5 strangest foods (for a Westerner) in China

Have you ever wondered what the equivalents of some of our stranger delicacies like toad in the hole and jellied eels are across the world? What better place to start exploring slightly strange and confusing foods than China – here are just a few examples of baffling food dishes you may come across:

Chicken feet

Not usually the part of a chicken you’d think of eating, but in Chinese cuisine, chicken feet are often an option at dim sum restaurants, served as ‘phoenix talons’. The feet are deep fried or steamed first, in order to make them puffy, before being stewed and simmered in a sauce flavoured with black fermented beans, bean paste and sugar. You can also find chicken feet vacuum-packed and ready to eat in supermarkets.

Stinky tofu

This dish is renowned for its pungent odour. A block of tofu is soaked in brine made with shrimp, vegetables and salt that has been fermented for months. Stinky tofu is like marmite – you either love it or hate it. Asian tourists who follow their nose will have no trouble finding a stinky tofu stand – it’s even known for street sellers to be fined for breaking air pollution laws! Several restaurants have been dedicated to the smelly curd for those wanting to enjoy their stinky tofu in a more formal atmosphere.

Sea cucumber

Wander into any Chinese medicine shop and you’ll spot what looks like a chunk of cement in on display. This is the dried form of sea cucumber, also known as sea ginseng. This strange looking ocean creature looks exactly like a cucumber with the addition of tube feet and a ring of tentacles around its mouth. Unfortunately, its taste doesn’t live up to its appearance though – rather it’s quite bland. Nonetheless, its alleged medicinal value and reputation as an aphrodisiac make sea cucumber a popular dish at Chinese New Year banquets and other celebrations.

Bird’s nest soup

The main ingredient in bird’s nest soup is the nest of the swiftlet, a tiny bird that lives in caves in Southeast Asia. The swiftlet makes a nest from its own saliva rather than sticks and straw – the only bird in the world to do so. Harvesting these nests requires skill – men must balance on tall bamboo poles to grab the nests from inside the dark caves. Like sea cucumber, bird’s nest doesn’t actually taste much of anything. It’s enjoyed a rise in popularity from its growing reputation as both a health tonic and an aphrodisiac.

Thousand-year old eggs

Thousand-year-old eggs, a Guangdong delicacy, aren’t really that old. A more accurate name for this pungent hors d’oeuvre would be salted or preserved eggs. To make thousand-year-old eggs (also called century eggs or hundred-year-old eggs), duck eggs are preserved in ash and salt for 100 days. This turns the white of the egg a gelatinous consistency and dark brown colour and the yolk green, giving the eggs their ancient appearance. Definitely an acquired taste, thousand-year-old eggs have a creamy, cheese-like flavour and a strong smell.

Philip Hamilton-Grierson is the Marketing Director at Cox & Kings.

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Comments (1)

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  1. E H Wrigley says:

    Having just returned from China I would also add deep fried star fish / seahorses (yes seahorses!) / spiders and some unidentified insect being skewered live before being deep fried to that list!

    I can’t confess to having tried any I’m afraid although we saw other westerners there, we only saw locals buying!

    The only other food made me raise my eyebrows was sliced ears. Not sure from which animal though. I made the mistake of trying to ask the waiter if he could speak up by indicating I had a hearing aid and therefore a hearing problem. He misunderstood me, smiled at me beautifully and turned to the page of the menu that had sliced ears. I confess much as I like to try new and local foods, I didn’t try those either.

    However we stayed in a traditional Hutong and our landlord was able to recommend a fantastic restaurant just a few minutes walk away that was full all the time it was open -99% locals and divine food.

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