From Siberia to Tibet: China as a Tourist

So how is traveling around the less visited parts of China when you’re a tall, blond, distinctly non-Chinese-speaking alien?

Language

I have to state up front that my experience of China is likely pretty different from that of the average foreign visitor, since I’m reasonably fluent in Japanese and that gives a huge leg up for parsing Chinese: I can’t read larger chunks of text because the grammar is too different, but I can generally manage maps, simple websites and signage.  However, my spoken Chinese is terrible and my comprehension isn’t much better.

Nevertheless, I was positively surprised by the amount of English signage present.  Sometimes there was clearly a government edict at work — for example, every single shop in the villages near the Mutianyu Great Wall has English signs, just in case a tourist has a sudden urgent to acquire construction supplies or wholesale quantities of fertilizer — and equally often it was clearly run through an online translation tool, occasionally with hilarious results.  A large part of the “English” signage was actually just pinyin phonetics, so those Chinese who struggle with hanzi can still spell out SHE HUI ZHU YI and connect the red billboard with a hammer and sickle to socialism — but as a useful side effect, this meant that most trains, subways, buses etc were signposted in friendly Roman letters.

By comparison, English speakers were definitely on thinner ground.  We ran into a few in odd places, like a young Didi (Chinese Uber) driver in Xining, but when it came time to request a late checkout at one of Xining’s top hotels, the bellboy spoke more English than the three ladies behind the counter combined, and I still had to trot out my pidgin Mandarin.  Border crossings and security checkpoints were also invariably quick & wordless affairs, since staff vocabulary didn’t seem to extend much beyond “passport” and “ticket”.

Would we ever really have been in trouble without knowing Chinese?  No, but any scraps you can pick up beforehand will certainly helped.

Civility

China — and I’m referring specifically to the People’s Republic here — gets a pretty bad rep for being tourist-hostile, and if you read the Stay safe section on Wikivoyage it’s easy to come away expecting that your children will be kidnapped and/or run over while you’re choking on toxic air and sold overpriced tea by attractive but starving art students.

Now it’s fair to say that if it’s personal space you’re after, most of China is the wrong place to be: in a city like Beijing, with twice the population of New York, you’re going to get a lot of crowds and the occasional sharp elbow.  Interestingly, most of these belonged to the elderly, who were either taking their Confucian mores of mandatory respect for the aged seriously, or had honed their queue-cutting skills fighting for scraps of cabbage during the Great Leap Forward.  Overall, though, most queues were kinda-sorta respected (heavy security presence must help), people mostly waited for others to get off the subway before barging on themselves, and even train stations felt more like busy airports than the crush of desperate humanity that is an Indian train station’s waiting room or ticket office.  And while there are a few places like Beijing’s Silk Alley (now just a shopping mall) and that drinks shop atop the Mutianyu Great Wall that will happily fleece foreigners for every last yuan they’ve got, if you pick your own places, you’ll pay what the locals do: we never paid more than printed on the menu or otherwise agreed.

We did run into a couple of power-tripping bureaucrats, most memorably an attendant on our Beijing-Xi’an trian, who completely flipped out over my dad’s effrontery in using the bottom bunk in our 4-bunk cabin when his ticket said top bunk — never mind that we had purchased all four seats.  A friendly English-speaking lady from a nearby cabin was roped in to help translate, and after much foot-stomping and gnashing of teeth the attendant admitted defeat when we pointed out that this was a non-stop train, so it was physically impossible for anybody else to board en route and claim that bunk.

Toilets in China are also worth a mention, since the country has a reputation for unutterably grim facilities.  We found a few at some of the less visited Tibetan monasteries, but as a rule they were generally modern, tolerably clean and generally a cut above Russia or Mongolia.   You will, however, need to learn to squat and carry your own toilet paper, since Western-style thrones are few and far between and TP is a national treasure only grudgingly doled out once authorities have scrutinized your schnozzle.

One final component of the China experience is security, surveillance and bureaucracy, but that’s a topic large enough to deserve its own blog post.  (Coming soon.)

Internet

Speaking of security and surveillance, one of the more annoying parts of travel in China is the Great Firewall, which keeps getting higher and tighter: virtually all name-brand Western services (Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google Maps, Wikipedia, Reddit, Instagram etc) are now inaccessible.  I had prepared by setting up ExpressVPN in advance, and it worked fine when on wifi, but when roaming on my Australian SIM, the connection was censored and throttled to be hopelessly slow, making using the VPN nearly impossible.

In the end I bought a China Unicom prepaid SIM, which was several orders of magnitude faster and well worth the investment, but Western services remained glitchy.  For example, on Google Maps, local data is not just spotty and out of date, but places were often hundreds of meters in the wrong direction, and even if you could use WhatsApp, nobody you meet could.  So the only way to go is to dip your toe into the local ecosystem.

  • WeChat/QQ (微信 Weixin) is the local juggernaut and the de facto choice of messaging.  It also has the very popular WeChat Pay (微信支付 Weixin Zhifu) payment system, which has recently started accepting non-Chinese credit cards, but registration is complicated and apparently the rules vary continually.  When I signed up, I needed a Chinese number and a local trusted user to verify me, but no Chinese ID or bank account; others report being required to provide one or both of these though.  It’s also important to download the mainland China version of the app directly off weixin.qq.com, not the overseas version from App Store/Play Store.
  • Baidu Maps (百度地图 Baidu Ditu) is the local equivalent of Google Maps.  In addition to being Chinese-only, the UI is pretty busy and takes some getting used to, but place search and directions for driving, public transport and walking are all pretty good.  (Weird quirk: travel times for bus were systematically inflated by 30-60 min.)
  • Ctrip (携程旅行 Xiéchéng Lǚxíng) is your best source for long-distance travel information, including detailed train schedules.
  • Mobike (摩拜 Móbài) is great for booking some of the ride share bikes littering the streets of China’s larger cities.  Rides start from Y1 a pop and the same app & credit works fine in Australia too.

Transport

It’s difficult to overstate just how much investment China has put into planes, trains and roads over the past decades, or how much pent up demand this has unlocked.  For example, we took the CRH bullet train from Xi’an to Xining, fully expecting this recently opened line from a 2nd-tier city to a 3rd-tier city to be a white elephant, but no — the train was packed to the last seat. Xi’an has sprouted 3 lines and 91 km of metro in the past 7 years, all of it packed, and Beijing is still catching up after opening 22 lines covering 608 km.  Train stations like Beijing West are not enormous (just) because the government likes massive buildings, but because they have to be: the 34-platform, 60-million-pax-per-year Xi’an North is by some measures the largest in Asia, with a central concourse that puts most stadiums to shame, and it was still difficult to find a seat.  Even Lhasa airport was bursting at the seams.  The only empty Chinese transport hub during the entire trip was the shiny new international wing of Chongqing Jiangbei Airport, but I suspect we were there just at the wrong time during the afternoon lull, since CKG too has seen 1,000% (yes, three zeroes) international passenger growth since 2009.

Food

In short, the food in China was amazing, if often a bit hit and miss since we were traveling without much local advice and mostly choosing places by convenience.  The learning curve for “real” Chinese food can be steep though, so here’s a trek up the scale.

Crowd-pleasers abounded in Beijing: the justly famous Peking Duck (Xiheyaju
羲和雅居 was among the best meals of the trip) and the less famous but no less tasty zhajiangmian (炸醬麵) aka Chinese spaghetti bolognese.  Roubing (肉餅) meat pies are also widely available, although the precise origin of the meat may be a mystery at times.

Mildly more adventurous or surprising were the many Muslim eateries of Xining, serving up a constellation of noodles.  Even with basic knowledge of hanzi and Google Translate, you never quite knew what you’d get, but rarely were we disappointed.  One Chinese innovation that will take the West by storm sooner or later is the conveyor-belt hotpot: take a personal mini pot, select a broth and dipping sauces, then pick what you like from the parade going past you and pay for what you ate.  Magic!  And if you put too much chilli in your sauce, cool down with some yogurt (酸奶 suānnǎi), which is sold everywhere on the streets.  And if all else fails, head to a hotel breakfast buffet and eat an cute animal-shaped steamed bun.

At the more challenging end of the spectrum were Yunnanese cuisine, which appears to consist mostly of mushrooms and unusual veggies; the enormous gelatinous niangpi (酿皮) noodles of Qinghai served with bread-like steamed gluten dipped in chilli, the Chinese trucker favorite of “big plate chicken” (大盘鸡 dàpánjī), basically a stew of chicken, potato and lots of chilli, and the Chongqing classic xiǎomiàn (小面), the deceptively named “small noodles” that pack a big numbing-hot mala punch.

And oh, if you’re reading this and thinking “that’s nothing, once in Shenzhen I ate…”, go chew on this previous blog entry for a while.

<<< Lhasa and Tibet | Hong Kong and Macau >>>

 

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From Siberia to Tibet: Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert

I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve never been to a country like Mongolia.  Scratch that: I’ve never been to a country anything like Mongolia.

The first thing that strikes you is that this country is not really suitable for human life.  The more gentle bits, such as that around capital Ulaanbaatar (“UB”), consist of treeless steppe with temperatures ranging from -40°C in the winter to 35°C in the summer.  The less forgiving parts, like the Gobi Desert and Lake Uvs, dispose of unnecessary vegetation and crank the extremes up to −58°C in winter and 47°C in summer.  Add in the wild temperature fluctuations caused by a continental climate at high elevation that can see UB hit temps below freezing every month of the year, and you can see why agriculture is effectively impossible.

At this point, I should note that I was born in Helsinki, Finland, ranked a respectable #5 on the list of the world’s coldest capitals (#1 is, of course, UB), and many a time I’ve wondered how on earth my ancestors survived in this arctic wasteland without central heating or microwave pizzas.  But at least in Finland, we had timber for housing and heating, fish in the lakes and sea, game in the woods, crops of rye and barley, turnips and rutabagas — whereas the Mongols had, to a first approximation, none of these.

So, when the Mongols were playing Yurtcraft in Hardcore mode around 1000 C.E. and the only resources were sheep and yaks, what did they do?  They built their houses out of wool, namely the felt used for yurts.  In winter they ate only meat, specifically boiled mutton, and in summer they switched to a lighter diet of only dairy products.  And to be clear, when I say “only meat”, I really mean only meat: no vegetables, no grain, no bread, no potatoes, nothing.  Meat.  For dairy, they had a choice of milk, cream, sour milk, yogurt, fresh cheese and dried cheese, but at least they could ferment some into mildly alcoholic airag (mare’s milk) or seriously alcoholic arkhi (yoghurt vodka) and so they could drink away the monotony for a while.

Given this fairly serious handicap, you’d expect the Mongolians to occupy about the same amount of space on the world stage as, say, their fellow pastoralists the Maasai of Kenya, whose colorful costumes and exotic diet regularly feature in the National Geographic but rarely beyond it.  But no: the Mongols gave birth to Genghis Khan, who during his lifetime built an empire twice the size of the Romans at their height, and whose sons and grandsons proceeded to conquer China, Russia, much of the Middle East and knock on the gates of Western Europe.

Alas, the Mongol Empire lasted for only about 100 years until inevitably splitting into warring factions (maybe siring an estimated 8% of Asia’s population wasn’t such a great idea?) and it was all downhill from there for a while.  The Manchu Qing dynasty eventually conquered Mongolia in 1691, and while Mongolia declared independence in 1911, Russian aid quickly turned into Soviet strings and the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, complete with local Stalin clone Choibalsan doing his level best to purge the intelligentsia.  This created another overlay of weirdness, with Cyrillic script and hideous Soviet-style architecture still dominating the streets of UB.

In 1990, the Soviet Union and the Mongolian People’s Republic along with it collapsed, and Mongolia acquired a new state ideology: bling.  This gave Ulaanbaatar its latest layer of shiny skyscrapers, modern art exhibitions, traffic jams, microbreweries, hot dog stands, fancy boutiques and even a VIP room at the train station.  It must be said that Mongolia remains a poor country and most of this is far beyond the reach of the common man — but in a country where a taxi ride is $2, a tourist’s dollars go a long way.

This newfound comparative prosperity has also expanded the Mongol diet, with former festival fare like buuz steamed dumplings, khuushuur meat pies and tsuivan fried noodles now served by fast food restaurants.  And when all the mutton starts to get to you — you soon realize that the entire city smells like boiled mutton — check out one of UB’s countless Korean places, serving up all the kimchi and Choco Pies you can handle.

While I found UB to be absolutely fascinating, the scenery in nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park was equally so and definitely worth a day trip if not more.  Turtle Rock, Aryaval monastery (which sells pizza, because Mongolia), visiting a local tourist yurt, admiring the owner’s yaks and sampling many yak dairy products, pottering about on stubby Mongolian horses, visiting the yurt owner’s cousin’s distinctly non-tourist yurt and fermented mare’s milk straight out of a blue plastic bucket…  not a day I’ll soon forget.

Early on the morning of our final day, we boarded train #4 to Beijing and set off on a slow trundle across the Gobi Desert.  It’s large, it’s hot, it contains a whole lotta nothing — but the most striking sight was the heat-blasted, godforsaken town of Choir, a former Soviet military base that for some unfathomable reason has not been abandoned by its 8,000 inhabitants yet.  The town consists entirely of commieblocks and fencing, both in severe disrepair, plus an excessively jaunty silver statue of Mongolian cosmonaut Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa with his pants down.

At this point, I’m officially out of words.  It’s about time to cross the border into China.

<<< Life on a Train | Beijing, Xi’an & Xining >>>

Weird Food Compendium

Octopi hors d'oeuvre, Sendai, JapanPolitically correct note: “weirdness” is in the eye of the beholder, and I’m obviously writing this from a Western perspective. It’s instructive to remember that a Chinese colleague of mine still finds cheese of any type to be tough going, and considers the very idea of intentionally moldy (blue) cheese to be utterly disgusting. Without further ado…

The Raw, the Bleeding and the Squirming

Eating sushi was the first step in my transformation from a teenage picky eater to an obsessive gourmand. I fell in love with the stuff in Japan and have since eaten countless kinds of raw fish, shellfish (shrimp, lobster, crab), molluscs (oysters, cockles), etc. Some more interesting highlights, all in Japan unless otherwise noted:

  • Raw beef. Like carpaccio, only without the lime juice and spices. It’s alright, but I prefer my steaks medium rare.
  • Raw whale. Actually look and tastes quite similar to raw beef, but the texture is a bit fishier. Not bad.
  • Raw horse. Often known as sakuraniku (cherry blossom meat) or umeniku (plum meat), but in Tokyo it’s just basashi, sliced horse. Very thinly sliced and served on a bed of ice, with minced garlic as a dipping sauce. When still frozen, the taste is very mild and the texture melts in your mouth; when it melts, it becomes a stringy mess of horse.
  • Raw goat, in Abu Dhabi. Known as kibbeh nayyeh, this is a Syrian speciality that consists of finely minced goat meat, bulghur wheat and a bit of olive oil, all blended together into a big bowl o’ meat. Eaten with pita bread, it’s considered a very manly breakfast, and it tastes, well, meaty and goaty. I think trying it once was enough.
  • Raw chicken. At a specialty chicken restaurant in Japan that breeds their own. Tasted like, well, chicken. Not particularly enjoyable, but not particularly disgusting either.
  • Live octopus (sannakji), Korea. It’s not really live, as the tentacles are hacked off before serving, but they do keep moving for a good half hour afterwards. The weird bit is that they’re still conscious on some level: if you try to pick them up with chopsticks, they start wriggling furiously and/or attach their suction cups to the plate. Dousing in soy and wasabi helps calm them down, and they actually taste quite nice. Just don’t bite off more than you can chew, as these suckers can and do choke people to death every year.


320px-sea_pineapple_sashimiSpare Parts (Fish, Amphibian and Reptile Edition)

  • Anglerfish milt (shirako), Singapore. “Milt”, or the even more euphemistic “soft roe”, is actually the fish equivalent of sperm. The Japanese consider it a delicacy and serve it chilled with a light ponzu sauce and some scallions, and to my surprise, it was actually rather tasty: it’s firmer than you’d think, the texture is smooth (not gooey at all), the taste is milky (and not fishy or, uhh, genital-y).
  • Crocodile kebabs, Australia. Dry but surprisingly meaty and un-stringy, would pass for a lean cut of pork.
  • Eel liver soup (kimosui), Japan. Eel livers look like something out of Alien, but they taste like any other liver.
  • Fish head curry, Singapore. This is a Singaporean classic, and with reason. The heads used are gigantic and, while the bones are not eaten, there’s plenty of succulent meat lurking in the crevices.
  • Frog legs, Singapore. The notionally weird but actually very bland food that the phrase “tastes like chicken” was invented for.
  • Geoduck siphon, USA.  A geoduck is a type of a mollusk, whose siphon is rather rude-looking and consequently an expensive delicacy that can be eaten cooked or raw.  I tried it as sushi, and it doesn’t really taste much different from any other clam.
  • Giant shrimp heads, Japan. After eating the innards as sashimi, an izakaya pub I used to frequent would deep-fry the heads and serve them up. They look pretty creepy, but you can eat the whole thing like a potato chip: remember to take a look inside the head to see the multiple rows of little teeth. Mmm!
  • Jellyfish, Singapore. Very popular Chinese appetizer occasionally eaten in Japan as well, prepared with a complicated process that makes them a little crunchy and entirely tasteless.
  • Miniature octopi, Japan. Served whole, coated with a sesame-oil-based sauce. Oddly enough, these are called chuka tako (Chinese octopus) in Japan, but I’ve never seen them in China (or Singapore) outside Japanese sushi restaurants.
  • Miniature squid, Japan. An essential topping for Nagasaki chanpon seafood noodles. Even my otherwise tentacle-phobic Pakistani colleague in Tokyo liked these.
  • Monkfish liver (ankimo), Indonesia. Monkfish are nasty-looking creatures, which is why it’s rather amazing that their (natural) livers taste almost exactly like French force-fed goose foie gras. Very much a favorite of mine.
  • Sea pineapple (hoya), Japan.  I wrote the Wikipedia entry for this back in 2007, but it took almost 10 years for me to have a chance to try it out.  Even most Japanese will tell you it’s horrible, but the one I had fresh, crunchy (not rubbery) and rather pleasant at first bite, especially with vinegared soy sauce to dip it into.  However, the ammonia/iodine aftertaste is lingering and rather unpleasant.
  • Sea urchin gonads (uni), Japan. Most sushi menus will tell you this is roe, but nope, it’s the closest thing a sea urchin has to a sex organ. The sweet, greasy taste is difficult to describe and, in my book, tolerable but not entirely pleasant, especially if you get some past its prime. However, Italians can make this into a very decent creamy pasta.
  • Shark’s fin soup, Singapore. Cruel, insanely expensive and completely tasteless. The bane of Chinese weddings everywhere.
  • Snow frog fallopian tubes (hasma), Singapore. Yes, this is painstakingly prepared by extracting, drying and then reconstituting amphibian ovaries. The end result is a completely flavorless white jelly occasionally used in expensive Chinese desserts, useful for feeding to people you don’t particularly like. “I ate WHAT?”
  • Squid ink, Japan. Often found in Italian pastas and risottos. Tastes creamy, but best avoided on dates as it dyes your mouth black.
  • Turtle soup, Singapore. Surprisingly meaty but unsurprisingly chewy. I also tried the skin (fatty) and the intestines (chewy), but alas, they were out of eggs.

Spare Parts (Mammal & Poultry Edition)

  • IMG_20160118_214744.jpgBear meatballs, Finland. At close to $5 a pop, they ain’t cheap, but they sure are tasty.
  • Bird’s nest soup, Singapore. Made from the congealed, regurgigated spit of a certain species of Borneo swallow. No distinguishable taste, as it’s always served in syrup.
  • Blood sausage & blood pancakes, Finland. I vant to suck your blood. Especially if you’re a pig, since then I can whip it up into a batter, fry it until it’s crispy and serve with lingonberry jam. Slurp.
  • Blood soup, Thailand. An essential ingredient of kuaytiow hang reua (boat noodles), used both as the base of the dark broth and in boiled, tofulike chunks of congealed blood floating in the soup.
  • Chicken breast cartilage (nankotsu), Japan. You know that weird Y-shaped chunk of cartilage in chicken breasts? It’s a favorite Japanese snack. Excessively crunchy and thoroughly tasteless.
  • Chicken gizzards, Indonesia. When chickens swallow small rocks, they enter this organ, which uses them to grind seeds into flour. Describing gizzards as “tough” would thus be a bit of an understatement.
  • Chicken feet, Malaysia. These look a bit creepy, but the problem with eating them is not so much the taste as the fact that they’re full of tiny little bones. But they’re fairly popular over here, and I’ve now learned to nibble away at the skin and fat without getting too many toe bones in my mouth.
  • Chicken ovaries (kinkan), Japan. Served skewered and grilled, two to a stick. Once again, tastes like chicken, and to my surprise not at all stringy or chewy.
  • Dog meat soup (boshintang), Korea. Theoretically illegal, so finding it took a little legwork, but the taste was a positive surprise: it tasted like well-stewed beef or veal. Recommended.
  • Fertilized duck eggs (balut), Philippines.  Yes, these are unborn duck chicks complete with feathers, bones, beak etc, cooked in the shell and eaten with beer.  Despite the remarkably gnarly appearance, they taste just like eggs yolks, and I’m actually kinda craving one as I type this.  Yum!
  • Kangaroo steak, Australia. Tastes like somewhat gamey, somewhat chewy meat. But nobody would notice if you used this in a doner kebab (a method by which I have probably eaten camel in the Middle East).
  • Lamb brains, Australia.  Magaj, spicy curried lamb brains, is actually a classic Pakistani dish, I just happened to find it on the menu at a restaurant in Sydney.  Very tasty too, with a smooth texture, although any taste is largely overpowered by the chilli and spices.
  • Pig face and lungs (sisig), Philippines.  Chopped up finely, spiced up and grilled on a hot plate.  Crunchy, greasy and, to be quite honest, not that great.
  • Pig intestines, Thailand and elsewhere. I keep running into these things, and sticking them into a good bowl of boat noodle soup (see Blood above) makes ’em pretty palatable. The French style of turning them into andouillette sausages also works, although the smell is… distinct.  Singaporean kway chap, with a clear, tasteless broth, doesn’t do much for me.
  • Pork blood stew (dinuguan), Philippines.  Probably my favorite Pinoy dish when done right, with a complex spicy chilli and vinegar kick.  Goes great with puto rice cakes.
  • Pork trotters, Singapore. The Chinese go gaga over this stuff, especially when slow-cooked in black vinegar. To me it just tastes like fat and mysterious gummy bits holding together nails and bones.
  • Sheep testicles, Egypt. Spiced, grilled and served sliced up so that you could still see the original shape. Slightly gritty texture, but overall not bad at all and I’d happily eat them again.
  • Smoked elk steak, Finland. This was genuinely good, without the smell of horse or the taste of venison.
  • Tripe goulash, Hungary. A cautionary tale of what can happen if you only think you understand what the daily special in the Hungarian-only menu is.
  • Yak meat, Tibet.  Ubiquitous in Tibet, since cows can’t really hack 4,000 meters of altitude.  Served up as dumplings, soups, steaks, jerky and more, but always tastes like beef, only a touch gamier.

Dairy, Dairy, Quite Contrary

  • MVIMG_20180707_165534.jpgDried yak cheese (aaruul), Mongolia.  Looks like pasta, but tastes like dried-up, moldy Parmesan rind.
  • Fermented mare’s milk (airag), Mongolia.  Brewed in a blue plastic barrel in a random dude’s yurt, served out of unwashed cups and flecked with appetizing bits of mold.  This stuff is famed for causing explosive diarrhea even when done right, so I chickened out and only downed half a cup.
  • Stretchy yogurt (viili), Finland.  The mutant offspring of chewing gum and yogurt.  Looks weird, acts weird, tastes like yogurt.
  • Yak butter tea, Tibet.  Take strong black tea, add a big pinch of salt, a large chunk of rancid cultured yak butter, and blend.  Looks like chai, tastes like drinking salty butter.  Quite edible when eaten mixed with tsampa barley flour.
  • Yak milk vodka (arkhi), Mongolia.  Clear and smooth, with a 20%-ish hit and a mild yogurt aftertaste.  Surprisingly pleasant!

Weird Veggies

  • Bracken flour balls (warabimochi), Japan. Translucent balls cooked in boiling water, slathered with syrup and soy bean flour, then poked with toothpicks and eaten. Yum!
  • Maheu, Zambia. It’s maize! It’s porridge! It’s yogurt! It tastes like a mix of all three! For extra credit, you can let it ferment for a while and you’ll have masese/ucwala/chibuku, the East African version of beer.
  • Mofongo, Puerto Rico. Mash plantains. Deep-fry them. Mash them again. Deep-fry them again. Repeat this for a while, then add in bacon bits and serve. Now we know where J-Lo got her callipygean curves.
  • Mämmi, Finland. A traditional Easter dish, this is barley porridge cooked slowly in an oven until it looks like a vat of steaming poop. Fortunately it tastes much better than it looks.

Creepy-Crawlies

1280px-ile_des_pins_snails_cookedI used to draw the line at insects, but of course I had to cross the line once to see what I was missing out on. (Not much, it seems.)

  • Snails (escargot), Belgium. Fine, they’re not insects, but they’re honorary cardholders. Chewy, practically no taste.
  • Giant land snails (bulime), New Caledonia.  Same as above, only much larger.  Also technically an endangered species, although they’re farmed locally.
  • Steamed silkworms (beondegi), Korea. They look like the disgusting little grubs they are and are filled with musty but flavorless gray mush.

Spoiled Rotten and Fermented

Radium eggs, Naruko Onsen, JapanEverything up to here is still more or less OK in my book, but some of this stuff is just foul. There’s a reason spoiled things are programmed to make us gag, dammit!

  • Blue cheese, France. Ferment the squeezings from cow mammaries and inject spores with a syringe until it’s riddled with mold and stinks to high heaven. I can tolerate it in small quantities in soups, pastas and such, but gobbling on it au naturel is too much.
  • Ika no shiokara, Japan. Fermented and pickled squid guts. This stuff made it onto Fear Factor for a reason and was, until recently (see next item), the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten.
  • Konowata, Singapore. Fermented and pickled sea cucumber intestines. As nasty as ika no shiokara, only worse because it’s even more concentrated. See review at Chikuyotei.
  • Mefun, Japan.  A classic Ainu dish made from fermented salmon liver and other internal organs.  Shiny black goo in appearance, the texture is disturbingly springy and jellylike, but the taste is surprisingly mild.  My wife had some mixed into spaghetti, and even the kids ate some!
  • Natto, Japan. This is what happens to soybeans when you leave them in a warm, humid place for too long. I’m told you have to eat it seven times until you start to like them; I’m up to four and am still waiting for a change of opinion.
  • Stinky tofu, Taiwan. With a name like that, you already have some idea of what to expect, and the stuff is, indeed, rather whiffy. It looks and feels almost entirely like normal tofu though, and tastes like it for the first second or so as you bite into it… until the distinctly fecal aftertaste hits and refuses to go away. No sir, I did not like it.
  • Thousand year eggs (pidan), Hong Kong. Traditionally prepared by soaking raw eggs in horse urine, but now they just use lye, and the soaking period has been reduced from a millennium to a few weeks max. As the exception that proves the rule, these are quite tasty when served up in Cantonese porridge.

Industrial Byproducts

  • Ammonium chloride candy, Finland. Occur naturally in volcanoes, and is used in dry batteries, soldering flux and a Finnish candy (I use the word loosely) called salmiakki. Finns also like to dissolve it in vodka and drink it.
  • Gold, Japan. A speciality of Kanazawa, where golf leaf ends up in all sorts of unlikely places, include candies and sake. Being inert, it obviously has no taste, but the weird thing it doesn’t cost much either as the quantities used are so minute.
  • Lutefisk, Finland. Lye, aka sodium hydroxide, is used for making soap, wood pulp, unblocking drains, etching aluminum and, if you’re Norwegian, soaking perfectly good fish until it’s a stinky gelatinous mess. The upside is that the taste is pretty much bleached out too — the downside is that the smell isn’t.
  • Radium eggs, Japan. You’d think the Japanese would have some hangups about radioactivity after the whole Hiroshima thing, but no, radium baths are popular cure-alls and so are radium-soaked eggs.
  • Sulphur eggs, Japan. What would you do with a pit of boiling mud that smells like rotten eggs? If you’re Japanese, you’d boil some fresh eggs in it. They’re a popular treat in Hakone, where the local vendors call them “black jewel eggs” and have come up with a legend to say that every one you eat adds seven years to your life.

How I Want A Drink, Alcoholic Of Course

  • Dongdongju, Korea. Homemade rice wine that looks and tastes like a cross between Sprite, yoghurt and mud.
  • Golden Muscle Wine, Cambodia. It’s pitch black, 40% alcohol, contains ground deer antler and costs $2 a bottle. How could you go wrong?
  • Pufferfish bone sake, Japan.  Take cheap sake, add some grilled bones from the famously toxic fugu pufferfish, heat it up, and enjoy.   Tastes fishy, but not particularly lethal.
  • Tuak, Malaysia. Jungle wine made from palm sap, found in a souvenir shop in Borneo. After a bottle of this, I understood why Dayaks liked to run amok and cut people’s heads off.

To-Do List

  • Bat, Indonesia. A Manadonese speciality.
  • Dog penis, Korea. I’m told “third leg” is a speciality of Pyongyang, so here’s hoping Kim Jong Un kicks the bucket and I get a chance to try it out.
  • Fugu, Japan. Yes, this is the famous fish that is completely tasteless and will kill you if prepared incorrectly.

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Chikuyotei, Meritus Mandarin

Ever since I came to Singapore, I’ve kept hearing about Chikuyotei for two reasons. First, it’s Singapore’s only Japanese restaurant that specializes in eel (unagi), a dish that is quite difficult to prepare properly. Every now and then, hope has overcome bitter experience and I’ve tried my luck elsewhere, always ending up with a slab of fishy rubber coated with excessive amounts of sauce. And second, it has the reputation of being one of Singapore’s most expensive restaurants of any kind: a reporter friend of mine, who often went there on the company dime, used to tell stories of how many zeroes the bill could have at the end of a sake-soaked night. This, too, is a part of the restaurant’s 150-year heritage: the original Chikuyotei is located in the Ginza, Tokyo.

So when a friend of mine offered to return a previous favor and take me there, I jumped at the chance. The rather non-distinct restaurant is tucked away on the 5th floor of the Meritus Mandarin, one of Singapore’s older hotels, and on this New Year’s Eve was only half full, with couples enjoying a quiet splurge and one rowdy group of salarymen whooping it up in the corner.

Chikuyotei’s popularity with Japanese resident in Singapore stems from the fact that they make absolutely zero concessions to Western (or Singaporean) tastes. But unlike its Tokyo forbear, the Singapore outlet has been forced to expand its offerings beyond eel and also offers up a full range of Japanese izakaya (pub) fare: you could probably order noodles and a beer and sneak away for less than S$50 a head, but you could also order five pieces of tuna belly (S$100), some Kobe beef sukiyaki(S$123) or even ask for some wild eel (S$36/100g). Full courses start from S$110/head, but we opted to just get two dishes of Shizuokan farmed eel and a few appetizers, with a small bottle of Suigei (“Drunken Whale”), a slightly sweetish sake, to wash it down.

First up was kankoku-fu negi sarada (Korean-style spring onion salad, S$8), which consisted of chopped spring onion topped with sesame seeds, chili powder and soy-based dressing. It tasted exactly what it sounds like.

Second was ika no uni-ae (squid with sea urchin, S$15), in which a thimbleful of chopped raw squid was soaked in sea urchin roe. I’m not a great fan of either ingredient by itself, and mixing them together doesn’t much improve the result.

And third was konowata (S$10), a new acquaintance for me, served looking like a wad of phlegm dotted with a raw quail egg nestled in a spoon. I poked in a chopstick, licked, and felt ill when I remembered the last time I had tasted this nasty zing followed by a cloyingly putrid aftertaste. I’ve eaten silkworms, beef testicles, raw horse meat and dog stew, but firmly enshrined in my mind as the worst thing I’ve ever tasted is ika no shiokara, a pickle made from sliced squid soaked in fermented squid guts that has even made it onto Fear Factor. It turns out that konowata is almost exactly the same thing, except that it’s made from sea cucumber entrails, not squid. Mmm. Being the chivalrous gentleman that I am, I assisted my dining companion in tearing up the guts into eatable small chunks, then wiped my chopsticks clean and tried not to gag as I watched her slurp it down.

At this point, the restaurant’s sommelier — an acquaintance of my friend’s — showed up and kindly treated us to glasses of white wine, a fruity but dry French Chardonnay from the Loire valley. It was nice gesture, but well versed in the ways of Japanese etiquette, my friend knew we had to order two more glasses to compensate: it was a different (and very tasty) wine whose name this time escapes me, but the glasses were slightly larger and we paid $21 a pop for them. Even in Japan there ain’t no such thing as a free glass of wine…

At last the eel came. First up was the Kansai-style shiroyaki (S$38), plain old grilled eel, served with soy and wasabi on the side as a dipping sauce. It was alright, but didn’t really taste like very much, just vaguely fishy. But then came the Tokyo-style kabayaki (S$52), gently coated with sauce, and it was worth the wait. The meat was so soft it fell apart at the touch, and the skin too was so soft it could easily be pulled apart. I still prefer charcoal-grilled eel, which makes the skin and edges nice and crispy while sealing the moisture inside, but this was still far an away the best I’ve had in Singapore and made it at #3 on the all-time top eel chart.

The final bill came to S$220, which I thought was a pretty darn steep price for a rather modest quantity, but my friend thought was quite alright. “Sommelier-san is opening a new restaurant in Sentosa that will cost at least that much per head, so next time it’s your treat!”