Eating Weird Stuff for CBS: Photos and Tasting Notes

I always thought that if I ever tried eating bugs, it would be on a dare, for a ton of money. Then last weekend I found myself at the Donghuamen Night Market with a CBS crew, trying centipedes, silkworms, and other odd critters for a CBS Early Edition segment. (More photos following the video.)

You can also see the video on CBS's site.)

In the past few weeks, international TV stations and reporters have increased tenfold around Beijing. And more than a handful of media outlets have pounced on the fact that the Wangfujing and Donghuamen snack streets sell some of the weirdest things to put in your mouth. Beijing Boyce is even documenting the scorpion-on-a-stick love affair with a running tally of stories this month. Locals and expats may snicker, knowing full well that nobody eats this stuff but tourists. But at some point everyone has been equally awed at seeing the critters for the first time.

CBS correspondent Jeff Glor was supposed to be the one sampling all the "snacks", but I ended up eating my fair share. So if the video wasn't enough, enjoy the pictorial tour, complete with tasting notes. I ate this stuff so you don't have to.

These are the starfish that in the video I said tasted like saltwater eel. They basically took the entire thing and deep-fried it, then whacked it open so we could eat the insides. You can also bite into the shell, like an older gentleman nearby did.

Scorpions were simply crunchy, like the tiny little bits that end up in the bottom of your french fry carton. Didn't try the beetles. Did I mention that nobody in Beijing eats bugs unless they're capturing the moment on film, just to disgust their friends back home?

At the night market, the vendors slice up cow's stomach and boil it with some broth and vegetables. While I didn't have it at the market, I definitely have eaten this at some point in my life (out of sight, out of mind.)

As expected, silkworms were pretty disgusting. Think rotten, overcooked scrambled eggs.

In my opinion, the centipedes were the worst. This was one instance in which the deep-fry-everything-to-get-out-any-bad-taste philosophy failed. It was almost bitter.

One guess what the two skewers on the right are.


Snowstorms in Central China and Stranded Trains

On January 25th Jacob and I left Beijing on what was supposed to have been a leisurely 24-hour ride to Hong Kong. We got to the train station on time, despite being almost late, and went through check-in without hassle. The train left on schedule, and the first 12 hours were pretty relaxing. When I went to bed the train was still chugging along, having just entered Hunan province.

The next morning I woke up to the news that the train had barely moved all night. There was a lot of snow and ice outside. We inched along, stopped, inched more, stopped. We stopped in Changsha's train station for about 6 or 7 hours. It wasn't until dinner time, way past our expected 1pm arrival time in Hong Kong, that we passengers were finally clued in.

Areas of Hunan, and other surrounding provinces, were experiencing the worst snowstorm in 50 years. Hunan had a massive power failure, and we were on an electric train. We had no power to run on. By 9pm, almost all the lights were shut off to conserve electricity, in case the conductors needed to jumpstart the engine. There was no more hot drinking water. Heat was also turned off. Bathrooms and hallways were getting filtheir and filthier. We still had to buy, and sometimes pay extra for, all our food.

At one train station, we stopped right by an outdoor snack stall selling ramen, crackers, and large bottles of beer and baijiu. We watched longingly as passengers from another stranded train disembarked and bought their provisions.

We, on the otherhand, were stuck on the train. Hong Kong-bound passengers had already been stamped out of mainland China before boarding in Beijing. Even though we were stuck in Hunan, we were already technically out of China, and thus bound to the blurry political boundary of the train.

I spent another cold night onboard, tucking into a cheap comforter to keep warm. The next morning, I learned that during the night the electric engine had been replaced with steam engine. From about 9 a.m. on, we sped through southern Hunan and Guangdong, and finally arrived in Hong Kong a full 24 hours behind schedule.

Once Jacob and I got through immigration, we came face to face with not only my very relieved grandfather, but also about half a dozen TV crews. One reporter stuck a mic in my face and asked about the situation on board. Train station personnel handed us each a bottle of water and a red bean roll, for our troubles.

It wasn't until I arrived at my great-aunt's and watched the news did I discover the magnitude of the catastrophe. In just two days, 50,000 people were already stranded at Guangzhou's train station. Many had to wait outside because of lack of space inside. Our train was just one of the 136 stranded en route. Hunan still has a power outage. The story was front-page news in Hong Kong.

The New York Times didn't report on the story until today. The Times estimates that up to 600,000 will be stranded at Guangzhou's train station by Monday. China's train system being crippled is bad any time of the year, but especially now, a week before Spring Festival. This is the biggest travel season in all of China, when hundreds of millions of people travel at the same time.

According to the Times: "To cope with the crisis, authorities in Guangzhou have ordered a temporary halt to the sale of train tickets and urged migrants from other provinces to spend the Spring Festival in Guangdong Province."

With 78 million expected to be affected by this crisis, the situation is akin to having every airport in North America and Europe shut down before Christmas. And airport personnel saying, "Oh well, maybe you should spend the holidays in Terminal B, or maybe an overpriced motel nearby."

I'm glad I will be in HK the next few days. Though I am a bit worried about our bus ride up to Zhongshan on Thursday, if the roads don't clear up.

Appetite for China and changes to Indietrekker

My obsession with food has taken on a life of its own. Or rather, a blog of its own. Appetite for China is my new blog focused on food in this country of seemingly endless foods to try. It will have previously published food-related posts from indietrekker, and will become to repository for all future food posts. AFC started out of my endless curiosity about China's many cuisines and my inability to find another blog focused on the topic.

Indietrekker, meanwhile, will not be forgotten. It remains my blog for general travel around the world, though for now it will remain centered on China/Asia.

Please visit Appetite for China, and stay tuned for more posts here as well.

Lamb dumplings, Old Beijing-style

While exploring Beijing by bicycle today, we came across a restaurant we may not otherwise have found. Lǎo Běijīng Jiācháng Jiǎozi (老北京家常饺子)is located right near the popular Hongqiao Market, but set apart from other stores by an overpass. The name, which translates to Old Beijing Family Dumplings, jumped out at me as we rode by as a good place for a hearty dinner after we explored the Temple of Heaven.

We stopped by around nightfall. From a quick glance at the menu, it was obvious that the specialty was hand-made shuǐ jiǎo 水饺, or boiled dumplings. We asked for an order of lamb shuǐ jiǎo, thinking that if one weren't enough we could just get another order. Turned out we were right to hold off, since one order consisted of about 12 or 14 golf-ball sized dumplings, enough for two people to share and still be full.

The dumplings' skin was the soft and thick type that can only be rolled by hand. The lamb and onion filling was flavorful, especially with a few drops of chilli sauce. The dumplings also came with a broth that seemed like congee, without any bits of rice or seasonings. We figured out what it was for after Jacob accidentally swallowed one too many bits of chilli: the broth is a great neutralizer for your tongue.

Another mental note: go back and try their hand-made noodles, shrimp-egg-chive dumplings, and zucchini-fennel-cabbage dumplings.

Lǎo Běijing Jiācháng Jiǎozi 老北京家常饺子
Chongwenmenwai Dajie, just north of Hongqiao Market
Chongwen District, Beijing


Portuguese / Macanese at Restaurante Escada

As a frequent traveler, I have crossed political borders in many ways: by plane, train, bus, car, and boat. On our day trip to Macau yesterday, I walked across a border for the first time after taking a bus from Zhongshan to the Chinese/Macau customs. On the other side lay a place that is very much Cantonese in lifestyle and language, but where you will find a huge amount of culinary diversity.

Macau was a Portuguese colony until 1999, when it was returned to China. It remains a Special Administrative Region like Hong Kong, which means it gets its own Special boundaries, laws, and Special access to bulk imports of Portuguese sausages. The thought of delicious cured meat compelled me to wander the narrow hilly streets in search of Portuguese and Macanese fare, which is a combination of Portuguese, African, and Southeast Asian cooking.

During the day we ate wherever we walked, as street food in Macau is abundant and delicious. At night I wanted a long, relaxing sit-down dinner. Unfortunately it started to rain just as we were about to walk towards a couple of restaurants in the southern part of the peninsula. Looking for shelter, we turned onto a narrow cobblestone street off Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, and saw a charming little building strung up with lights. Restaurante Escada, said the swinging sign. The daily specials chalkboard listed bacalhau, seafood stew, and a range of grilled meats. We asked to see the regular menu too, and immediately 3, 4, 5, 10 dishes popped out as something I wanted to try. Sold.

For an appetizer we ordered a Portuguese sausage that came out on a flaming dish. The waitress turned it over so we could see how it blistered oh-so-deliciously on the open flame. Tasting the sausage three years after my last trip to Spain and Portugal reminded me just how adept Iberians are when it comes to curing meat.

I ordered Galinha à Africana for my entree, a roasted chicken covered in piri piri, or African bird's eye chili, sauce. The half chicken portion size was more than I could comfortably eat, but definitely sated my appetite for tender and subtley spiced meat. Jacob loved his beef in cream sauce entree; while I am not a huge fan of rare meat, I did steal more than a few french fries, crisp and lightly dusted with pepper, off his plate.

It was a wonderful meal to end a day of exploring Macau, a place so physically close to Guangdong Province, but culturally and culinarily different.

Restaurante Escada
Rua de Sé No. 8 (off Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro)