My Op-ed Piece in the Guardian about the obsession with China’s weird food

‘Dog meat at a Chinese restaurant in Yorkshire’ – why do such myths spread?

The obsession with China’s ‘weird’ food, from donkey penis to the mythical dog in the takeaway, is a form of racism

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Chinese food‘Chinese cuisine is very much a famine cuisine – historically, Chinese people have had to make use every bit of available resources.’ Photograph: Greg Baker/AP

I was not sure if I should laugh or cry when I heard the news that an urban myth about a woman choking on a dog’s identification chip at a high-end Chinese restaurant in Yorkshire had led to an exodus of diners. Bizarre as the story sounds, it didn’t surprise me. When I lived in Britain, I met people who refused to go to Chinese restaurants because they believed – they were utterly convinced in fact – that such places sold dog meat (and their neighbours’ pets at that!). Racism takes all forms, and in the case of the Chinese, it often takes the form of disgust with the Chinese food.

Just last week, I saw another example of that when I watched the DVD of the first episode of the hugely popular travel documentary An Idiot Abroad, in which Karl Pilkington (the Idiot) is sent abroad to visit the New Seven Wonders of the World. The first episode is set in China. I did make me laugh – it is funny. But the sour smell of colonialism taints the programme. It dwells so much on the weird eating habits of the Chinese people: cicadas and worms at a Beijing night market, a long shot of a young woman stuffing scorpions into her mouth, Karl commenting on a man eating "foetus egg" and a family by the Great Wall killing and feeding him toads! (Bullfrogs actually.)

China has a fabulous and sophisticated cuisine, but westerners always focus on the tiny percentage of what we eat that is weird. And the very good reasons that the weird stuff made it into Chinese kitchens is never mentioned: Chinese cuisine is very much a famine cuisine; historically, Chinese people have had to make use every bit of available resources.

A few years ago, when the comedian Paul Merton came to China to make a travel documentary, I was invited to take part. As if by accident, Merton and I met at the night market – the same one Karl visited (the only market in Beijing if not the whole country where you can see such creatures sold as ingredients). I explained to him that the cicadas tasted of childhood for me because, to satisfy my craving for meat, I used to catch cicadas and roast them over a small bonfire and munch them up. Merton sampled the insects with disgust. Then I was instructed to tell him: "If you think this is disgusting, let me take you to somewhere interesting," before leading him, as pre-arranged by the director, to a penis restaurant, Merton and I actually walked up and down in the street, talking about serious matters – social change, women’s role in society, and my own journey from factory worker to writer.

Merton was genuinely interested in learning more about China, but the director whisked us away to the restaurant where all sorts of animal’s male organs were served. Eating animal’s penis is thought by some to improve a man’s performance in bed. But this is not something that runs deep in Chinese culture – there are only two penis restaurants in China, and both belong to the same owner. The crew spent hours tirelessly filming us eating stir-fried bull’s penis, snake’s penis in a soup and a large boiled donkey’s penis. Poor Merton struggled and even threw up at one point.

In the final film, the donkey’s penis dominates the scene. Our serious discussion was edited out.

5 thoughts on “My Op-ed Piece in the Guardian about the obsession with China’s weird food

  1. There was a Swiss guy, who came to work in Dhaka. After he became quite friendly with me, he confessed that when he saw some one eating with hands, he had difficulty in controlling his throwing up instinct.

    Don’t be upset – the more people get exposed and come to know about others – they will understand their own limitations.

    But there were also many other completely baseless myths about China, like the Chinese were so much fond of their leader Mao and the ‘Red’ color – I was told that in Beijing (or rather Peking that time) the trafic signal ‘Red’ means drive and ‘Green’ means stop.

  2. I think you’re being disingenous saying that only a tiny percentage of what Chinese people eat is weird. With increasing affluence there has been an increasing fetishisation of special dishes and drinks in China. It is not a tiny percentage of Chinese people who pay large amounts of money for special dishes whether they be seaslug, shark fin or the meat and bones of rare and endangered animals. I don’t know about Beijing, but when I lived in Guangdong the eating of dogmeat and snake was common and unremarkable. The elephant, tiger and rhinoceros are facing extinction in Africa and Asia because of the huge demand for their consumption in Chinese medicine and cuisine.
    You may see it as racism, but perhaps you underestimate the British love of animals and abhorrence of cruelty to animals. Accusations of racism have also been made against those in the US who have sought to ban the mutiliation of sharks to provide shark fin soup for Chinese restaurants. The experiences with melamine and meat adulterated with growth-enhancing clenbuterol make it hardly surprising that the public (in China as much as elsewhere) will have a wariness and fascination about what goes on in Chinese food preparation facilities and restaurants.

  3. It’s a touch hypocritical to complain of Westerners tireless and tiring obsession with a small idiosyncrasy of Chinese culture when you do exactly the same thing in complaining about Western colonial attitudes. As someone who lived in Hong Kong for 13 years, I found it vulgar and offensive to be called a typical colonial by my local hosts simply because I refused to eat half the dishes on any local restaurant’s menu. And I agree with Michael’s point above about the ostentatious consumption of such food. In the many arguments I’ve had with lovers of shark-fin, in particular, it has struck me that there are two main reasons for the boom in this tasteless (I, shamefully, tried it many years ago) dish’s popularity: Firstly to crassly show off the material status of the consumer and secondly, to annoy “the colonials”.
    And how can you expect anyone who has never eaten penis, or powdered tiger paw, or monkey brain, or any other of the exotic foods that are sold in China, to NOT be surprised when seeing them in a bowl?

    1. thanks for your thoughtful comments. no, I don’t expect people eat or like donkey’s penis. I wouldn’t describe such behavior as ‘colonial’. but I don’t like some british travel documentaries obsessively pick on such strange food. and I wouldn’t defend those who have the fondness for shark-fins or other endangered animals.

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