While I am organizing my notes on my recent ichnology fieldwork and conference in China and while I am both taking and editing pictures of theropod teeth with the frenzy of an obsessed woman, I thought I would include a food-related adventure from China. [NOTE: Technically I am re-taking these photos. Somehow my entire folder of 300+ images became corrupt, and I can no longer access the images I had already edited. A back-up, you say? I wish I had thought of it sooner. I will never put my trust solely in one external hard drive again. The hurt is still too fresh. Will I learn to love again?]
Fieldwork and conference travel in other countries often involves a crash-course in foreign cuisine. You have absolutely no choice but to dig in unless you have a satchel full of granola bars, which would become tedious after two meals. Also, if you are an invited guest, your hosts will have gone to great effort to feed you. And do they ever feed you! We did field work in multiple regions, and at every dinner we were treated to special regional dishes. One of the first phrases I had to learn in Mandarin was "I'm full!"
I love international travel, and one of the reasons is the opportunity to experience different foods the way they are actually cooked, rather than the North American version of that particular cuisine. I usually do not hesitate to try something that is new to me or that "looks different." I was prepared for a completely different food experience, but I don't think that anything could have prepared me for THIS particular experience.
WARNING: For those of you with a squeamish stomach, I recommend not reading this post. Certain parts of invertebrate and vertebrate anatomy are consumed that would not normally be consumed, at least in westernized North America. Thanks for stopping by, though. I'll have something a bit less bizarre on the China trip in the New Year. For those of you who have not traveled to China and are leery about the cuisine, please do not worry. This Fear Factor-esque story is not indicative of the cuisine we experienced in China. I enjoyed 99.9% of what I ate while in China.
This foodie adventure takes place after a successful week of field work in various regions and a spectacular conference in Chongqing, China. We spent a few days in Beijing with our host Lida, who did a great job showing us around the city. He also showed us all of the great restaurants at which to eat. The food was fantastic. We sampled countless vegetarian dishes, several regional seafood dishes, beef, pork, and various steamed buns. I have a new appreciation for the multiple ways that tofu can be cooked and actually taste good. We even went to a specialty vegetarian restaurant where the tofu was prepared to look, feel, and taste exactly like fish.
Lida, like me, is a fan of sushi. Lida and his wife took us to one of his favorite sushi restaurants in Beijing and ordered us the V.I.P. menu. If you've never had one of these types of sushi meals, this means that (with a few exceptions) the sushi chef decides what you will be eating that evening. We were in luck, because we were treated to extremely fresh tuna sashimi. Each part of the fish produces a slightly different texture and flavor of sashimi, and we get to sample each of the parts.
Meanwhile, Lida ordered one of his favorite dishes: octopus tentacles. The tentacles are so fresh that they are still moving. The tentacles are not technically alive, but the nerve impulses are still firing, which means the tentacles wriggle and writhe on the plate like some vermiform nightmare.
How bad could it be? Just watch!
That is me talking in the background. The pauses you hear indicate when I am trying not to gag. Everyone has food preferences and aversions. My food aversions include gelatin-based or items with a gelatin-like consistency, and things shaped like worms. Gummi-worms are near the top of the list, or at least they were until I sampled octopus. Octopus, right then and there, moved to the top of my list.
I did not judge octopus on its plate-appeal alone. I listened to the voice in my head that said "Woman up!" and tried a tentacle. This is not an experience I will be looking to repeat. First, I like octopi as whole, living animals. Octopi are intelligent invertebrates, and if a large invertebrate came at me with a cleaver to dine upon my freshly severed limbs, I'd be a bit miffed.
|Pronouncing this correctly will not save me from his wrath. http://www.thelovecraftsman.com/2011/03/youtube-video-tells-you-how-to.html|
We moved on to dishes that included more tuna sashimi, tempura, shellfish, and soup. Everything was delicious. I temporarily forgot the excitement of the tentacles, assuming that was the odd food highlight of the evening.
I could not have been more wrong.
The chef wheeled the frozen head of the tuna on which we had been feasting in to the dining room on a carving trolley.
|"Fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads. Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, Yum!"|
The chef started carving the head in front of us, removing the choice cuts of meat from the head and serving them to us immediately. I learned that many people consider the meat on the head to be the most flavorful part of a fish. I can't disagree: the sashimi was excellent.
Now we come to the part of the story where my brain divides into two entities: Practical Shaman and Timid Shaman. What prompted this mental fission was that the chef, while carving up the fish head, took great pains to extract the eye intact. This back-and-forth happened completely in my head: how much of this played out in my facial expressions I cannot say. Hopefully I looked as if I was intrigued by the chef's carving skills.
"You do know what this means, don't you?" Practical Shaman said. "He wouldn't be so careful with that eye if it was not going to be used."
"Be quiet, you!" Timid Shaman squeaked. "Maybe this is to show us how fresh this fish is."
P.S. insists "I tell you that eye is destined for your plate. And really, how bad could it be? It's just as edible as most other parts of a fish."
"It's a GIANT EYE. Need I say more? How can they expect us to eat a frozen eye that measures in at about a cup?" T.S. had a false sense of security at this point.
"Oh really? Did you not see the giant cleaver? You are going to know what eye tastes like."
Here is what we saw:
|From right to left: tuna head, sashimi, A CUP OF EYE.|
The chef then carefully scooped the shaved ice (or, in this case eye-ce) into four large shot glasses. The glasses are about 2/3 full at this point. He topped each glass with a serving of white wine, and oh-so-carefully used a toothpick to place a single flake of gold leaf on the top of the floating eye-ce. He handed us each a glass. And then he stood there, waiting.
"This has to be a joke!" T.S. mentally gasps. "There is a hidden camera somewhere. I can't do this!"
"Don't be silly, and don't be rude. You will drink this special creation. You are a guest." P.S. admonishes. "Oh, and the longer you hesitate, that frozen eye-ice is just going to become more slimy." Sometimes I think P.S. takes great pleasure in providing uncomfortable observations.
That was it. I was a guest and a representative of my country: I had to do my duty as a gracious Canadian visitor and drink that eye.
I had only enough culinary fortitude to do this in one gulp. Yes, I felt the gooey melting eye pieces in my mouth, and there was a faint fish flavor, but down it went, gold flake and all.
I DID IT!!! I ATE (well, drank) AN EYE!!!
We had a great deal of fun teasing each other about this later, and, as Lida said "You'll never forget this meal!" If I had to choose between the two bizarre (to me) food items of that evening, I would pick the eye over the octopus tentacles. I didn't have to chew the eye, and the eye didn't come from an animal that was still alive. The eye also didn't move (and didn't come from an animal that was still alive when it was removed). That being said, I am not going to seek out eye for my next dinner party.
I'm sure that this isn't the strangest food item people have sampled in the name of international research. I'd love to hear some stories!
I think it's time for lunch!
Happy New Year!