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…