Food is one of the most noticeable differences when traveling. Every country has its specialities, and every region has its differences. Experimenting at mealtimes is a key part of the fun. Seeing how the locals eat, experiencing new flavors for yourself, and taking part in the culinary tradition is like a tour all its own. In Asia, rice is typically part of every meal, but in China, things get a little more unusual than no cereal at breakfast. It is a land where cats and dogs are not always darling but sometimes dinner, and a rat might be in the kitchen but as an ingredient. Cuisine can offer a much greater taste of culture than could ever be found in your local takeout - if you're willing.
1. Balut or Maodan: Fetus Egg
Popular across Southeast Asia, and known as maodan in China, balut are uniquely Asian egg-based delicacies, and something you must try in order to believe in its goodness. Often referred to simply as “fetus eggs,” Balut looks like a regular hard boiled egg, but they have actually been fertilized and then aged for 17 to 21 days to allow the duck or chicken fetus to develop. Boiled or fried, eaten alone with a simple garnish, or added into main dishes, they are a versatile and easy to find treat.
2. Century Eggs
Similar yet different, this egg specialty is just as unusual as Balut, and is the pinnacle of pickled eggs. Fetus free this time, they are preserved for periods of weeks to months in a mix of salt, quicklime, ash, and rice hulls. Century eggs, also known as thousand-year-eggs, or millennium eggs, are a gothic looking delicacy, either eaten alone or as an accompaniment to a rice porridge known as congee. Their appearance has been coined as resembling an evil eye because of their reddish, jellied white, and creamy black-blue yolk. Doesn't sound appetizing? Tea eggs, which are boiled then re-boiled in tea and spices, might be a safer, though less exciting egg treat to try.
3. Chicken Feet
In China, every part of the animal is used, literally from head to toe, and that brings us to another part of poultry. Chicken feet are no exception to the Chinese waste-not, want-not mindset. In fact, they are a very popular, easy to eat snack food. They are sold boiled, baked, and salted in vacuum packed, ready-to-eat packets. Quite jelly-like, they consist largely of skin and tendons. In addition to being a great on-the-run bite (no pun intended), they are also used in main dishes. In Hong Kong for example, they are fried first, then stewed, simmered, and marinated.
4. Bubble Tea
Originally from Taiwan, pearl milk tea or bubble tea has spread across Asia, and is now appearing in more western parts of the world, proving that not all unusual Asian foods are scary. The tea based drink sometimes include milk, often uses syrups, and always includes tasty, chewy tapioca balls which are the “bubbles” that give the drink its name. Asia's answer to the frappuccino, bubble or pearl milk tea can be ice-blended and is available in hundreds of flavors. They span the more traditional tea and fruit based combinations such as green tea, jasmine or lychee, to more western milkshake type blends, such as coffee and chocolate.
A progression for travelers bored with ordering calamari, jellyfish, the glass noodles of the sea, can be served cooked or raw. It is often served cold with a simple dressing such as sesame oil or soy sauce. They can be crunchy, unlike the slippery texture you might expect. A must for any seafood lover, jellyfish is a real delicacy that can also be enjoyed dried.
While visitors to China and Asia as a whole are sometimes apprehensive about trying the foods that seem unique and strange to many western eyes, sampling dishes which are a little out of the ordinary will help make your trip more authentic and memorable. It also serves as an introduction to a whole new world of adventure and flavor. Although, some travelers may choose to avoid famed but controversial delicacies such as shark fin soup and monkey brains.
So pick up a bowl and get to eating – you may be surprised at how delicious these “unusual” foods actually are.