Peanut worm (Sipunculida) — Sipunculid worm jelly (åœŸç¬‹å†») is a delicacy in the town of Xiamen in Fujian province of China. Above: Sipinculus nudus
Jeremy Alban Dorman, in the Telegraph, reminisces about his gustatory adventures in the further reaches of Chinese dining.
While in China, I often felt I was rather like William Buckland, the 19th-century naturalist, who was noted, among other eccentricities, for attempting to eat his way through the entire animal kingdom. There seemed to be nothing the Chinese wouldn’t ingest. I never came across stir-fried sponge, though I won’t eliminate the possibility of there being a sponge restaurant somewhere in Guangdong province. All other members of major, or in the case of the sipunculids, minor, animal phyla find themselves on to Chinese menus, occasionally unwanted, of course, like the nematodes I once discovered wriggling on top of a bowl of noodles.
Over my years in China I added jellyfish, sea cucumber, silk worm pupae, cicada, scorpion, frog, snake, turtle and, I am ashamed to say, dog, as well as the sipunculids, to my list of new gustatory experiences. I also tried various odd parts of vertebrates that we wouldn’t normally eat such as bull’s aorta, pig’s lungs, pigs’ feet tendons and chickens’ feet.
The Chinese place extraordinary value on some foods which we consider worthless, like the unfortunate sharks’ fins, and sea cucumbers, which can sell for up to four hundred pounds per half kilo, yet have no taste and little nutritional value at all. I was so impressed by the demand for these humble marine vacuum cleaners that I made vague plans to begin farming them in east Africa. Perhaps fortunately, no-one else considered it a worthwhile endeavour, so I became a teacher instead.
The Chinese appear to derive more pleasure from the texture of their food than the actual taste. An army colonel I once taught told me that he loved nothing more than to munch on a plate of ducks’ beaks while having his evening beer. A shop near my last apartment sold nothing but ducks’ beaks, necks and feet and assorted internal organs – a sort of duck spare part shop. Similarly I was once taken to a fish-head restaurant. The head is considered to be by far the best part of the fish, and I got a sudden vision of fishermen filleting their catch on the way home from sea, tossing the heads and vertebrae into their baskets, and hurling the juicy fillets to the gulls.
Some Chinese dishes are remarkable for the sheer incongruity of their ingredients. A Sichuan dish I once tried consisted of eel, tripe, blood pudding, bean sprouts and noodles – any possible taste was obliterated by the hundreds of burning chillies. Another unlikely concoction I tried only once was baby squid fried with green peppers and pig’s heart. A Shandong speciality is made up of pork pieces (mostly bone), fish pieces (likewise), seaweed and chickens’ heads.
Trying to replicate such dishes in one’s own kitchen, should one wish to, is always doomed to failure. I well remember my first encounter with a packet of jellyfish. I chose the particular brand because the instructions were written in English, of sorts.
“It is nutritional foods of you and dainty dish of perfect daily”, it read helpfully. “Stir-fry is put jellyfish in boiler when added meat, shallot, ginger, garlic and stir-fried”. I followed the instructions, and not surprisingly, the jellyfish turned into water and evaporated.
The sipunculids, by the way, tasted only of soy sauce and ginger. I have since become a vegetarian.