So, it’s not very much fun to discover that you have a food allergy. It’s even less fun to figure it out while on holiday in China.
I certainly do not feel special to now be a member of this club. I’ve always felt fortunate not to be one that has to avoid one or the other ingredient. Happily I’ve not had to worry about a bite of the wrong thing ruining my night before.
Given what I suspect the cause of my problem, I’ll unlikely need to have that worry going forward.
The cause of my troubles? Seahorse. I’ve googled away, and I cannot find a single decsription of a seahorse allergy anywhere on the web. What I have learned is that seahorse is not something I should probably be eating anyway (if I have concern for the viability of seahorses in the wild), and that in traditional Chinese medicine, seahorse is viewed as ‘warm’, good for circulation, potency, and other things that I’m sure a vivid imagination can figure out.
Why was I eating seahorse? Well, that’s a much more interesting story that fits better into the travelog.
We arrived in Beijing on a cold wet morning, and set off to our hotel in the city center. The express train from the airport is a great way to get into town, and a simple 2 RMB subway transfer later we were at our digs for the next few days. We met up and headed out to Tiananmen square and the Forbidden City for a quick early evening walk-around. The majority of the square and Mao’s tomb was closed, but the part that was open was fascinating. A wild mix of tourists of all nationalities, soldiers and busloads of Chinese from the countryside were all milling around. everyone was fascinated by the gigantic hi-definition screens playing a looped video presentation about the country and snapping photographs. A number wanted pictures with the Americans – especially with the ladies – and we had a great time ourselves marveling at the sight.
As the last generation to really experience the cold war, seeing all of the austere communist architecture around the square is a little unnerving – giant statues honoring ‘the worker’ topped with big red flags stirs just a bit of the jingoistic capitalist in me – but a quick look around to the forbidden city solved any qualms I might have had. We walked into the outer entrance to to be confronted by hawkers of all types. T-shirts, People’s Army hats, panda hats, anything and everything with Mao’s photo on it – you name it, it’s for sale in the courtyard, and being shoved into the faces of the approaching westerners.
Most surprising was seeing so many army barracks inside the courtyard. The troops were at the ready, riot gear sitting just next to their dorms. I suppose they need to be prepared in the event of impromptu public demonstrations in the public square – but it was a little strange.
Sadly the interior of the palace closed right as we approached, but we realized relatively quickly that just around the corner was a night market that was famous for food stalls. We figured out our location and headed that way. The Donghuamen night market was created in 1987 to honor the variety of foods available across China. Today it is a huge half-mile long line of stalls – most serving the same dumplings, mixed grills and bizarre fried foods, but some serving up unique barbecued selections.
The experience was worth the trip. The food was not especially great. I had a number of steamed dumplings – most were relatively flavorless and paled in comparison to things I tasted in other places in China and even from back home. It was also quite expensive, relatively speaking. I paid 30 RMB (~$5) for four crab buns. Not a crazy price, but certainly overpriced for Chinese street food.
What I missed out on was what I regret the most. Most non-white faces were picking up fabulous looking whole lamb shanks, roasted on the bone and seasoned to order. There was also a jolly old man making great noodle soup to order. His technique with the boiling pot was something to behold – his head bobbed as his arms swooped in and out, dropping small strainers of soup into the boiling broth.
Needless to say I missed these two highlights, because I decided to try something crazy.
Down the entire line of stalls about every other vendor had a long lineup of rather adventurous options. Snake was quite common, both skinned as well as whole with head (and scales) on. Other options included silkworm pupae, sheep kidney, scorpions, various beetles and even bats. A deep voiced vendor introduced his offering to us, with a throaty, heavily accented announcement, ‘Hello! Sheeeeep Testicle!’ All of these things were on long skewers and were intended to be fried in huge vats of hot oil just behind the counter.
I was considering trying something a little crazy long before one of the vendors asked me all too genuinely, ‘Do you have penis?’ after I turned down his offer for, well, bull penis. It took me a minute to figure out he was actually questioning my manhood and not making a sales pitch.
Although I resisted the fried phallus, I couldn’t resist two ‘delicacies’ at another stall – a skewer of 5 locusts and another of small dried seahorses. I’ve had locust/grasshopper before, and it’s quite tasty. My rule is – if the insect eats plants, I eat the insect. If the insect eats garbage (see cockroach) or other insects (see wasps and scorpions), I generally avoid it. I figure if I can eat crabs and lobsters, why not insects and arachnids? What’s the difference really?
The seahorse was really a whim. It was the craziest thing in any of the stalls I was willing to eat – I just don’t think I can put pupae or scorpions in my mouth.
Needless to say, my companions were excited to get pictures of me with bugs in my mouth, and there is a great shot somewhere of me with a seahorse tail sticking out from my lips. The grasshoppers were fine – fried to an absolute crisp, they tasted more like oil than anything else. The seahorses were faintly metallic and briny, and went down a little rough. I walked around for a few minutes with what I thought was seahorse stuck in my throat – then I realized my throat was swelling up and I was having trouble speaking. About 2 minutes later the hives started appearing on my face, and I could feel them on my torso as well. I drank some water, and fortunately was not having any trouble breathing – but we all knew I needed medical attention fast.
Fortunately, there was a medical clinic attached to our hotel, and after some intravenous steroids and some prescription antihistamine pills, I was on my way for a rest. Unfortunately my symptoms weren’t quite over yet. As if the hives and swollen throat weren’t enough, over the next few hours I experienced another few rounds of ‘attacks’ from the seahorses in my belly. One involved the rapid and rather disconcerting swelling of my face. My friend said it looked like I had put on a fat suit, and I couldn’t close my mouth because my lips and tongue were so swollen. After that, my feet and knees swelled up, turned beet red and started itching like crazy. After approximately 4 hours from first seahorse crunch, I finally got to sleep. I woke up the next morning none the worse, and was able to head out to the Great Wall – which was an amazing experience.
So after all these years of feeling fortunate to have an iron gut, I finally found a weakness. Fortunately seahorse should be something relatively easy to avoid – but I have a newfound appreciation for those that have more common food allergies. The anaphylactic reaction was scary and not something I would ever want to repeat.