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The Chinese and Exotic Foods

There are many stories in the West about the strange and disgusting eating habits of other cultures, especially about Asians and particularly about Chinese people. The stories range from relatively benign tales of dog and cat eating, to nauseating stories of sadistic feasts on the brains of living animals. The Western telling of these tales focuses on the bizarre and barbaric stereotype of The Chinese and what they are liable to eat, and depend on a certain gullibility (or a willingness to believe) on the part of the listener. While some tales have some basis in reality, the point of the telling is often prejudicial in nature; the most sensational stories frequently have no evidence of being true beyond second- and third-hand reports.

Gross is in the Taste Buds of the Eater

The Chinese do not eat gross, disturbing or exotic food as a normal daily occurrence. This should be self-evident by the definitions of gross, disturbing and exotic. Although there are some things that Westerners (or people from any other culture) might find unpalatable, this can of course be said of any "other" culture. It is a simple task to generate a long list of funky (but not disturbing) foods that are common in Chinese markets: green pumpkin drink, fermented (stinky) tofu, Durian, squid jerky, minnows in peanuts, and congealed blood in many dishes (esp. Hot and Sour soup).

Some gross things that some Chinese eat may be a result of recent economic history. In the West, many older people ate (and continue to eat) chicken gizzards, necks and hearts, since this was an economic necessity when they were growing up or perhaps because they were raised on a farm. Most modern city dwellers now throw out these perfectly edible and tasty parts of the chicken during the process of cleaning a store-bought bird. There may be a similar process happening right now in developing areas of China. While you can get chicken-hearts-on-a-stick as a snack outside movie theaters, most people prefer to get the more expensive slices of breast meat. Dog meat can be eaten at a very small number of restaurants in Taipei, but young people do not seek it out or relish it anymore. In ultramodern and cosmopolitan Hong Kong, it is illegal to kill dogs and cats for food (enacted in 1950:Chapter 167, Section 3 Part II).

Likewise, it is not too hard to create a list of foods that Westerners eat that are considered gross: deer/cow testicles, sheep brains, fish eggs, sausages, and goose liver for example. And you can add to this list a number of items that some Chinese people specifically find unpalatable, but that Westerns enjoy, including cheese, sour cream, sour kraut and salty bean dishes (red, pinto, black). If you think about it, it is really quite strange to drink the milk intended for baby animals of another species. All cultures have food taboos.

The Chinese Problem

One of the largest errors people make when telling stories about what the Chinese eat is in lumping one billion people together. While many Chinese people may find cheese not to their liking, Pizza Hut is doing quite well in Asia. So it is with any food story: Some Chinese people might eat dogs, but some certainly do not. Most gross food stories involve animals, but some Chinese are Buddhist vegetarians. Some Chinese are quite squeamish about what they will or won't eat and some are very adventurous. Personal taste is as varied in China as it is in the West. As anecdotal evidence, I have traveled with Chinese friends who were afraid to eat even non-Chinese Asian cuisine in Thailand and Vietnam. One friend went so far as to pack instant noodles and an electric boiler in his suitcase just in case he didn't like Thai food. Should it be a revelation to learn that some Chinese people like some Chinese dishes and dislike others? Just about any pronouncement that starts with "Did you know that the Chinese like to eat..." is going to automatically be wrong on some level.

Food versus Medicine

That being said, it can easily be documented that some Chinese do eat some very strange and exotic animals (by Western standards). Some of the tales are disturbing. The implication of most of the stories surrounding these meals however, is that they are savory delicacies, relished by a strange Asian appetite for the exotic. An important distinction needs to be made between cultural delicacies and traditional medicines. A delicacy is anything that is very rarely eaten, usually only on special occasions and that has a particularly wonderful flavor. Chinese delicacies that might show up at a wedding banquet include: jelly fish, beef tendons, shark's fin soup or bird's nest soup. These dishes are relished because of the marvelous taste and their relative rarity. A similar list could be created for any culture and might include caviar and frog's legs in the West.

Food can also be seen as folk-medicine in China. Almost all foods have some kind of health-properties associated with them and illness can traditionally be traced to eating behavior. For example, all fruits can be divided into Hot and Cold categories: Strawberries are hot and apples are cold. It is believed by some that eating too many strawberries can give you a fever. Again, this is not a universal belief system, but is widespread folklore. This extends into Chinese traditional medicine, which can involve absolutely nauseating smelling and tasting herbal concoctions. Most people, Chinese and Westerners included, do not enjoy these potions any more than they do a shot of cough medicine. It is not a rule that these medicines need to taste horrible, but it must be considered that these foods are not consumed because they taste good. Many of the more disturbing animal stories probably involve traditional medicine and not a delicious feast.

Legendary Eats

The live monkey brain story is a classic food legend that has two tellings, a Western version and an Eastern version. Both share many characteristics, but differ in one significant way. The Western telling implies that Chinese people are so radically different and have such a bizarre values system that they love (desire) to eat monkey brains as a savory delicacy and that they are a barbaric people who care nothing for the suffering of the monkey (or animals in general). The Chinese telling is quite different and implies not that the dish is a delicacy, but that it is eaten as a powerful and rare health food. Whether it tastes good or not is irrelevant. So the legend actually works on two levels, with the Western version stressing the bizarre/barbaric other who enjoys eating this rare delicacy and the Eastern version stressing the exotic/ancient/extravagant other whose motivation is health and intelligence. The motivation between the two stories is different and this in turn results in a different reaction in the listener. The Westerner sees this as a completely disgusting Chinese cultural trait. While the disgusting aspects are not lost on an Eastern audience, the focus is instead on the extravagant and ostentatious nature of the eater, usually a businessman or politician looking to increase his power. The question to ask then is, if Jiu Wang was given the opportunity to eat live monkey brains, would he do it? And, although the motivation would be different, would he be more likely to do so than Joe Blow?

There are a number of other Chinese dishes (as collected from Chinese sources) that are legendary. Legendary is used in the sense that the stories are passed around and are widely known, but it is impossible to find a restaurant that serves these exotic dishes, although there are plenty of rumors about who eats it (some other group), where you can get it (someplace else) and often when it was available (in the past). The "true" stories are frequently told as classic friend-of-a-friend (usually a grandfather) accounts.

Concepts of Cruelty

Another problem with these tales is that they suggest that the Chinese are barbarians who have a different notion of cruelty when it comes to animals. It may be possible that some Chinese may have very different standards of what constitutes cruelty from the general standards held in the West. This is also an area where there are a great variety of views. In the US, the range of quite sane and normal people includes vegans from PETA and animal rights organizations as well as farmers and hunters. There are very strict laws banning cruelty to animals in Hong Kong (dating from 1935: Chapters 169 and 169A). Sadism is probably not an inherent part of Chinese Culture (whatever that is) or behavior (which is what the legends imply). Who knows how the West will view the contemporary positions on ethical medical animal research in twenty years? While the examples of animal cruelty in the legends are so over the top as to seem that this would be a level of cruelty that would be universally agreed upon across the globe, I can't be certain that there aren't some sane and normal Chinese who might tolerate such abuses and not be nauseated by them, especially if done in the quest for better health.

Summary

Stories about the strange things that the Chinese eat are almost always flawed. First, it is obviously true that what one culture finds delicious, another might find disgusting. Second, it is impossible to say anything accurate about the eating habits of a billion people. Unless one is prepared to make accusations that the Romans ate flamingo tongues (Pliny the Elder Hist. Nat. X 133), medieval Europeans ate living geese (Akerman, 1990, p. 147) and Americans eat deer testicles, it is not possible to claim that the Chinese eat these strange foods. Third, Western tales about what the Chinese like to eat are often based on the faulty assumption that the food described is eaten for its taste as a delicacy, when it very well may be consumed for its purported health value.

Some aspects of these stories are certainly based in reality however, and the range of items that might be eaten as traditional Chinese medicine is amazingly broad. It might be easier to list all of the animals and parts of animals that aren't used as medicines than to list all of the ones that are.

These legends are based in a universal belief that centers around how strange other people are in other cultures and make for wonderful stories. The damaging aspect is the tendency to uncritically believe these tales without a second thought.

The following summarizes this discussion in table form. Note that the various categories often overlap and that talking about Chinese or Western is a grossly broad generalization. This is not a table of facts, but is instead designed to visually put the stories about Chinese eating habits into perspective.

Common Gross Chinese Foods Chinese Delicacies Rare Chinese Foods1 Foods That Almost All Chinese Find Gross2 Real Health Medicines
(not food)

Chicken Hearts
Pig Intestines
Pumpkin Drink
Durian
Stinky Tofu
Squid Jerky
Blood Sausage
Jellyfish
Pigeon Soup
Beef Tendons
Shark's Fin Soup
Bird's Nest Soup
Cat
Dog
Rat
Worms
Ants (in alcohol)
Live Snake Blood
Live Turtle Blood
Bear Paw
Animal Penises
Antlers/Horns
Monkey Brains
Common Gross Western Foods Western Delicacies Rare Western Foods1 Foods That Almost All Westerners Find Gross Legendary Health Medicines
(not food)
Cheese
Sour Cream
Salty Beans
Raw Vegetables
Sausages
Caviar
Goose Liver Pate
Frog's Legs
Live Lobster
Haggis
Head Cheese
Alligator
Deer/Bull Testicles Live Monkey Brains
Live Goose Feet
Live Bear Paws
Live Rat Embryos

1Some people might also define these as delicacies. This also varies wildly by region.
2It is unlikely that any of these are regularly eaten anywhere, although they may be thought of as local delicacies. These are examples I have personally seen on television shows.


Created: 4 April, 1999  
Updated: 5 October, 2003  

NOTES:

The article was inspired by the Live Monkey Brain legend. In addition to collecting many oral versions of that story that fit the legendary mold precisely, there is at least one first-hand newspaper article and two historical references.

There are a range of dishes that don't really follow the standard format of a legend. These dishes may be eaten because they taste good or may be eaten for health despite the taste (all foods have some type of folk-health aspects). Some examples of this might be monkey brain stew and Whale Shark meat. I have found no evidence that these dishes are actually eaten beyond unsubstantiated reports. The Whale Shark meat reports have the potential to mutate into full blown legends as I have heard people mention that they had heard that the Taiwanese were eating Whale Shark (called Tofu Shark in Chinese) as a tofu substitute, which is obviously not true.

There is of course cross over between categories. For example, bear paws are probably eaten primarily for their health effects, but they might taste quite good. It is also significant that bear paws are served in fancy restaurants, whereas snake blood is purchased in a dark and crowded market.

The speculation on these dishes is based on "it could be true, so..." logic. I don't see anything particularly wrong with this sort of thinking, as long as the value of the reasoning is not overstated.

I've roamed the back alleys in Taipei and seen turtles quickly speared through the head with an ice pick into a block of wood so their heads could be cut off and the blood poured into shot glasses, so I admit that there may be something to the idea that there are differences in what is considered cruel. It was not long ago (100 years?) in our noble and gentle First World society that a small pig would have been killed by having one person knock it over and kneel on it while another plunged a large knife straight into its throat and far into the chest, making sure the pouring blood ran into a pan, all while the pig screamed hideously. How else would a poor farm family do it? Is there any humane way to slaughter an animal with a knife?

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