Unusual Chinese Food

Exotic Chinese Food for the Culinary Adventurer

Dried sea cucumbers
Dried sea cucumbers. Getty Images/Jacob Maentz

In every culture, at least one food requires courage from those who try it for the first time. Take French cuisine, for example. You have to wonder who decided that only the common garden snail could do proper justice to a garlic and butter sauce. Yet escargot tastes delicious -- once you forget that your appetizer spent many happy days spreading mucus trails and feeding off decayed plants.

And what about the Japanese penchant for seaweed?

Many people view seaweed solely as a slippery nuisance that causes beaches to smell strange. But the Japanese count upon the marine algae to lend flavor to soups, salads, and even sushi.

I can’t imagine eating anything that generates its own electrical defense system, but many cultures have a favorite eel dish. The next time you’re visiting Britain, watch for an East End street vendor hawking fresh jellied eels, a popular treat made by boiling fresh eel with seasonings and adding gelatin to the stock. Sound icky? Scandinavians might agree – they prefer their eel baked and served cold on bread.

As for Chinese cuisine, a famous Cantonese saying states that “Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible.” So it’s not surprising that the Chinese eat several unusual foods. Here are a few examples:

“Stinky Tofu”

Take a brine made with shrimp, vegetables, and salt, ferment for months, soak a block of tofu in it for several hours, and you have a dish renowned for its pungent odor.

Stinky tofu (also known by its Chinese name, Chou Dofu) is one of those foods that it’s impossible to feel neutral about -- people either love or hate it. Asian tourists who follow their nose will have no trouble locating a stinky tofu stand – street hawkers who sell it have been fined for breaking air pollution laws.

For those who want to enjoy their stinky tofu in a more formal atmosphere, several restaurants devoted to the smelly curd have sprung up in recent years, including Dai’s House of Stinky Tofu in Taipei, rumored to be a favorite haunt of film director Lee Ang.

Sea Cucumber

Wander into any Chinese medicine shop and you’ll spot what appears to be a chunk of cement in one of the display cases. This is the dried form of sea cucumber, also known as beche de mer and sea ginseng. This strange looking ocean creature looks exactly like a cucumber with the addition of tubed feet and a ring of tentacles around its mouth.

Unfortunately, sea cucumber’s taste doesn’t live up to its appearance -- it’s rather bland. Nonetheless, it’s reputed medicinal value and reputation as an aphrodisiac make sea cucumber a popular dish at Chinese New Year's banquets and other festive celebrations.

Thousand-Year-Old Eggs

Thousand-year-old eggs aren't really that old. A more accurate name for this pungent hors d'oeuvre would be salted or preserved eggs. Thousand-year-old eggs (also called century eggs or hundred-year-old eggs) are made by preserving duck eggs in ash and salt for one-hundred days. This turns the white of the egg a darkish gray color, giving the eggs an ancient appearance.

Definitely an acquired taste, thousand-year-old eggs have a strong salty flavor.

Bird's Nest Soup

The chief ingredient in Bird’s Nest Soup is the nest of the swiftlet, a tiny bird that lives in caves in Southeast Asia. Instead of twigs and straw, the swiftlet makes a nest from its own saliva – the only bird in the world to do so. Harvesting these nests requires great skill -- men must balance on tall bamboo poles to grab the nests from inside the dark caves. Like sea cucumber, bird's nest actually tastes rather bland. Its recent rise in popularity comes from its growing reputation both as a health tonic and an aphrodisiac.