© 2009 Steven Wong

Scorpions, silkworms, and starfish… Oh my!

I think it goes without saying that, for most people, the first thing you think of when you think of China or Chinese culture is food. I mean, who doesn’t like Chinese food? Who hasn’t been to a Chinese restaurant? It’s my absolutely unscientifically-proven contention that there are generally two things you can find in any city around the world: a Chinese restaurant and an Irish pub.

What’s the quintessential Chinese dish for you? Kung Pao chicken? Sweet and sour pork? Or, God forbid, chicken balls and fortune cookies? Because, for me, Chinese food is essentially Cantonese food, from the southern province of Guangdong. It’s what I grew up with, it’s what I like best.

That’s not to say I don’t like other types; I love Shanghai-style xiao long bao, Fukien-style fried rice and Taiwanese 3 Cup chicken (really, if you haven’t tried it, you’re SO missing out). But give me dim sum, seafood congee, PDSYJ, ginger and green onion lobster, or dry-fried beef noodles any day and I’ll eat it all.

So to come across the snack street market near the Wangfujing pedestrian-only shopping street is a bit of a shock to the system. It’s a small, 200-metre section of road here in central Beijing which has been cordoned off and used for what I reckon is the most insane collection of street food you can find in the world.

The stuff available for sale reads like a Top 10 list of what you wouldn’t eat unless faced with death: scorpions, silkworm cocoons, starfish, sheep penis, seahorses, tarantulas, beetles, lamb testicles… No, really. There’s penis and testicles to be consumed. I’ll wait for you to finish gagging…

I don’t, for one second, think that Chinese people, even the locals, think that any of these foods are actually tasty, despite the urgings of the stall workers (the guy selling sheep penis is especially keen for you to try it). I mean, at least they’re all fried or barbecued so you’re not eating anything raw, but who in their right mind is actually volunteering to eat any of this stuff?

Oh right. Me. Perhaps a bit out of sheer curiosity but mostly because some friends and I had a little bet to see who would flinch first. There were no winners or losers in the end, since everyone did rather well (check out the pics below for the gruesome details). Trust me, none of it, save the scorpions, are anything you’d want to be eating on a regular basis.

Silkworm cocoons? Gross. Starfish? Nasty. Lamb testicles? Almost puked. We didn’t bother with the sheep penis, seahorses or tarantulas; none of us seemed willing to go that far. But the fried scorpions? Well, at least for the little ones (not the giant black monster scorpions), they were rather quite yummy and crunchy. I actually wouldn’t hesitate to eat them again.

For the less adventurous, there is some normal food available, like lamb meat skewers, fried dumplings and shawarma-type sandwiches, but it’s not that good and really, you’re not trekking down all this way just to have normal street food, right? It’s about the spectacle of the weird and (not so) wonderful.

If you’re in the area, don’t forget to go to the Wangfujing shopping street which boasts numerous stalls all selling the same kitschy souvenirs and trinkets, the kind you get for friends when you know you should get something but don’t want to spend more than a few dollars.

For full-size versions of these and other pics, check them out on my flickr page!