Eating is a popular past time with the Chinese and is often a highlight of many visits to China. In this post, Nick describes some of the weird Chinese food he’s tried during his trips through China over the last twenty years.
- 1 Experience China Through Its Food
- 2 My Top 11 Weird Chinese Foods
- 3 More Weird Food In China!
- 4 Make Your Own Chinese Food
Experience China Through Its Food
One of my favourite ways to experience the culture of a country is through food. I would regard eating as one of my hobbies and I am lucky that my overlanding career has allowed me to eat in restaurants all over the globe.
The Chinese love eating and the choice of restaurants available is simply staggering. From tiny shacks serving simple but amazing noodles, to very fancy, fine dining outlets serving hugely creative masterpieces.
As the Cantonese saying goes:
“Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible”
With this list, I relive some of the memorable experiences I’ve had of eating weird food in China. I’m not suggesting you will enjoy all of these dishes, in fact there are some which I would certainly not try again. However, a major part of any adventure is trying new things.
When it comes to food, my attitude is to try anything once (unless I have a strong ethical reason not to do so). This has certainly been my experience in China.
My Top 11 Weird Chinese Foods
1. Sichuan Hotpot
There are many types of hotpot in China and whilst hotpot in itself is not weird or unusual, there are some interesting ingredients that can make it so.
Hotpots are a hugely popular style of eating in China due to the sociability of the experience.
Sichuan is one of provinces of China famed for its spicy dishes. Sichuan hotpot consists of a hot spicy broth, rich in red chilies and Sichuan pepper, in which you cook fresh ingredients at your table.
It’s possible to have non-spicy broth and even a yin-yang pot, (half spicy, half not) which is good for those who can’t handle a lot of spice. The best way to enjoy this meal is with a group of friends, especially Chinese friends, as they know what to do and the best things to order!
Now here’s where it can get weird.
The choice of ingredients to cook in your broth is endless. Aside from prime cuts of meat, noodles, mushrooms and plants, some of which you’ve never seen before, there are some things you might prefer not to see!
Strange Hotpot Ingredients
Tripe (stomach lining) is a very popular choice amongst Chinese diners. Tripe, from whatever animal, works amazingly well as it absorbs the flavour from the broth.
Spam (a type of luncheon meat popular in the UK in the 1970s) is also popular. You can make your own mind up on that one!
The worst thing I’ve ever tasted in a Chinese hotpot has to be pigs brain! Our Chinese host knew this would be controversial, so added it to the pot right at the end, so as not to contaminate everything else. I tried it and it was a bit like a fine pate, but with a metallic taste. It was pretty awful and definitely the most disgusting Chinese food I’ve tried.
Vegetables also play a big part in a good hotpot feast . The selection of funky mushrooms, tofu, and green leaves seem endless.
Here are some interesting variations on the hotpot theme;
- Crab hotpot – I can really recommend this. Whole crabs served in a super spicy sauce of peppers and tomato. It burns the lips, but is delicious.
- Wild Tibetan mushroom hotpot – In Lhasa I was treated to this meal by a friend from Xining. Wow! It’s one of the most stunning meals I’ve ever eaten. Not at all spicy, just the delicious earthy flavour of the Tibetan plateau.
- Dog hotpot – Dog is one of the most well known weird foods from China and perhaps one of the most controversial. Dog is apparently eaten mainly as a winter food as it helps keep you warm. I personally have never tried it, as I draw an ethical line at cats and dogs.
On the whole, Sichuan hotpot is a great meal to enjoy on a night out with friends and allows you to be as adventurous as you like. You might come across some weird asian food on your hotpot journey but be bold and try some exotic ingredients!
2. Camel Hoof
A number of years ago I took a tour group to the town of Zhongwei on the banks of the yellow river, at the southern edge of the Gobi desert. The main reason to go here is to experience a Bactrian camel safari in the pristine sand dunes of the nearby Tengger Desert.
Zhongwei also has an amazing night market where you can find stewed goats heads and a multitude of other local delicacies, which would fit well in this list of bizarre Chinese foods.
The manager of our hotel was keen to show off the hotel restaurant (I always took my group to the night market for dinner), so he put on a dinner for the crew.
One local speciality that was served, was stir fried camel toe. We kept our sniggers to ourselves and tucked into this somewhat unusual dish. Basically the hoof is sliced thinly and stir fried with a slightly spicy oil, onions and peppers.
Now how to describe one…. like a cross between biting your nail and chewing on an old, grisly bit of steak! Actually, to be fair it was much better than that sounds and since they had sliced it thinly enough, it wasn’t so chewy. For me it’s definitely the weirdest Chinese food on this list.
I can easily sum this dish up by saying that of all the possible parts of a camel one can eat, this has to be placed at the bottom!
3. Pickled Radish
That doesn’t sound so weird I hear you say. Well perhaps not so much now, however the first time I went to China in 2001, it was a very different place with very few tourists. Nearly every meal was, and often still is, accompanied by jasmine tea and pickled veg of some sort, mostly radish.
Now my idea of a radish back then was a crunchy red and white hot delight found in salads. In China it’s more like a turnip, pickled to make it soft and served as a side dish to accompany most meals. All our Chinese guides loved it.
However, to the western palate it is perhaps quite different.
It kind of reminds me of socks that have been on an 18 year olds feet for a week, whilst wearing wet wellies!
It didn’t take too long before our Chinese guides worked out what we were saying, and from then on this dish became known simply as “disgusting vegetable” It was however, surprisingly moorish!
4. Chickens Feet
Chickens feet are a common food that Chinese eat. You will find this in any food market, especially night markets, and it also comes pre-packed in shops for that tasty on the go snack. Complete with toenails – irresistible!!!
Yup, nothing about chickens feet sounds particularly appetising, however when in China it’s a must try. How to eat them though? Easy, simply watch the locals and learn.
Place the entire foot in your mouth, chew, suck, crunch everything, swallow the good bits and then spit the rest out on the floor, table or plate. Just do what your local companion does and you can’t go wrong.
Top tip: Avoid the pre-packed supermarket ones unless they are really spicy. The best ones are served fresh in the night markets. The spicier the better!
One way to order food in restaurants in China, in the absence of a translation, is to look at the pictures and point. Or if you see a dish being served to another table that looks good, order the same thing. I recommend this as you can end up with some nice surprises.
However, this isn’t always the case!
On one occasion a meat dish was delivered to the table next to us, which looked like some kind of stir-fried red meat with vegetables, in a lovely-looking sauce. “How about one of those?” I said, “looks great!”
Our Chinese guide was with us and was thankfully very switched on. “Are you sure?” she quizzically asked.
“Why not?” we said “it looks great! What is it?”
After a pause and some thought she came up with the following translation.
“Endangered species!” she said.
This provoked the obvious question – How can an endangered species be allowed on the menu? No sooner had I thought this, than the waiter brought one to our table. Not the dish (thankfully), but the animal itself!
It was a rodent of some sort, the size of a rabbit but with smaller ears and yes, very much alive. Of course we wouldn’t consider eating an endangered animal, so we sent him back to the kitchen quick smart!
Anyway, I still have no idea what it was but apparently they actually farm these animals, so they’re perhaps not quite as endangered as our guides initial translation led us to believe.
6. Century Eggs
Now I have to admit, I am a little bit fascinated by Century eggs and the history behind them. Maybe this comes from reading Wild Swans years back or other novels based in China .
Like many dishes I often wonder how people came to eat such things . Even the process of cooking food is something we’ve discovered in our evolutionary journey.
So my romantic notion (which is actually pretty close to the truth), is that once upon a time a duck laid a clutch of eggs beside a pond. A huge flood occurred and covered the eggs with sediment.
100 years later, the eggs were discovered by a farmer tending his patch. He was curious about whether the eggs were still fresh, so peeled off the shell. The farmer discovered that although it looked a bit rotten, it was actually delicious.
Also known as thousand year old eggs, century eggs these days are actually processed for around 100 days and are one of the Chinese food delicacies.
Personally I love them . But it’s all in how they are served. On one trip to China we had two local guides – Ding and Tommy. They were a great team and really got involved with the camping element of our trips . They took it upon themselves to cook us dinner on more than one occasion and it was always highly anticipated.
On one occasion they introduced us to century eggs prepared in a Sichuan style, with chilli and Sichuan pepper being the main ingredients. They served them cold as starter, sliced and with a drizzle of their Sichuan sauce. Absolutely delicious.
The colour puts most people off (they’re mostly black), as well as the thought of it, but if you can get past that they are amazing. I highly recommend giving this strange Chinese dish a try.
7. Duck Tongues
It intrigues me why anyone would go through the effort involved to remove the tongue from a duck, just to make a dish out of them. However, it’s a common food in China.
Most people will have heard of Beijing duck (also known as Peking duck) In the UK the closest thing we have to Beijing duck is crispy fried duck with pancakes.
In my opinion Beijing duck is a must try experience in China and there are restaurants specialising in this that can be eight stories high. The duck served in such restaurants are very rich and fatty which is down to the way they are reared, so it’s a good idea to balance a duck meal with some lighter, vegetable dishes.
If you are out dining with Chinese friends they will often offer you the ducks head, especially if you are the senior person on the table. This is a fiddle but is actually delicious. It’s also common place to order duck tongues, often stir fried. This consists of the tongue itself along with the connecting muscles, which have been painstakingly removed from the ducks mouth prior to cooking.
Yes you guessed it, you need a lot of duck tongues to make it worthwhile!
They are an interesting and slightly bizarre Chinese food to try, even if they are not spectacular in taste. Also on the theme of ducks, cheeks and feet are also a possibility.
8. Fish Lips
These are surprisingly good as it happens. Like duck tongues, it just seems a lot of work for something so small. However, with fish lips (and also cheeks), you would normally order an entire fish and this would be the most desirable part to eat.
Some species of fish are preferred because they have particularly tasty lips. In fact some Chinese diners will often order a whole fish, eat the lips and maybe cheeks, then leave the rest of the fish untouched. Personally, I enjoy eating fish so would never waste any.
Scorpions are perhaps one of the most well known weird foods in China. I’ve come across various edible bugs, grubs and spiders over the years, so while finding these on a market in Beijing wasn’t a huge surprise, but I was intrigued as to how they got around the sting.
The scorpions were barbecued on sticks, three per stick and served whole. I was expecting something like crab, but actually it was mainly just crunchy, with very little flesh.
Apparently, when cooked, the venom in the stinger breaks down so it’s quite safe to eat. If eating scorpion raw though, it’s essential that the stinger and venom glands are removed!
Scorpions are a famous food from China and as a crunchy snack are worth a try. They’re certainly not unpleasant.
10. Yak Butter Tea
Tea drinking is a hugely popular pastime in so many countries, and China in particular, has arguably the finest choice of teas available with many local specialities. There is a Chinese proverb that says:
“Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one”
In Tibet the people take their tea with yak butter, as much of the yak milk produced is churned into butter for storage. Yak butter is also used in monasteries for ceremonial functions, for example to fuel lamps.
The tea is often brewed on stoves burning yak dung in smokey restaurants and then served in large thermos flasks.
It looks a bit like milk tea but often has an oily film of butter on top. I always introduce yak butter tea to my groups when traveling in Tibet as it is such an important part of the culture. However, it’s fair to say it receives very mixed reviews.
Personally I quite like it but some descriptions of it are less than encouraging. “A kind of milky blue cheese flavoured tea” is a fairly accurate take on it. Personally I like blue cheese so maybe that’s why I like it. I have heard it compared to many things but cheesy or salty are the most common.
I have used yak butter in mashed potato or melted over boiled vegetables, and it does give quite a nice cheesy finish.
Anyway, my advice is to embrace this odd Chinese drink it and give it a go. Maybe try it more than once as it is a bit of an acquired taste 🙂
11. Dried Mutton
Whilst on a trip in Tibet a number of years ago I was planning a group meal in Lhasa. I wanted my group to have an authentic Tibetan experience and with a group of 18 this was always going to be a huge challenge, as the only restaurants who can deal with groups tend to be more touristic in nature.
So we hatched a plan!
We split our group up into groups of three and sent them off to find their own small local eateries. The challenge was to see who could have the most local experience. We then arranged to meet later at the Dunya bar for a beer afterwards to compare notes.
What a great night it turned out to be! Some groups had dinner with monks, whilst others had a go at cooking their own local dishes, in small kitchens along dark alleyways.
As the tour leader I teamed up with my co-leader and Chinese guide, and attempted not to be out done. We found a little place with no particular menu and asked what was on offer, other than the common Tibetan staples of Thukpa and Momos.
We ended up with dried mutton. We actually wanted dried yak meat but they had run out. In Tibet, drying meat is a common way of preserving it through lean months.
It was a little like roast lamb but rather tough and with a bit of a mouldy aftertaste. We washed down this slightly strange Chinese food with more Yak butter tea and were on our way.
More Weird Food In China!
There are many more strange Chinese dishes I’ve tried during my travels through this fascinating, culinary country. Some of the more bizarre dishes include:
- Turtle stir-fry
- Cold roast donkey
- Sheep’s head stew
- Bird hearts
- Roasted street bird
Whilst some of these dishes might seem rather weird or unusual, they are just a few of the amazing delicacies enjoyed in restaurants and food outlets all over China every day. The variety is endless and there is always something new to try, even for those who are less adventurous than myself.
Make Your Own Chinese Food
If none of these dishes get you salivating, how about trying one of Gok’s home cooked traditional Chinese meals instead?
More about Nick
Nick Fulford has been leading overland tours for 20 years. He has worked for several overland companies including Exodus, Oasis and Dragoman. Running these tours he has travelled extensively through China since 2002. His favourite Chinese dish is crab hotpot!
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