The Chinese are famous for eating everything. Name an animal and I guarantee there’s a restaurant that serves it; name any part of that animal and they’ll have a dish featuring it. To be fair, mostly this stereotype applies to the south. There’s even a saying among the Chinese that people in Guangdong province “eat everything that swims except the submarine, everything that flies except the airplane and everything with four legs except the table.” But times are changing. These days, the growing middle class no longer feasts on many of the more unusual delicacies. For first-hand proof, head to Wangfujing in Beijing.
Wangfujing is the capital’s most famous shopping district. High-end brands line the main street and street stalls selling the standard trinkets line the alleys. Among the trinkets sits an area of food stalls. Many of them sell popular Chinese street food. Other stalls sell food more popular with camera-toting tourists.
We were just such tourists and took numerous photos of skewered, but still living, scorpions, crickets, spiders, starfish and countless unidentifiable creatures. It wasn’t long before a group of Chinese tourists challenged us to try some of these treats. We were planning on doing so anyway, but thought it would be nice to have some company, so we asked them to join us. They just laughed and told us they don’t eat that crap—it’s just for foreign tourists.
Sure enough, when we took a closer look at the hundreds of Chinese people around us, we saw many of them eating, but they were all enjoying dumplings or pancakes or other standard street foods. The only people eating insects were another group of foreigners—and they were surrounded by Chinese tourists egging them on and snapping photos. I’m sure the Chinese returned from their vacations with hilarious tales of idiot foreigners who will eat anything if you tell them it’s a local delicacy.
That said, I didn’t really care whether Chinese people actually eat that stuff or not. I was simply too curious to pass up the opportunity to have some scorpions. My friends and I each purchased a skewer of live scorpions and one of crickets. We watched the ‘chef’ sprinkle them with seasoning and briefly dunk them in hot oil. He assured us the heat should neutralize the poison.
“Should?” I didn’t like the sound of that, but I told myself it was probably just his poor English—he had simply used the wrong word. “The heat absolutely, definitely, 100%, without a doubt neutralizes the poison.”
The unusual meal had been my idea, so I went first. I started with the scorpions, since I figured they would be the least pleasant. I pulled the first one off the skewer with my teeth and put the whole thing in my mouth. It was crispy, just like fried chicken skins or any other deep-fried animal skin. They scorpion was so thin, that the whole thing had been fried to a crisp, with no softer flesh inside. The seasoning was nice, so it actually tasted pretty good. I ended up finishing the skewer.
Everyone else followed my lead and polished off their scorpions without incident. The crickets were next. We though they would be easier than the scorpions, but boy were we wrong. They were fatter, so the insides were still mushy, but that wasn’t the biggest problem. It was the wings.
We didn’t know that at first. One of my friends put a cicket in his mouth and started chewing. Seconds later, he was hopping around and squealing and clearly not enjoying his snack. My description does not come close to accurately describing his little freak-out dance. We should have had a video of it, but the guy in charge of filming should not have been in charge of filming. He screwed something up and now no one but us will ever know just how funny this scene was. Eventually he calmed down and managed to tell us that the wings had gotten stuck in his throat and the feeling freaked him out. His inability to dislodge the wings freaked him out more.
Armed with this information, the rest of us chewed the crap out of our crickets before swallowing them. Despite that, we couldn’t get the wings chewed up enough to go down easily and they hung in our throats for longer than we would have liked. We were ready for it though, so we skipped the dancing and squealing. Afterward, we were informed by some helpful Chinese onlookers that people usually just pull the wings off and toss them. Thanks for the timely advice. I hope you got some great photos.
After the crickets, we were suddenly feeling pretty stuffed, so we passed on any further insect skewers. Luckily we all seem to have lightning-fast metabolisms, though. When we passed stalls selling dumpling and other more standard—and, let’s face it, much more appetizing—snacks 20 meters down the alley, we were suddenly starving again. Instead of turning around and going back for more insects, we just stayed put and had some dumplings. Due to the convenience, of course. I mean, the dumplings were right next to us.
If you’re ever in Beijing, you’ll definitely want to check out the Wangfujing area. If you enjoy shopping, I’m told you can’t miss it and if you enjoy eating, I’m telling you, you can’t miss it. Even if you don’t want to try any insects or other creatures yourself, you can join the Chinese tourists in watching other foreigners make spectacles of themselves, while enjoying your dumplings, bowl of noodles, pancake, ice cream or corn dog. Or maybe your scorpions?
This page has practical information on Wangfujing and the rest of Beijing.