inside thoughts on China and beyond

Cockroach And Other Food

A good cup of milky Earl Grey tea in the early morning makes my day. That this is now-a-days quickly followed by coffee -rivers of coffee-  doesn’t diminish the value of the tea.

Well, today was such a day. I boiled water, brewed the tea and poured myself a nice cup. For some reason, I lifted the lid of the water boiler, something I really don’t need to do, and there it was, floating in the still steaming hot remaining water, a cockroach the size of two thumbs. Huge! How it ever got in is a mystery – it surely was too big to take the same way out. Which left me with the question of when it got in. How many teas have been enjoyed since this prehistoric creature took a dive?

It’s one of those things of living here: you are not alone. On rainy days, hordes of cockroaches flee to higher-up dry places and inhabit our roof garden and kitchen and can be seen creeping across all other floors in-between. In the heat of the summer, we share rooms with whole families- large families. No one-child policy for them. They reproduce faster than your child’s hamster but die much slower. They run faster than your child’s rabbit but are much harder to catch. It is their sound and that always unexpected big moving black spot that freaks you out and awakens the most brutal instincts in you to go for the kill. But killing a cockroach is harder than smashing a mosquito. Especially with the bigger ones it feels more like splashing a mouse –except now with a crunchy sound. I’m surprised Chinese don’t eat them; they deep-fry anything that creeps and crawls.  “What would you like sir? On offer today is a mixed platter of silkworms, grasshoppers and cockroaches on skewer, seasoned in Sichuan red peppers.” Who knows, maybe tomorrow.

Though Chinese don’t (yet) eat cockroach, they do eat everything else. And they are chewing away not only horses, donkeys, camels or monkeys. In a good restaurant, your culinaire experience is enriched by picking your living fish or selecting your choice of crocodile or snake that is roaming around in the restaurant. Then there is pig brain to improve your thinking skills; dog meat to warm you in the winter; ears -and it doesn’t matter from what animal- because you can chew on it for a nice long time; testicles for, a well, I’m sure you can imagine. And here in Sichuan, all this is soaked in a taste-killing and numbing  oily mix of lajiaos and huajiaos (red chilies and whole peppers grains) and of course, lots of oil. Rats die of it. Chinese kill for it.

But because they tend to eat in large groups around big round tables where 20 dishes are packed up high on a turning table in the center of it, it is easy to hide that you do not touch half of them. Unless your host, or your wife, out of respect for you (or to mock you, but the result is the same), keeps on filling your plate with the stuff you couldn’t really identify and had tried hard to avoid. By then, you are desperate for a drink, something strong and medicinal.

But the medicinal drinks are even more exotic and challenging than the dishes in front of you: stock of bear claw; snake drenched in tiger pee; tea extracts from insects; you get the idea. But now the government is worried that Chinese traditional medicine is becoming an endangered species. For one, there are not enough tigers and bears left for the soup (the worry here is not the extinction of these animals but rather the loss of a food choice). A bigger problem is that no sane young intellectual chooses to study Chinese medicine these days. But then, medical drinks are usually not served in restaurants and thus you’re sipping your free green tea by the gallons.

The eating culture here is a true communal experience. When in the West we each study our own menu list in complete silence, not wanting to intrude into the privacy of the other individuals, considering solely our own selfish desire and order just for ourselves after which we attempt to converse in a more or less civil way, trying to hide our jealousy because our neighbors food always look better than our own; the Chinese will only have one menu list per table and in no time all 15 around the table are heavily involved in the ordering process leading to long and loud discussions and idea sharing. A truly democratic process that ultimately leads to a table full colorful dishes shared by all, reddened by Sichuan hot peppers and Chinese neo-patriotism –no better food than Chinese food! Dishes never arrive at the same time and because the last may take a while, by the first dish everyone grabs their chopsticks and picks out little bites of green veg or chewy meat or crispy cricket that travels from dish directly to the mouth. The same saliva-ed chopsticks then dive back into the dish and it repeats itself; dish after dish.

And when, by good chance, you find yourself lifting a cockroach to your mouth, well, it may just be the next dish.

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