In gastronomic matters, I am squarely among the less intrepid of men. Raised by a vegetarian mother who wouldn't allow meat in her kitchen and a near-vegetarian father, I only had chicken and goat meat a handful of times during my teens -- egged on by parents who nevertheless held meat to be salutary for a growing boy. My introduction to fish and prawn came only in college. Thereafter, living outside India, I began eating other animals too -- cow, pig, sheep, crab, calamari, etc., once even lobster, snail (Paris), guinea pig (Cuzco), and wild boar (Patagonia). Then one fine day six years ago, I renounced eating mammals, and now prefer veggies over even chicken and fish (though I retain a weakness for Bengali style fish). Long live tofu, beans, and lentils!
Most Indians are even less "experienced" than me. It is no small wonder then, that in neighboring China things are dramatically different. What restaurants serve there would make many a hardy Indian stomach churn. Here are selections from a typical and popular restaurant in Beijing:
1. Traditional Peking style boiled sheep's head
2. Duck blood in a spicy Chongqing style
3. Royal duck tongue / Marinated duck head
4. Braised donkey meat in superior soup
5. Spicy bullfrog
6. Delicious black fungus
7. Braised pork treasures (sic)
8. Duck heart with cumin
9. Eel sects with brown sauce / Toasted Eel
10. Pork ear slices
11. Hot quick duck gizzard
12. Hot duck viscera w/ sunny egg
13. Barbequed suckling pig Lashu style
14. Young frog in bamboo
15. Pig bellies with garlic
16. Hot tasting chicken feet / Duck web [feet] with mustard
17. Stir-fried duck gizzard
18. Chicken claw with pepper
19. Dry fried ass meat in Xiang style
20. Braised pork trotter tendon and sea cucumber
The Cantonese push the limits even for other Chinese, with their taste for dogs, cats, raccoons, monkeys, lizards, rats, etc. On a previous visit to Guangzhou province in south China, I had walked down a meat market with skinned, glistening dog carcasses hanging on both sides of the street. Chinese food may well be the most popular ethnic cuisine in the world but none of the above stuff is commonly available in Main St restaurants in the West. Conversely, Western staples like kung pao and sweet-and-sour chicken are hard to find in China.
On a Beijing street last week, I encountered another gastronomical spectacle not far from the Forbidden City -- a fast-food market with some very unusual items, deep fried on skewers while you wait. Choices included scorpions, snakes, silkworms, beetles, centipedes, emu, starfish, eel, octopus, and grasshoppers. Though this isn't everyday food, the locals were chomping it down. Foreigners took pictures; a brave one would try something on a dare, or for bragging rights to friends back home (reactions vary of course; a haggis eating Scot might flinch less; likewise an American eater of warm pig brain in gravy, or an Italian eater of pig eye balls or testicles, etc.). I wondered: Is it really true that the Chinese will eat any part of just about anything that moves? How did they turn out this way? What might this reveal about human nature?
Three linked explanations occurred to me: a) the Chinese, in times of famine, were forced to seek out alternate sources of nutrition, which later weren't abandoned (but others have suffered famines too); b) traditional Chinese ethical-moral injunctions (particularly of Confucianism) did not extend to non-human beings or dietary restrictions; c) the "innate" revulsion we feel for eating certain species or body parts is simply a matter of nurture; theirs is an acquired taste, like mine for Bengali style fish. The human child, unlike a tiger cub, is not by constitution carnivorous; as an omnivore, his approach to both veggies and meat is conditioned by his environment. What we have here is a striking illustration of the virtually limitless malleability of the human mind. In the right (wrong?) cultural milieu, are we not capable of just about anything?