers for two courses - one is a comparison of the cannabis laws of Singapore and the Netherlands (pretty much polar opposites); the other one is about "cultural" exceptions to the international whaling ban.

This post is not so much about Hong Kong specifically, but just some reflections on food and drink that I've tried in "Greater China" - Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland. The more time I spend over here, the easier it is to let go of the idea that some animals, or some parts of animals, are more "normal" to eat than others. It's all more or less meat, after all.

Jellyfish: I first tried this at a nice restaurant in Shanghai a few years ago, mostly because I wanted to say that I had eaten jellyfish. As it turned out, I liked it - the texture is a bit like calamari, but is a bit crunchy as well as chewy. I still order this in Boston. There used to be a good place on Brighton Avenue, but it has unfortunately closed. To make matters worse, my good friend Connie stole my to-go box of jellyfish the last time we went there.

Shark fin soup: First off, I should say that I do not condone the consumption of shark fin soup. The way that the chief ingredient is obtained is fairly gruesome. Fishermen don't actually kill the shark, but simply hack off the fins and toss it back into the ocean to die. I would never order it. The only time I've eaten it was at a very posh, set-course dinner in Beijing. Thus, the shark was already dead, the dish was already made, and my refusal to eat the soup would have had no effect whatsoever on the market for shark fins - under the circumstances, it would also have been very rude. All that being said, I enjoyed the soup. The texture is a bit hard to describe - the fin is mostly cartilage, but it was fairly soft, not very rubbery. Served with a bowl of rice, and was a very hearty course. But while the soup was good, it was really nothing special. Had it been something less controversial, it would be nothing worth writing about. So, I continue to oppose this dish in principle. The demand for shark fins apparently remains high, though. I've seen many hanging in the windows of Chinese medicine shops and restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau.

Duck's blood: Absolutely delicious. I tried this at a hot pot restaurant in Kaohsiung, Taiwan last month. The duck's blood is congealed to a tofu-like consistency and cut into cubes. After simmering in a spicy Sichuan-style broth for ten minutes or so it picked up a wonderful flavor, both spicy and savory at the same time.

Baijiu: Even if you're a serious, open-minded drinker, I do not recommend this stuff. It's not like soju, and it's not like sake. It's like rubbing alcohol. For those of you who claim vodka tastes like rubbing alcohol, trust me - it tastes like water compared to baijiu. It is generally distilled from sorghum (sometimes from rice) and tends to be very strong, around 120 proof or so. The worst, cheapest stuff comes in small green bottles with white and red labels. In some places you can buy little plastic, one-shot bags of it for the equivalent of around 50 cents. I went camping on an old ruined section of the Great Wall a few hours away from Beijing a couple of years ago, and one of my friends brought along a bottle of baijiu for the night. When one of our group gashed his leg open on a rock on a treacherous portion of the trail, we used the baijiu as antiseptic - it bubbled like hydrogen peroxide when we poured it in his cut. We also used it to help get the campfire going. I never drink baijiu if I can avoid it. However, I make an exception for moutai. It's a type of baijiu from Guizhou province, somewhere around 110 proof. It's got an interesting, almost spicy flavor to it, and served warm in a small glass it's pretty good.

Chicken feet: The first time a plate was set in front of me a few years ago I wouldn't touch it. However, I overcame my reluctance and tried them as part of a dim sum brunch in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. Not bad. The basic idea isn't all that different from eating a chicken wing - you nibble around a bone to get at a relatively small portion of meat. So, once I quit thinking about what part of the chicken it was, I had no trouble eating these. There's not as much meat, though, so for that reason I would order wings, if given the choice; but as a dim sum course it's fine.

Yak butter tea: It's basically a thick, hot tea in which the principle ingredient is Yak butter. Sounds disgusting, but it is actually a great drink for a cold day. Hot and thick, it really warms you up. Given Tibet's altitude and how unbelievably cold the winters are, it's not surprising that this is such a popular drink there. I spent the coldest night of my life in an unheated hostel in Lhasa in mid-winter, and the first thing I did when I woke up in the morning was down a giant mug of this stuff. I felt better immediately.

Stinky tofu: Pretty much like it sounds. I'm not quite sure how it is prepared, but these chunks of tofu smell distinctly like unwashed feet. If you're passing a restaurant that serves it, you can typically smell it from the street. This one took some getting used to. The first few times I ate it, I only did so to be polite; however, by the third time I realized I had acquired a taste for it. Part of the trick is to just ignore the smell, or convince yourself that the smell is not coming from the tofu - honestly, it does not taste like it smells. If you live in Boston, try it at Taiwan Cafe in Chinatown.

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