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It was a scene straight out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The man removed the lid of the tin bin to reveal what would have been most people´s worst nightmare – a thick writhing mass of creepy crawlies that included scorpions, centipedes, silkworm and humongous crickets.
Then, just to make the nightmare even worse, he reached into the bin, scooped out a spoonful of the insects and deposited them in a large wok where they sizzled, crackled and popped.
The night market in Wangfujing Street in Beijing must feature the most bizarre examples of street food that you’re likely to find anywhere.
The food stalls that line the road offer a dizzying choice of kebabs, dizzying not just because of the range of foodstuff on offer but also because of the identity of the creatures impaled on the legions of barbecue sticks.
The scorpions, snakes, crickets and seahorses were easy to identify, others less so.
“What’s that?” I asked our guide, pointing to large round, ridged insect looking things.
“Silkworm grubs,” she replied nonchalantly.
At least the kebabs next them had something less gruesome looking, but the shape of the small meaty chunks squeezed onto the stick looked disconcertingly familiar.
“And those?” I hardly dared to ask.
“Sparrow,” came the reply.
Fundamentally I don’t have a problem with eating sparrow, if you eat chicken why not sparrows in China? But it’s still somewhat of a culinary shock to see things you’d never connect with going into your mouth being crunched, sucked and chewed.
So far it had been an incredible visual experience of Beijing street-life and an eye-opener of the eating habits of a different culture…but then came the crunch moment.
The guide rubbed her hands together gleefully.
“Okay, so what do you want to try?” I bet she just loved this moment.
At that point I played my ´get out of jail free´card.
“I’d love to try the scorpion or the crickets,” I raised my hands defensively. “But I’m a pescetarian.”
It’s true, I didn’t eat meat at that point and as I didn’t know where scorpions, crickets and silkworm grubs stood when it came to being considered meat or not (I still don’t), I thought it better not to risk betraying my principles. So I stood and watched, feeling slightly cowardly, as one of the other guys in our small group demolished a quartet of fried sparrows – a bit like very bony chicken was the verdict.
Of course being a pescatarian I could have chosen seahorse but hey, come on…no-one can really expect me to eat one of those cute little guys.