The very offensive joke in China goes that “the only thing on four legs that Chinese people don’t eat is the table”. Indeed, when travelling in China, you may wonder if there is anything that is off limits when it comes to food. If it moves, if it walks, if it swims, if it wriggles, if it barks or coos or chuffs, then it is protein and can be eaten in some way, shape or form, and its body parts utilised for something or the other. Waste not, want not seems to be the order of the day. And when you come from a massive place like China, with a whole lot of hungry people, wasting something edible is a big no-no.
I tried to think, what kind of Trini food would visitors find weird? I’ve been surprised to find out that many foreigners think eating shark is considered a bit odd, even though it is the norm in Trinidad. Picky people might not find the idea of picking at a hairy crab leg covered in curry on Store Bay a particularly appetizing thing. It may not be the norm but many Trinis do eat iguana and wild bush meat. Or how about black pudding, delicious highly seasoned pig’s blood? Souse would make any good Muslim gag. And how many of us have seen people enjoying a styrofoam cup of chicken foot around the Savannah? Yup, Trinis have their own list of foods which, to others, would be downright gross.
A few days ago, I posted this picture up on my Facebook page because I happened to walk by something that you don’t see every day in Hong Kong. Many areas of Hong Kong are quite westernized, and you are more likely to find a Starbucks than a shop selling something like snake wine or turtle soup. Lucky for me, I live not too far from Hong Kong’s historic Dried Seafood Street, where shop after shop after shop is full from floor to ceiling with seahorses, fish stomach, shark fins, deer antlers, sea cucumbers, dried abalone, tiny dried shrimp, bird’s nest, and a million other ocean-related creatures I could not even identify. But this was the first time I had seen dried lizards! I had to take a picture.
After putting up the shot on Facebook, I was amazed, but not too surprised, by the response of more than 300 people who thought it was either disgusting or just immoral. “That is truly one of the most gross things ever!!!!! Crawls my blood just looking at it.” said one person. Another Travelling Trini, a professional chef based in the US who has studied a lot about world cuisines, kindly informed us ignorant readers that the “lizard lollipops” are in fact dried flying lizards. They are boiled in a tea and used to treat respiratory ailments. See? There IS a use for everything.
Maybe there is something to be appreciated in a culture that does not, or perhaps cannot afford to, waste useful resources. After all, China, being such a massive country, has more than 20% of the world’s population, and the majority of the country lives in rural poverty. They don’t have the option of wandering around a big air conditioned supermarket with vacuum packed de-boned chicken breasts packaged carefully in styrofoam, and they don’t have the luxury of buying fresh blueberries from New Zealand. So, you better make the most of what you have.
The other day while walking home I saw one dried seafood shop putting those bamboo baskets out in the sun. It was the undershell of turtles, and I have absolutely NO idea what it could be used for. Ground up and added to something? Used to soup stock? Is it medicinal? I have no clue. But obviously they do!
All countries have their own ‘strange cuisines’. You have the French who eat snails, Americans who eat baby cows (veal!?), the Scots who eat sheep lung, the Philippinos who eat ‘balut’ (a boiled, fertilized egg with a half-developed chick in it), Australians who eat crocodile and kangaroo, Europeans who eat all kinds of pungent cheeses covered in mould which ANY Asian would find revolting, Indonesians who drink kopi lemak (coffee made from beans which have passed through the gut and out of the other end of the civet cat), Japanese who eat marinated raw horse (which is, surprisingly good), Thais who eat garlic and lemon grass stir fried crickets (again, quite tasty!), and the list goes on and on. Yet somehow China in particular remains the country most notorious for ‘eating everything’. (Probably because they are the biggest market in the world for ‘medicinal’ things like tiger penis and a list of other aphrodisiacs which are ‘good for stamina’!!!)
There are many places I wouldn’t set foot in here in Hong Kong, to be honest, but how quickly we forget that it’s not that ‘our’ culture is normal and ‘their’ culture is weird. All cultures in all countries are weird, and all have weird, disgusting foods which others find distasteful and wrong. I suppose it is true, for a large part we ARE a product of our environment! Or as the old saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison!