I had promised to write more about my Beijing trip, and so now I’m following up on that. Because Beijing was where I ate my first scorpion.
My very first experience with scorpion as food actually occurred early during my stay in China, in the fresh food market. When you go to buy fresh food, there are sections in the market devoted to different kinds of food. In one large market where I often shop, the scorpions, along with the frogs and snakes and turtles, are the first thing one sees upon walking inside the building. Then come the fish and alligatores in tanks. Near there is is the pre-roasted duck, dog, lamb, goat. Further down, there is just one person who sells beef (it’s too expensive and takes too many land resources to grow much beef). Across the aisle are the pork sellers, with parts of carcasses hanging up and pieces laid out on a slab that one can choose. Nearby, are the chicken sellers. Some sell their chickens already butchered, and others wait to slaughter the chicken when someone picks it out.
The first time I went to the market and saw live scorpions, I was somewhat amazed, of course. Not only how do you catch them, how do you raise them, how do you prepare and eat them, and also, WHY?!! Why would anyone eat scorpion? Well maybe for starters, it’s cheap to raise and provides protein?
That issue aside, I asked Sophie one day why people eat scorpion. We were in a restaurant sometime in the spring, and there was a big promotion on scorpion. A special brochure described about ten different dishes made from scorpion. Were they delicious, I asked? "No," she replied.
"Why do people eat them, then," I asked?
"Maybe they are good for cancer," was her response.
Oh, so that’s it. They’re supposed to be healthy. It’s Chinese medicine. I don’t know if it’s supposed to prevent cancer or cure it. Chinese eat a lot of things that are supposed to be good for you. And folk wisdom often times has a lot of truth to it. But still, I felt no need to try and eat scorpion.
And, it seems, neither did most of my Chinese friends. When I went with my Chinese friends on our trip to Wulingyuan in the spring, all of our meals were selected by our Chinese tour guide based on our food preferences. At one meal, a plate of scorpions was placed on the table. They appeared to have been fried up with some shrimp and hot pepper. The dish looked about as spicy as they come. (We were in Hunan Province, which is known for its spicy food.) The ladies I was with immediately sent the dish back to the kitchen, explaining to the waitress that we wanted something else. Here is a picture of it before it was sent back:
The second time I’ve ever been served scorpion was during our Kao Ya night in Beijing this fall. As a "thank you" to my Chinese hosts for taking me with them on our trip, I wanted to take everyone out for Peking Roast Duck. I don’t know the name of the restaurant where we went, but it’s large and famous, virtually across the street from Tian An Men square. Here are some photos of our duck:
The first time I ever went to this restaurant, I had been with all Americans. We ordered the dishes we thought would suit our American tastes. This time, in contrast, I decided to order the entire set meal. The waitress recommended that the set dinner for seven people would be plenty of food for our party of nine. Indeed, it was more than enough as well as very delicious.
I wasn’t surprised that the duck liver was one of my favorite dishes — I like liver and, after all, it’s pate’.
What did surprise me was that another of my favorite things was the duck hearts. If one is familiar with what it is like to eat poultry hearts, one knows that they are rather chewy. The chef had solved this challenge by slicing vertical cuts before quick frying them. They were tender and delicious, served on a bed of fresh cilantro. (Before I came to China, I never knew that cilantro is a ubiquitous element of Chinese food and flavor.)
Another little surprise was that my Chinese friends didn’t care for the fat on the duck meat any more than my American friends. To my surprise, they chose more lean food just as my American friends would. The first time I had been to eat Beijing duck and we all found it too fatty, I thought it must just be on account of our American taste buds. I realize that all of us find the fat a bit rich.
But back to eating scorpions — how did it come about? Well, . . . I notice that one of the dishes on the table had deep fried scorpions on it, almost like a garnish.
I think to myself, "Okay, here’s my chance." Remember, didn’t I say something in a recent post about expats being rather adventurous? But still, it’s rather like jumping off the high dive.
And I confess, never once in my life have I jumped off a real high dive! I managed to grow up in Florida, swimming every day, living on Big Bayou, having friends who regularly tried to jump off their diving platform onto the huge manta ray that used to swim underneath, or catch a basketball tossed on the way down . . . but I never did it. The one time I ever decided to climb to the top and try it, I thought it looked like I was about three stories up. I know what a belly flop feels like from just six feet — and I climbed right back down that ladder! Indeed, many years later, I felt rather guilty watching my daughter jump off the high dive when this was required as part of her intermediate swimming class, since it was never required in any of my swimming classes.
But I did jump off the scorpion high dive.
Nobody at the table was eating scorpions. Nobody at our table had any intention of eating scorpions, either. Nobody but me, that is! I decided to try one. I got somebody lined up to take a picture. Are you sure, she asked incredulously? Of course (be brave, I tell myself. Okay now, one two three)!
I picked up the tiniest one from the bunch. Its claws and tail had fallen off during frying, so that it resembled a small cockroach more than a scorpion in appearance. Snap a photo, one bite. Hmm. Not so horrible. Though my friends’ faces were rather shocked and amazed. They were looking at me as if they couldn’t believe what I had done. But I decided that the one little bug just didn’t make a very good photo op. You couldn’t even tell what it was! I had to do it again! This time, my courage bolstered, I picked a really good one with nice, big tail and claws.
Could I do it? Not sure. Okay. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Kind of like crispy overdone beef. Not bad, really. Just close your mind and don’t think about it!
And then the funny part. Nobody could let the foreigner eat one and not eat one themselves! What I had done was like a dare — everyone had to do it!
So we all had a great time taking turns, taking photos.
As they say in every write up of a fun party, "A good time was had by all!"