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food for thought
by
Peter May

Fifteen pairs of eyes around the banquet table were fixed upon me as I raised the black and crispy deep-fried whole scorpion to my lips with quivering chopsticks. I hesitated.

'It is ve-ery good,' said my host, Police Commissioner Wu He Ping of the Beijing Municipal Police. 'In China we eat scorpion for medicine and for pleasure.'

And to demonstrate, he popped one in his mouth, and crunched down upon it with relish. All eyes returned to me. My mouth was dry. I gulped and parted my lips.

But the moment of truth was delayed yet again as someone held out the plate to my wife. It was piled with prawn crackers, and scorpions had been placed to appear as if they were crawling all over it. Sensibly, she declined. But as the guest of honour, I had no such escape route. And as, finally, I was forced to bring my molars down upon the deadly insect and release its foul, acid taste into my mouth, I heard the interpreter tell my wife, 'You are quite right - they are disgu-usting.'

I love Chinese food, but during my trips to China to research my Chinese thrillers, I sometimes got more than I bargained for.

My book, 'The Killing Room', took me to Shanghai and a confrontation with the Shanghai Hairy Crab. This is a great delicacy costing around ten dollars a time - an astronomical sum in China, where you can have a seven course meal for less.

Again, I was the guest of honour at a banquet, held this time by the Shanghai police. A waitress brought to the table a plate piled high with steamed whole crab, and put a bowl of dark brown dipping sauce at each place. The crabs had white bellies and black backs covered with a fine golden hair.

Having done my homework, I knew not only that they cost ten dollars apiece, but that in the past they had been associated with serious food poisoning as a result of improper handling. But how could I refuse such generosity?

A crab was placed in front of each person, and my host showed me how to eat it, pulling free a thumbnail-sized piece of shell from the underside, and using it to scoop out the yellow flesh beneath it, dipping it first in the sweet soy and vinegar mixture before eating.

He watched me as I ate, and asked, 'It is good?'

'Hmmm,' I said. 'Excellent.' And it was.

'Yes,' said my host, nodding. 'The sexual organs are the best part.'

I immediately felt my enthusiasm waning.

My researches for 'The Firemaker', the first in the China series, had already introduced me to stir-fried snake which, dipped in soy sauce, was really quite delicious. Another delicacy I had encountered was Drunken Shrimp - live prawns brought to the table in a bowl of soy and wine in which they, literally, drown. I had only realised they were alive when they started flapping about in the bowl and splashed the blouse of the lady sitting next to me. 'When they stop moving,' she explained to me, 'you peel off the shell and eat immediately.' To my astonishment, they were excellent.

Less pleasant surprises, however, included such delights as poisonous fish, tested by an official taster before you dare eat it, and One Hundred Year Old Eggs. These eggs, it transpired, were not very old at all, but gained their brownish bloom from being steeped in horse's urine.

The Chinese love nothing better than to eat, and the range and style of their cuisine is unsurpassed. You can get a glimpse of it at the Dong'anmen Night Market, just off Wanfujing Street in Beijing.

From five every evening, a row of food stalls stretches as far as the eye can see. Hundreds of people crush along its length, flitting between stalls groaning with skewered meat and vegetables, whole fish, barbecued baby quails impaled on chopsticks (head and all), deep-fried grubs on sticks.

From beneath dozens of striped canopies set under the trees, smoke rises from hot oil in giant woks on open braziers. Huge copper kettles on hotplates hiss and issue steam into the night sky, boiling water tipping from long curling spouts to make bowls of thick, sweet almond paste.

Dozens of chefs in white coats and hats sweat over steaming vats of hot coals, drawing out bamboo racks of steamed buns filled with savoury meats or sweet lotus paste. Rice and noodles and soup are served in bowls, with buckets set at the roadside for the dirty dishes. It is a meeting place as well as an eating place, whole families gathering with friends to eat and talk under lights strung from the trees overhead.

Or you can stuff your face at the original Beijing Duck restaurant in Qianmen, not far from the south end of Tiananmen Square. Through huge windows you can see dozens of water-filled ducks hanging from poles being slid into great wood-burning ovens to roast on the outside and boil on the inside. The chefs carve them at your table.

Alternatively, in dozens of restaurants around the capital, you can cook your own lamb and beef in the bubbling stock of a Mongolian Hotpot. Absolutely mouth-watering.

The second book in the series, 'The Fourth Sacrifice' took me to Xian, home of the Terracotta Warriors. This ancient city was at the end of the old Silk Road, and its cuisine was influenced by many difference cultures.

My researches led me to the culture shock of the old Muslim Quarter, where flies crawled over barrows piled high with stinking ox livers, and rancid animal pelts hung from lines at the roadside. I saw a butcher's boy throwing the carcasses of animals from a shop doorway into the back of an open van. And I was extremely reticent about eating the pieces of skewered barbecued lamb served with chilli soy dip which my guide ordered up in a small dirty back room off the main street.

But the meat was tender and delicious, and my wife and I both survived the night without a dash to the toilet.

As the guest of honour at most banquets, I usually have to eat whatever is offered. But it was my wife who was caught out on our last trip. I had already picked a couple of butterflyed prawns off the lazy susan but had not had the chance to eat them before I heard my wife asking her neighbour if it was toasted sesame seeds that crusted the prawns.

'Try them and see,' he suggested.

She did, but was unable to identify the flavour. 'What are they?' she asked.

Her neighbour grinned. 'Deep fried ants,' he told her happily.

I pushed my prawns to the far side of my plate.

Published in The Daily Express, April 21st, 2001

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