Chow down on starfish and scorpions in Beijing
AFTER a day of hanging around with hordes of Chinese tourists in the seemingly endless queue for the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, I am in dire need of rejuvenation.
And here in the Chinese capital, that means a short trip to the most famous eating street in the region - Wangfujing - where vendors line up to blow both the mind and stomach with a range of local delicacies.
The Wangfujing Snack Street requires careful navigation.
Vendors shout in your face and the locals spit at your feet, giving the strip an authentic if occasionally annoying flavour.
The senses are overwhelmed by the sight and smells of street snacks from all over China, among them deep-fried silkworm, tasty shredded lamb, coriander "burgers" from Shanxi and scorpions on sticks.
Wangfujing Snack Street is located just off Wangfujing, a shopping district east of Beijing.
Marked by the large paifang or gateway off the main pedestrian thoroughfare, the smaller strip stretches out through a crowded hutong community lined by old-fashioned shophouses. I grab a bottle of Beijing's finest beer, and follow my nose.
It's often said the Chinese will eat anything with legs except a table, and anything with wings except a plane and the snack street certainly appears to bear this out.
Entering through the Chinese gate, the first thing I see is a cute Chinese girl cowering in front of a snack stall. She's trying to take a close-up but feels she has to move back as the scorpions impaled on the skewers move their legs and tails frantically, perhaps in last-ditch effort for freedom.
"Yi kuai - one piece", I tell the vendor.
"San kuai la? Shi yuan," the vendor replies, determined to sell me three sticks of scorpion for 10 yuan (S$2). He must think I'm a big fan of deep-fried scorpion. I'm not but I am sorry for the beasts and think its kinder to help them on their way to a rapid death.
The vendor shrugs, dips the scorpion stick into the sizzling oil for a minute, then seasons it before handing it to me to taste.
I am not a "bug virgin". I've munched on oil-slicked crickets on Bangkok's Khao San Road and crunched salty yet sensational fried grasshoppers while enjoying a few beers with pals.
But the scorpion has none of the gastronomic advantages of its fellow bugs.
First I nibble the tail, then crunch the belly. It's crispy like a potato chip but has a very bitter taste.
There are hundreds of vendors selling street food on the both sides of the strip and the area gets more crowded as the evening wears on. I spot several tourists munching on strange shaped creatures but after stopping at a stall that specialises in seahorse and starfish, decide to take a pass.
What does starfish taste like anyway? Pretty rough on the mouth, I would think, given its alien-looking carapace.
Next up are the silkworms and they are considerably bigger than our ones back home.
Also skewered on a stick, the silkworm is cooked on a hot grill and dipped in a spicy concoction of salt, sugar, Szechuan peppercorn and the perennial Chinese favourite - umami agent or monosodium glutamate.
The silkworm comes as a great surprise. As I nibble it, the steamy and milky inside runs in my mouth. It's so sensational that I promptly order three more.
Then there is the rumen, the first chamber in the alimentary channel of a cow and other large mammals.
Several stalls have huge piles of rumen, which is cooked and sliced into chunks the size of cheese sticks and served in a bowl with a tangy chilli sauce on top.
If the queues of Chinese at each stall are any indication, this is a hot favourite with the gourmet elite.
Less appetising to these eyes though also popular with locals are the centipedes, UCW (unidentified creatures with wings) and lizards. I keep looking for snake, but I don't see it. Perhaps it's off tonight.
You don't have to be a big fan of odd food to enjoy a stroll through Wangfujing Snack Street. In fact, even vegetarians can eat well here, with lots of delicious pan-fried bean curds, rolled cakes and sweets on offer.
But the best part of the visit is not the exotic food but the bustling ambience of the food scene.
I quickly realise that it isn't the flavours that are thrilling my senses but the noise and smell of the food and the foodies themselves.
Exploring new cultures is always fascinating and what better way to do it than through the Chinese passion for food?
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK