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Choice bites of China

A lavish buffet and well-crafted chopsticks.

A lavish buffet and well-crafted chopsticks. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

My first foreign assignment after joining the Indian Foreign Service was China. As a starry-eyed young man in my twenties, I found travelling to the neighbouring country exciting and mysterious. Flashes of memories of the mid-1980s China come to mind every now and then to this day.

The assignment itself evoked a mix of mystery, excitement and trepidation. Mystery for travelling to a country about which more seemed to be unknown than known, excitement for boarding an aircraft for the first time, much less to speak about undertaking a foreign trip, and trepidation because I frankly had no clue about what to expect.

One of the first families my wife and I got to know in China was a middle-aged couple — I will call them Rs (to protect identity). They lived just two blocks away from our apartment. Mr. R was an officer in one of the international offices in Beijing. Ms. R, who passed away a few years ago, was a homemaker and much like a godmother to my wife. This lovely couple, who had reached Beijing a couple of years before us, was our go-to family for seeking guidance, sharing our joys and sorrows, and exploring places.

We once accompanied them on a retreat organised by Mr. R’s office. The retreat was in a place called Qufu in Shandong Province, which is famous as the birthplace of Confucius, the legendary thinker and philosopher of ancient China. The town houses a cemetery where all descendants of Confucius lie buried. While the town of Qufu bore unmistakeable imprints of a glorious past, what is etched in my mind, apart from the history of the place, is the lavish buffet which the local authorities had thrown for us.

One of the “superstars” in that culinary extravaganza, soon after the fiery local drink Moutai was a plateful of black scorpions, fried and garnished with bamboo shoots. Each of us seated at the table was required to pick one of these with a pair of beautifully crafted chopsticks, and guide them into our mouths, claws and all! Our Chinese interpreter conveyed to us that black scorpions, a delicacy of Shandong, were served only to important visitors.

Perfectly edible

We were informed that the residents of Shandong owed the smooth texture of their skin to the regular intake of scorpions. Asked about the poison in these scorpions, we were told that they are cooked and fried in a manner which nullified the poison glands, making them perfectly edible. While some of the scorpions were seen disappearing into the adventurous mouths of some seated around the table, I was trying to find a discreet mechanism to make it disappear somewhere else!

If this was one of the first items on the menu, the one that followed it left me stupefied! Noticing the quizzical expression on my face, a Dutch lady sitting beside me whispered into my ears that it was dog meat! I had a Hobson’s choice!

ashokwarrier27@gmail.com


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Printable version | May 29, 2022 1:17:32 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/choice-bites-of-china/article65453912.ece