Blog of an aspiring foodie

Archive for October, 2010

Discovering a Food Allergy

Posted by beer_chris on 25-October-2010

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.


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Previous Post

Posted by beer_chris on 23-October-2010

OK, so I can’t edit the previous post. I meant to put it into draft and  ended up sending the danged thing out to the world.

WordPress is weird over here in China. It seems to be filtered but not blocked.

FWIW, we have done other things other than visit Wal Mart, and I am aware that it’s the Giants and the Phillies in the NLCS.

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China – The First Few Days

Posted by beer_chris on 21-October-2010

Day 1 – The Trip

The trip itself was as uneventful as could have been hoped. Trans-oceanic travel is never what someone would call pleasant or even good, but this itinerary was probably the best we could have hoped for in terms of timing. The overnight in San Francisco was a great way to breakup what would have otherwise been a 20+ hour travel day, and our stay at the airport Marriott was quite pleasant. The property was nicer than I would have expected, and was a combination hotel and conference center right on the water across from the airport. When we arrived at rather late (approx. midnight local) and the hotel bar was packed with the remnants of baseball fans – the Giants had just defeated the Phillies in game 1 of the NLCS. The bar had Speakeasy ‘Big Daddy’ IPA on tap, and I had a couple pints before we headed to bed.

I was able to squeeze in a 10K easy run along the bayside trail the next morning, as our flight was not until early afternoon.

Arrival into Hong Kong was easy, and a nice soft start to a trip in a foreign land. Everything is in English, the airport is big, easy to navigate and quite modern, and now has a ferry terminal for mainland transfers. In fact, the ferry desk will retrieve your checked bags for you and move them to the boat – there is not even a need to clear customs in Hong Kong proper. We knew this, but it was a very nice relaxing start to not have to worry about our bags. The only bit of confusion was that there were two Shenzhen ferries – one to Shekou and one to Fuyong terminal. We didn’t know which was our stop, but fortunately a man in front of us who had lived in Shenzhen previously knew of Evergreen and helped us pick the correct option – Shekou.

We had about a 90 minute wait so we sat and played Angry Birds on my iPhone and used the free wireless to update our fanatasy football rosters.

Our host for the week, Alan Yuan, was waiting for us at the terminal, and as we started our trip back to the resort we realized that Aileen and David would be arriving very shortly after us – they were transferring into Shenzhen direct from Bangkok, which was their latest stop on a 2 month asian holiday. The good news about this is we were able to meet them at the airport, and we all headed back to Evergreen together. We spoke with Chinglan during the journey, who worked her magic (even from her home in Baltimore she was coordinating our trip!) and had a late dinner of beef noodle soup waiting for us in the comfort of the villa.

We finished the night off with good conversation and a dram or two of duty-free MacAllan whisky. Needless to say both J and I collapsed into bed and slept quite well in spite of dealing with the +13 hour time difference.

Day 2 – Surprises

Day 2 started early, as all of us were awake and ready to get moving.

Breakfast at Evergreen is really a sight to behold. It’s a magnificent Chinese buffet, but with dishes that epitomize freshness and high quality ingredients. One station cooks eggs to order and has a small pot of boiling broth for blanching young vegetables – green beans, bok choy and cabbage. The broth infuses a wonderful salty, meaty goodness with just a hint of onion and garlic into the veggies, and makes a surprisingly good morning treat.

The second station has warm meats, including small bacon-wrapped chinese sausages that are very flavorful. It also has a steam table with BBQ pork buns (a specialty of the chef, who hails from Taiwan ), sweet bean curd buns and the most wonderful pork shu-mai (small pork sausage dumpling) I have ever tasted.

The last station serves a large pot of warmed soy milk – made onsite at the resort and the absolute best I have ever tasted. The flavor is so mellow – a little sweet, just a tad rich and without the ‘beany’ flavor that dominates so much of the commercial soy milk available in the states. Its a taste I have been unable to replicate at home and I was very much looking foeward to having again. I mixed this in with a sublime congee (rice bran porridge – not unlike the corn grits I favor at home, but with a faraway sweetness and just enough bite to be substantial). A little sprinkle of sugar was completely energized and ready to take on the day.

I had asked our wonderfully hospitable host about a local food market – somewhere where we could see the types of foods that local residents buy and prepare for their families. Surprisingly, he suggested Wal-Mart, and so we headed off, cameras in hand, for a tour.

All of us felt pretty sheepish about touring a Wal-Mart. Here we were, Americans in China and our first stop was a local outpost of the largest American retail store in the world? I imagined rows and rows of American made products, and felt like we might be falling into the trap of being taken only to the ‘sanitized’ local places. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The store itself is as strikingly familiar in structure as might have been expected. The same signage, the same cacophany of beeps from the POS systems when you walk in the door – but the similarities ended there. Our first stop was an area of prepared foods sold by the kilo – station after station of freestanding buffet style display cases. The first was 100% cabbage and pickled vegetables. The next, sausages and cured meats, including the largest pile of dried pig ears I have seen, and at least 6 preparations of chicken feet. Next up – noodles. Cold, warm, thick, thin, rice and wheat based – they had seemingly imaginable. The really enjoyable part of all of this was that our hosts (the aforementioned Alan and a young lady named Suki) were helping us translate the things we were seeing. Both were excited to work on their English and were using a magical little translation box to help us find the English word for the items we were looking at. It made for a really rich experience.

The folks doing their weekday shopping seemed somewhat surprised to see these westerners marveling at the foodstuffs and taking pictures – with the same reactions and sideways curious glances you would expect to give if you saw someone taking photos of donuts in your neighborhood Wal-Mart – a little embarrassed for our ostentatiousness, a little curious as to what in the heck we were doing and who we were.

As an aside, this experience reinforced something important to me. Sometimes it really is critical to unabashedly play the part of tourist in a foreign land – do things that would otherwise make you shake your head and mumble something about the damn tourists if you saw it at home. Snap photos in the middle of sidewalks. Ogle your surroundiings. Verbally stumble over poorly pronounced salutations and questions in the local language. Live in the moment – TAKE PICTURES IN A DAMN WAL-MART!

The prepared food bar also had a cook to-order noodle station, with at least 10 types of noodles (most the same type as in the carrel) and a selection of fresh vegetables. This is the one item I would love to bring back home with me.
We moved on to seafood – where there were equally large displays of dried fish, fresh fish (including a delicious-looking eel-like finfish prominently displayed in the middle of the aisle) and frozen fish. The highlights were a display of crabs which, as we took pictures were admonished by the attendant. The crabs were a very special type – I think the Taiwanese ‘big gate’ crabs – and were priced at about $60 each. They also were tagged with serial numbers for tracking!

The department also had live softshell turtles for sale by size, and while we were waiting a woman purchased one of the medium sized creatures. The attendant proceeded to butcher the turtle at the counter. She bled the animal out, removed the head and then soaked the body in a bowl of hot water – which pulled more blood from the body cavity and allowed her to peel off a membrane of some kind from the shell and body and to remove the claws. She then made a circular cut into the shell – making a flap of sorts – and cleaned out the viscera and removed the spine and neck. When she was done, the three large muscle sections were easily visible (one in the back of the turtle connecting the rear legs and tail, and two in the front over each front leg). She cut the muscle seams to loosen these and then put the fat, liver and heart back into the cavity – and reinserted the head back into the space where the neck had been!

This ‘franken-turtle’ was put into a plastic tray and was ready for sale. None of us had ever seen a turtle broken down like this, and I am the only one I think that has actually eaten turtle (it’s delicious). I assume this was for a soup – the woman was not too keen on speaking to the strange foreigners, so we didn’t find out.

This experience as well as our walk through the meat department illustrated how disconnected we Americans (and most Westerners) are from our food. The meat bins were not filled with plastic wrapped, sanitized-looking cuts of meat. Meat were separated by type and by cut, but were out and available for selection and inspection. Whole chickens (while wrapped in plastic) were sold with the head on and clearly displayed – the better to inspect the eyes and mouth for indications of animal health. The turtle butchery out on the retail floor was shocking in it’s bloody reality, but provided undeniable evidence of the freshness of the product. Too often we are displaced from our food – we forget and even are happy to deny that the meat we eat was at one point a living breathing animal. We like the concept (and the taste) of fresh food but struggle with the reality of what that means. Asian cultures seem not to quibble with these troublesome problems.

The rest of the store offered additional interesting displays: a 15 foot refrigerated case of different tofu and bean curd products. An entire nook with rows of teas and dried herbs/flavorings. An entire aisle of sauces, and another of ramen/dried noodles.

Surprisingly, the produce section was not as large as I might have expected, although there was a huge display of durian, complete with an attendant to break the fruit of your choice and pull out the stinking pods.

Our visit to the beer aisle was productive. Among the choices – Guinness Special Export Stout from Malaysia – the stronger, sweeter version popular in the Far east and Africa, but unavailable in the US. Additionally, a ‘Great Value’ (Wal-Mart house brand) regular and light beer were available, which is certainly not available at home. I haven’t had the courage to crack one of these open.

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