13 October, 2013

Shanghai Sagas – Of Chicken Legs and Duck Heads

Disclaimer: The following article is not for the weak-hearted. If you despise shows like Game of Thrones or Spartacus; or dislike books like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo; or are not Chinese; this article is not meant for you. I’d request you to return to the world of Eat Pray Love. But if you think you can stand an image which is going to haunt me for the rest of my life, then please don’t forget to comment.

It was another evening at Tongji while I was taking a stroll near the campus boundary thinking about the cute German girl with the smart haircut; when I felt butterflies in my stomach. Being in China, I feel the need to clarify that I didn’t really eat butterflies for lunch, it just means I felt hungry. Thankfully, finding food isn’t a big challenge in Shanghai. It’s finding food which doesn’t freak me out that becomes a challenge. But hunger teaches us things which we don’t know about ourselves. I’d already started eating eggs, vegetable soup in meat broth, and I don’t mind if a sausage happened to touch my food. Yet there were things which I couldn’t get used to.

For example, there are many roadside barbeque stations in Shanghai. I often go there for bread, corn, mushrooms and tofu. But they also keep all sorts of meat, like chicken, lamb, fishes, and things I don’t want to know about. I’ve been going there for 2 months now but there’s something unnerving about the fish which I still haven’t been able to get used to. It’s a long thin fish with a skewer going into its mouth and coming out of its tail. The fish is fresh and uncooked yet. The guy puts the dead fresh fish on the grill and it roasts right there infront of my eyes. I see the open eye disappearing into black ash and slowly the fish transforms into grilled meat, right there infront of me. If I hadn’t seen worse, then this would’ve been the most grouse image I’d have ever seen. But in all fairness, to the Chinese that thing is still food. I might find it eerie, but to the Chinese, it’s a part of their culture and evening snack. I just have to get used to the fact that to the Chinese, the taste of the food matters, not the beauty of it.

And I would’ve given them credit for it. After all, what’s a roasted fish in a world of shell-less snails, snake juice and octopus balls (balls made of octopus meat; not octopus balls). But then, one day I found a curious thing which I couldn’t figure out. It seemed like half an octopus at first, with 4 arms. But on closer observation (and confirmation from a Chinese friend) we figured that it was chicken feet. The things which seemed to be octopus arms were infact 3 claws and the leg. What’s worse, I could see the nails still attached to the feet. Later I saw some Chinese sucking on the claws. I didn’t stop to see if they actually ate the feet or just sucked on them, but I know that was not an image I wished to see.

And I would’ve still made my peace with it, had I not seen the next level of creepiness in Chinese food the next day. I went inside an eatery to try to order vegetarian fried rice. There was some sort of meat kept at the corner table which I didn’t pay attention to at first. Somehow, a friend gathered courage to look at it and told me those were duck-heads. Two instincts hit me together. One, to scream and run. Another, to have a look. Unable to resist the curious me, whom I curse now, I had a look. There it was - skinless, roasted, brown, duck heads, with the beaks still intact. It was just heads cut off from ducks and roasted, ready to eat. A Chinese friend later told me, to my horror, that they are delicious. I still haven’t found the courage to confirm it for myself. Everytime I imagine the brain still inside that head, somehow my hunger dies. Somehow the image of being sucking on the duck’s beak doesn’t seem to help.

I heard other stories such as boiling live crabs to death. The restaurant owners had a tough time explaining to me that when I say I don’t eat animals, I confirm that I eat fishes and poultry as they are not “animals”. I went through a phase of trying to explain to them that I don’t eat anything which does not grow in or on the soil. I don’t eat anything which moves or has moved on its own. Finally, I found the keyword – meat. I simply needed to say that I don’t eat meat. Thankfully, there’s not a culture of eating worms in Shanghai, else that would have been a different challenge, because worms don’t have meat.

As I end this post, I must say that even though food here sounds uncanny, it’s a part of Chinese culture. I’d feel bad if someone called me creepy for drinking milk, so would the Chinese. Most species kill to survive, the Chinese just take it one step further, in a slightly (not overly) unhygienic manner though. There can be ways improve this but one must remember that just over a decade ago this country was starving to death. They adapted to stay alive and eating anything which moves or grows became a part of culture. I think even I’d eat anything if it came to a choice between dying and eating worms. The food shortage created a culture, and as it often happens, cultures are harder to eliminate than crises. There’s more to Chinese food that its brutality for those who have the taste for it, and Shanghai shows that a lot of the world does. And if a Hindu-atheist vegetarian boy can learn to tolerate these differences, then perhaps the world can too.