Eyeballs and eggs…

In the 1960s and 1970s my grandfather worked for an American construction firm in the Middle East that specialised in building oilfields. The booming crude trade took him to Saudi Arabia and then to Iraq where he oversaw the construction of wells, airports and pipelines. Many years later, in the early 1990s, he told his grandchildren stories of his time in Iraq while the BBC coverage of the Gulf War played in the background.

We heard tales of men sitting on cushions at long, low banquet tables set with countless strange dishes, with dolma and meatballs, kebabs and falafel, of meals that went on for hours and hours and hours, and that when they did finally finish all the diners let out a large belch to show their appreciation to the host. My grandfather, of course, joined in with the choral ructus; it would have been impolite not to.

When he really wanted to amaze us, he’d tell us of meeting Saddam Hussain, ‘before he was anything’, and of eating sheep’s eyeballs. Thinking back, it’s hard to remember what made us squeal more; that our grandfather used to consort with murderous dictators or that he ate the eyes of a sheep.

Now, in China, sheep’s eyeballs are not difficult to come by. When I first saw them staring up at me from a photograph on a menu, I won’t lie, I did feel a bit sick. But I also thought of my granddad eating eyeballs with Saddam Hussein, and knew I would need to do the same, minus the dictator.

Raw eyeballs are revolting. They’re not only slightly see-through, they’re filled with jelly and are attached directly to the brain. Cooked eyeballs on the other hand are quite meaty. The heat of the barbecue turns the clear jelly into a pale meat with the texture of slightly tough scallops. The chef removes the lens and marinades the eyeball all afternoon before cooking. Chilli, caraway, garlic – all the Chinese barbecue flavours and a thick marinade mean that you could pass these off as meatballs to the unsuspecting diner, but to those in the know there is the unmistakeable dark ring of the iris lurking beneath the marinade. The pupils are not black; the internal jelly has been solidified over the fire turning them white instead. Cooked eyeballs are rather tasty, they go well with a pale beer and adventurous company, but be warned: the nerve that attaches them to the brain is particularly chewy.

The other form of ball available at all good barbecue restaurants is the testicle. However, the Chinese do not call lamb’s testicles ‘testicles’, not when eating them anyway. The dish is called 羊肉蛋 (yang rou dan) literally ‘Lamb’s Eggs’. If you ask for lamb’s testicles instead of eggs, the waitress may flush, get very embarrassed and ask one of her male colleagues to deal with your table for the rest of the evening. But don’t let that put you off ordering them. If the eyeball is a rather strange, slightly chewy meatball, then the Yang Rou Dan, when well cooked, is the best meatball you’ve ever had in your life. I kid you not! The meat is darker than the eye but still pale. It does not have the strong taste that a barbecued lamb’s penis has; the flavour is more delicate, as is the texture. Lamb’s eggs should be slightly charred on the outside but tender on the inside and when at their best they are the juiciest, most succulent meatballs you’re ever likely to find. And unlike processed meatballs they don’t need a host of additives to hold them together; with testicles you’re guaranteed 100 per cent meat.

My first Yang Rou Dan experience began with a table of disgusted faces and me laughing, a lot. It ended with four girls passing a testicle from one set of chopsticks to another so each could get a bite, and, not surprisingly, one did drop her ball. But all was not lost, we were able to order some more and they went down a treat.

In fact, lamb’s eggs are so tasty that it might be time to reinvent spaghetti and meatballs for a more open-minded, inclusive age of food. It may even be time to introduce Rocky Mountain Oysters to more widespread western menus. But don’t think that just because you don’t have access to a local Chinese barbecue you need to miss out on the taste sensation that is Yang Rou Dan. Quite the opposite – you can grill them yourself at home, it only takes 15 minutes. Serve with salt, pepper and some lemon juice. It couldn’t be easier…

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Fish heads, chicken heads…

Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant serving whole sea bream knows the facial expressions that flit across the faces of squeamish diners when the fish they ordered is placed in front of them. Some bodies stiffen at the sight of their main meal. The skin, the tail, the head, are all too much for them. Maybe the post-baked grimace so many fishes adopt subdues their appetite, or perhaps it is all in the way the fisheye curdles milky white.

What we can probably be sure of is that the head is the body part that incites the greatest abjection. There is little wonder in this though, the head is the site of most distinguishing characteristics. Humans use faces to recognise people. We’re conditioned to do so from birth, so upon meeting another species we can’t help but be drawn to the head. And when that head is cooked and served up on a platter, instead of seeing moist deep eyes and active features we see the clearest image of slaughter. Some people don’t like to eat fish with the head attached because some people like to be ignorant to the fact that their dinner once was alive. Of course, that’s not to say that they’re not aware that a salmon fillet comes from a fish too; but when meat is cut into a rather pleasant pink oblong shape we’re simply able to forget.

The Chinese don’t like to forget (mention Taiwan to any Chinese person for evocative proof of this point), and when it comes to animals, the Chinese don’t need to forget. They’re perfectly willing to chow down on the head as well. As someone who has a particular liking for fish cheeks I can sympathise with the Chinese willingness to eat the head of anything. Fish cheeks, as you might expect, can be found just behind and below the eye of the fish. I can particularly recommend eating the cheeks of bream, bass, salmon and trout. Peel back the skin, around the eye and you’ll find a small nub of meat. It’s so small it hardly seems worth it, but truly, cheeks are to the fish what oysters are to the chicken. It’s the piece of flesh that holds the juiciest flavour.

In Sichuan cooking 水煮鱼 (Shui zhu yu) is a massive bowl of boiling carp. The fish is gutted and then chopped roughly into large chunks. Then the entire body is boiled with an enormous amounts of dried chilli and peppercorns. It’s served in a large ceramic bowl which is brought to the table before the waitress sets about straining most of the pepper and chilli from the bowl. If she didn’t, you’d have trouble finding the fish for peppercorns. Then you delve in with your chopsticks not knowing whether you’ll pull out a piece of body, the head or the tail; lucky dip, Sichuan style. Like all food from this region of China, 水煮鱼 is very spicy, but for those who can handle some heat (and the odd head) it’s a delicious dish that shouldn’t be missed.

Fish heads are one thing, chicken heads another entirely. I’d been told that chicken heads were delicious. That they’re juicy and gorgeous and satisfying. So I thought, what the hell, everything else has been so far. So I ordered some chicken heads from my local barbecue restaurant. You have the option of having them twice cooked for extra flavour, but to be honest, with chicken heads, the problem isn’t the flavour. The problem is the beak, the brain, the eyes and, well, the skull. The problem is the ‘headedness’ of it all.

The chef chopped three heads in half vertically between the eyes and butterflied each side of the skull before skewering them and barbecuing them over the coals. I suppose this is the best way to make sure the brain is cooked properly. Like chicken hearts, these are also seasoned with chilli and caraway seeds. Chicken heads are messy. The grease runs down your wrists, you need to spit out little bits of bone and if you burst an eyeball the grey gunk that comes out looks utterly revolting. There is little meat, the tongue is tiny, the brain is small and squidgy. After a while it feels like you’ve got nothing from it and all you’re doing is chewing the skin from the bone.

Chicken heads, I’ve decided, are not for me. And anyway, if we did eat every part of the animal, what would we use to make stock? Still, I can’t get that regal image of a pig’s head on a platter out of my mind. Perhaps bigger heads are more satisfying – a line of thought I’d be happy to explore given the opportuinity.

And, of course, it would be naive to think that it’s only the Chinese that have a taste for the head of the animal. There is an old Scottish dish called Sheep’s Head Soup, which involves boiling a whole sheep skull and then, if you have a large family, fighting over who gets to eat the eyes…

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烧烤 – The Chinese Barbecue

The barbecue sits firmly in all of our cultural histories, regardless of race, for surely all peoples learned to cook over an open fire. In those days cooking was a simple art, some meat set over a flame, but in the ages since the art of the barbecue has become more refined. My Hebridean barbecue memories are of late summer, sitting on a dry stone dyke with the sun on my back, eating chicken drumsticks and cobbs of corn, shish kebabs and rabbit legs, as the fat sizzled on the coals. Then dusk came and with it the midges, bringing the barbecue to an abrupt and itchy end.

There is some conjecture over where the English word ‘barbecue’ comes from. Some say that it evolved from the Indian ‘barbacoa’, which refers to a device for smoking meat. Others claim that it comes from the French phrase ‘barbe a queue’ meaning ‘whiskers-to-tail’. Now, though Indian inspiration is more geographically likely to influence the Chinese sentiment in this style of cooking, I can’t help but feel the French definition captures the Chinese ideology of the barbecue more fully. For if any culture barbecues every part of the animal, then surely this is it.

The Chinese barbecue, 烧烤 (shāokăo), might be a restaurant or it might simply be a metal trough, filled with coals and set on a street corner, selling various meats cooked on little wooden sticks. When darkness begins to fall in the Chinese metropolises the barbecues come out on nearly every pavement, priming their coals for the night’s trade. Leave your window open on one such night and the smell will carry in from outside, urging you out of your apartment to taste the local delicacies. And what a myriad of delicacies there are!

A trip to the Chinese barbecue is an expansive experience, and the treats on offer are not what you might expect. For those guilty of picking the chicken skin from Sunday’s roast to wet the appetite before carving, it is possible to order just the skin without the flesh, folded onto a stick and cooked over the coals. But the options do not stop there, there are chicken hearts, chicken feet, chicken knees, and chicken heads (with the option to have the heads twice-cooked – for extra flavour). When in China, though, we expect every part of the chicken, so what of the surprises?

Lamb’s eyes, penis and testicles, all pierced on a metal skewer. I have yet to sample the eyes or testes, I’m saving those for a later, more rounded meal. But the penis is served faster than any fast food I’ve ever had. They cook quickly thanks to being so surprisingly tiny. At first you think they must be having you on – that they’ve given you the cat’s apparatus instead – but when you take a bite the strong taste is unmistakeable: like eating lamb with extra lamb-flavoured goodness. It’s slightly chewier than other cuts, but tastes meatier than it looks. Like the chicken heart, season with chilli and caraway, and again, don’t tell anyone what they’re eating until they’ve admitted they like it.

The other surprises in a Chinese barbecue are the insects and arachnids. Crickets, locusts and grasshoppers are all on offer and all quite satisfyingly crunchy, but nowhere near as crunchy as barbecued scorpions. In traditional Chinese medicine it is believed that eating scorpions will quench a bad fire within you. This may refer to heartburn or indigestion, or perhaps to something related to character, or something more spiritual. Of the four creepy crawlies above, the scorpions are the most fun, and, interestingly, the creature that causes the least feelings of abjection as you place it upon the tongue. Perhaps because we see it as related to the crab, unlike the other three beasties.

It’s impossible to get away from the insect-ness of crickets and locusts, and though you might be tempted to only try a cricket (being less intimidated by its small stature) rest assured that the larger the bug, the better the taste. The crickets have a dubious aftertaste, whereas the locusts and grasshoppers have even been compared to slightly overdone fairy cakes. The truth about eating grasshoppers and locusts though, is that, like chicken, they are flavour neutral – it’s all down to how they are served. But trust me; bigger bugs are more satisfying. Perhaps because they’re so large you need to bite them in half to fit them in your mouth.

The idea of eating insects is not a new one in the UK. The TV chef, Heston Blumenthal has brought some honey covered bugs onto a chat show for the host and other guests to try, and they did admit they liked them. Our western diets are particularly high in protein, but raising all the cattle and poultry needed to satisfy our hunger for protein-rich food is particularly damaging for the environment. It takes 16lbs of grain to produce 1lb of red meat, and cows currently account for a staggering 28 per cent of worldwide methane production, and that’s just cows mind, there’s also the sheep and the pigs to think of. As developing economies grow so does their desire and ability to eat red meat, but a sharp spike in the amount of cattle reared on earth can only lead to trouble.

Consider the locust. They produce more offspring than any mammal, mature quickly – growing from egg to adult in just 42 days, they produce five times more protein than cattle for the same amount of fodder, and create no methane. Not only this, they require less space to rear. We don’t need to sacrifice any more rainforests to let them graze, quite the opposite; they’re best reared indoors lest they fly away.

The other thing about locusts is that we don’t need to give them antibiotics – a practice in the cattle industry that has likely contributed to the development of superbugs like MRSA, and continues to undermine the usefulness of one of the most valuable medicines we have in our arsenal.

Furthermore, locusts have a greater nutritional value than red meat: rich in amino acids, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin, they’re 75 per cent protein and low in carbohydrates – perfect for observers of the Atkins diet or anyone hoping to increase their muscle-mass. And as if these aren’t reasons enough – locusts are even kosher in both Judaism and Islam.

The locust is a serious solution to our future protein problems, if only, like the Chinese, we can get over our discomfort about eating insects. In the mean time, when well-prepared, they’re bloody tasty, and I’d imagine a honey glaze would do wonders for their crunch. So why not throw some bugs on the barbie? You can’t deny that they’ll make an interesting talking point at your next summer soiree…

If you want to know more about eating locusts then look out for Julieta Ramos-Elorduy’s Creepy-Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects, including such recipes as: ‘Mealworm Spaghetti’, ‘Cricket Croquettes’, ‘Batter-fried Dragonflies’, and my personal favourite, ‘Mango-Grasshopper Chutney’ – perfect for the cheese course.

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The heart of the matter…

Being served a dish that exists entirely outwith your own culinary world can be a daunting experience. First comes the awkwardness, the abjection, then the realisation that you’ve committed to eating this strange meal before you. The other people at the table are eyeing you carefully, judging your next move: will he do it, or is he about to chicken out?

The first weird dish I took on after arriving in China was barbecued chicken hearts. I wanted to start somewhere vaguely comfortable, and yet still intriguing. I’m not squeamish about offal; I enjoy both liver and kidney. But the heart is something else entirely.

The heart is a powerful organ, and not just biologically, but symbolically too. It is where strength and soul reside. The mythologies that surround the heart make its eating somehow taboo and mysterious. The bible claims that the thoughts of evil men originate in their hearts (Genesis 6:5), and the heart most familiar to the Catholic imagination must surely be that of Jesus. The devout aren’t likely to eat something that brings to mind the sacred organs of the Son of God, even if the Bible does recommend eating his body and drinking his blood on a regular basis.

Though our contemporary understanding of this most essential organ is biological, still we cannot argue with that heavy weight sometimes felt in our chests; the raw emotion that betrays all we think we know of science. The heart has more significance than mere biology; undoubtedly it always will.

But is this reason enough to keep the humble chicken heart from our restaurants, barbecues and dining tables? If eating chicken hearts were a revolting experience, then yes. But the truth is chicken hearts are so unbelievably tasty that I wished I had ordered more in the first sitting, and couldn’t wait for seconds.

The taste is more delicate than most offal, there is a definite sense of the flesh being a muscle as opposed to an organ like the liver and kidneys, which for all intensive purposes are no more than sophisticated sieves. But, beating 150 times per minute, the heart has some meat to it. Not only this, it’s a good source of Protien, Vitamin B12, Iron and Zinc.

The best way to eat a chicken heart is skewered on a stick and barbecued over hot coals. If you don’t have the weather for a barbecue, grilling will work just as well. You can get about four on a small skewer. Some restaurants skewer them whole and intact, others like to butterfly them between two skewers. They’re naturally moist, as you might expect, and the Chinese usually season the meat with chopped chilli and caraway seeds.

These hearts are little more than a morsel, so buy plenty and don’t tell the squeamish what they’re eating until they’ve had a taste. Even if you tell them after, they’re sure to have some more. Plus, you can fit a whole lot more on the barbecue than most summer barbie fare, so forget chicken wings and drumsticks – the heart is where it’s at!

And all this leaves me wondering: if the UK devours its way through roughly 600 million chickens per year, as it did in 2007, then what happens to all of those gorgeous little hearts? 600 million chicken hearts. Where on earth did they go? Most likely they’ve been divvied up between pâté, pet foods and chicken stock (along with the heads and feet – but more on those in later posts…). If we’re going to raise an animal for food, then surely we should offer this, the animal’s tastiest part, the seat of its emotions and soul, at least as much respect as the lowly, juiceless chicken breast?

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To eat, or not to eat…

No one can deny the importance of food within culture. All foodies, returning from Paris, or Rome, or Barcelona, will wax lyrical about the gastronomic delights they had the occasion to try on their trip. But go further afield, and that sense of revelling in the culinary experience of a new culture will often turn to distaste, disgust, and abjection. Even as close as France, some Brits have difficulty with Steak Tartare, Frog’s Legs, Escargot, and, on a more ethical standpoint, Foie Gras. But go to the other side of the world and food becomes considerably more difficult for the bog-standard British palate to stomach.

Perhaps the Chinese culinary experience is the most antithetic to our own, both in terms of the food itself, how it is prepared and eaten, and the relationship that the Chinese people have with what ends up on their plate. (And I can tell you, not much escapes the dining table as a final destination.)

Now, we’re no stranger to the exoticism of Chinese food. Think those thick, gloopy sauces, fruit-flavoured poultry and the gelatinous soups that you can find in any reputable Chinese restaurant. Add to those the dumplings, the sui mai, and Peking duck, ribs and wings, and salty, crunchy seaweed.

In fact, as westerners, when we first come to Chinese food we must relearn the rules of eating. And not just in the way that dishes are assembled, but the tools we use to eat; the knife and the fork become obsolete and we must embrace chopsticks. If we do not, we appear as clumsy westerners with awkward fingers.

I was taught from infancy how to use chopsticks. I think my parents thought it very cosmopolitan of them to teach three young children in the Scottish Hebrides how to eat rice as if they were in Guangzhou. It must also have been quite hilarious; our little fingers struggling with the sticks, and that singular look of dismay when a piece of Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour chicken missed my mouth and the chopstick went up my nose.

However, we persevered, first at the kitchen table, then, later, in the Chinese restaurants of Glasgow where we understood that asking for a fork was not only an admittance of defeat, but a bit of an embarrassment as well and might highlight us as the teuchter islanders that we so obviously were. For my family, like so many British families, a meal at a Chinese restaurant became a regular occurrence, almost a ritual. But the Chinese food in China is not the Chinese food that you’ve been consuming half your life from your local Chinese restaurant. You’ve been lied to. And so have I.

In truth, it’s about 100 times better than you know. There are dishes that we are probably never served in the UK because they seem, well, not quite exotic enough. There’s a beef and potato stew eaten in Liaoning Province that’s a bit like a Lancashire Hot Pot but with added star anise and dates (not to be confused with Chinese Hot Pot, which we’ll come to later). It’s bloody lovely. And then there is the humble 宫包鸡丁(gong bao ji ding)which is a satay-flavoured stir fry of peanuts, dried chillies, chicken, carrot and cucumber. It sounds strange, but if I was only allowed to eat one Chinese dish for the rest of my life, then this might be it. There is a popular survival website for westerners in China www.howtoorderchinesefood.com which is dedicated to finding food for the western palate. But, in the Middle Kingdom food goes much further; with a population of 1.3 billion it has to. And that’s what this blog is about. In the coming posts I’m going to hunt out the surprising dishes, the uncomfortable meals, and those things that you never even thought you could eat. Then I’m going to eat them. In doing so, I’m going to try to objectively reassess my western relationship with food.

There are many things that the British throw away instead of eating. Some of these we used to eat, but we’ve become squeamish. We waste so much of every animal, and often turn our meat into unidentifiable chunks of protein. But when the Chinese look at an identifiable animal part they do not flinch, they simply reach for their chopsticks. They know exactly what they are eating, and then they eat it. There is no squeamishness about eating meat that looks like, well, meat – something that many Tesco-shopping friends back home are guilty of.

Often British people would like their meat to be somehow sanitised and reduced to being merely food: no skin, no heads, no eyes, no organs, no feet. When did you last buy a chicken with the giblets included? Some people have difficulty touching raw animal flesh, others are uncomfortable eating meat on the bone. In the 1990s cooking programme, Island Harvest, Nick Nairn was confronted with a bowl of blood while a Lewiseach woman taught him how to make black pudding. Though I’m sure Stornoway black pudding is a regular feature in his cooking, he had to step out the croft door and vomit. This would never happen to a Chinese chef.

So, for the next year I will eat like a Chinese person and eat all the things that that culinary experience includes. For those who read this blog, I hope it makes you think about food, about where it comes from, and about how much we throw away, and also, perhaps, what we’re missing out on.

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