Kalpana Sunder accompanies her nephew on an ‘exotic’ food trip across Beijing. Are you game for starfish on skewer?

My nephew, Sandeep, has always been the adventurous one in the family. The kind of guy that you see in shows about weird food challenges, like the TV series Fear factor or Amazing Race. He is always ready to sample exotic fare like scorpions, baby sharks and even snakes. He has an iron stomach and an open mind. I am a tame vegetarian and in awe of his path less travelled. He, of course, makes a great companion for a travel writer like me: he tries the daring foods and I get to write about them! We’re in Beijing and hear about the eclectic Dong Hua Men food market off Wang FuJing Street, the main shopping mile. We set off in a spirit of discovery.

It’s a scene like no other: A serpentine line of similar looking carts topped by striped awnings and the cacophony of aggressive vendors in red caps and aprons, hawking their wares in a boisterous manner. When I see the crowds thronging the booths, I need no more proof that I am in the world’s most populous nation! It’s a smorgasbord of visually interesting food. Not for the squeamish, of course! I see clouds of steam, and hear the sizzling of fiery woks. The vendors-cum-cooks fill the air with scents of grilling meat and exotic spices all coming together in a strange pot-pourri of flavours. I have heard our guide say that the Chinese eat everything that flies except aeroplanes and everything with four legs except tables, and everything that swims except submarines, but only now do I realise what he really meant!

There are carts with pyramids of foods, all species of insects ranging from cicadas to centipedes strung like garlands on skewers, chunks of succulent meat, poultry, innards of animals, seafood of every kind, all glowing under the dramatic glow of red lanterns swaying in the breeze. The crowds range from the merely curious (yours truly) to the really adventurous gastronome like my nephew. Sandeep has thrown caution to the winds and commenced his gastronomical journey, starting with starfish impaled on a skewer, which looks hard, but he swears that the meat is tender inside seasoned by herbs with a sweetish tang. Just 15 Yuan for a stick of starfish.

He presses forward trying spiny scorpions, and says that they taste just like French fries. It’s on to deep-fried stubby silkworms in cocoons packed with proteins. What’s courage, after all? One more moment of fear. It’s time to bite into a snake followed by locusts with gossamer wings. There are piles of Zong gi-triangular pockets of bamboo leaves enfolding steamed rice, crepes stuffed with various fillings waiting to be crisped on hot griddles. I see huge woks and boiling cauldrons filled with soups. Rice or wheat noodles can be had in a cup of soup topped with vegetables, meats and spices to your specifications-hot or mild. The range of street food is mind-boggling ~ from the humdrum dim sum to locust larvae. There are enterprising men and women selling cool bottled drinks and hand tissues to give succor to those eating the eyebrow-raising delicacies. There are vendors peddling cubes of smoked bean curd or tofu on skewers alongside frogs in an oily glistening broth with chilli flakes. Some vendors speak broken English and attempt to flirt with me, hoping for a quick buy, “Hey you from India, you so pretty. Lamb? Snake?” Sandeep tells me that even the kidneys and testicles of some animals are on sale.

All the prices are displayed on boards but in Chinese characters, though it’s easy to interact with the vendors and have food cooked just before your eyes. We understand that it’s not about just taste and flavour. The Chinese also believe that some of the foods here have specific medicinal or life-enhancing qualities. Seahorses are supposed to be good for male virility and crustaceans for women’s complexion! I also notice another thing: Locals seem to be eating “normal” fare and foreigners the “exotic” food. For Sandeep, this experience, of course, is the pinnacle of his street food chronicles. I’m sure he’ll swap tales with his friends about how the scorpion tasted for years to come… I look around the carnivore feast hoping to find something to appease my saathvik vegetarian palate. There’s ho-hum steamed corn and baked sweet potato alongside sticky rice filled in pineapple shells. And then I find it. Tang Hu Lu ~ caramelized fruit on skewers ranging from apples and plums to kiwi and strawberries covered with a veneer of sugar syrup and sesame seeds. Sickly sweet, for sure but I’m not complaining. This dose of sugar is what I need. It’s been an exhausting evening that has grossed me out. All in the name of journalistic adventures

Published in the Statesman, Kolkata, 2010.