An ill-conceived list compiled by CNN of the world’s most “revolting” foods has led to an outpouring of bile across China.
|pidan - they taste better than they look|
The list contains delicacies (which, oddly, all hail from the Far East) such as dog meat and cicadas, most of which the various CCN reporters actually thought were quite tasty, but the controversy surrounds the short piece which the hapless Danny Holwerda put together on “century eggs”.
For those whose knowledge of Chinese food doesn’t yet extend beyond Blue Dragon sauces or the Lucky Fortune Chop Suey House on the corner, “century eggs” (also known as “thousand-year eggs”, or pidan 皮蛋 in Mandarin) are eggs that have been steeped in an alkaline solution until their proteins and fats are completely transformed. The albumen turns into a translucent, firm, brown jelly while the yolk turns into a grey-green creamy goo. If you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt, they have a very complex flavour with a tang of ammonia, salty, with a rich creaminess that’s used in Chinese cuisine to add depth to otherwise plain dishes; if you’re being Danny Holwerda, though, they taste “like the devil cooked eggs for me.”
This has unsurprisingly led to little short of an internet hate campaign against CNN’s list and particularly poor Danny, who seems (I can only assume) to have eaten his pidan as a Westerner would, taking a spoon, an eggcup, and a good old mouthful. This, though, is like offering someone a glass of Worcestershire sauce or a tablespoonful of Colman’s English mustard - pidan are more a condiment than a snack, and aren’t generally eaten by themselves (though the Cantonese and the Taiwanese do really dig them). Instead, they’re usually chopped up into small bits and stirred into plain rice porridge, or piled up on soft but quite tasteless tofu, or else you might dip the end of your chopsticks into the yolky goo and then use them to scoop a mound of rice into your mouth.
I feel rather sorry for Danny Holwerda - a quick background check on him doesn’t bring to light any particular experience of China, and he probably thought that his editor was looking for the kind of light-hearted, hundred-word piece that makes a couple of cheap points at the expense of what to most Americans is an alien and bizarre cuisine. But while the other reporters were either locals or travellers who’d actually visited the countries in question, Danny apparently bought his eggs in an Asian supermarket in Texas and seems to have had no real clue what to do with them. His editor was then naive enough to include his short report nevertheless, even putting it at Number One on the list.
China’s Xinhua News Agency has been reporting the brouhaha, and you can sense its glee at being able to portray the US as a nation of uninformed gluttons who mistake the Big Mac for food yet call other people’s delicacies “revolting”. The words “racist”, “ignorant” and “arrogant” litter the online comments.
You should never assume that what you consider delicious is going to be delicious to people with a very different take on tastes and textures. I remember being stuck in a Suzhou youth hostel with a Chinese bloke once, who’d travelled across Europe and who thought that European food was disgusting. He didn’t know what many of the things he’d been offered were, and described how in France he’d been presented with what sounded like a superb continental breakfast - croissants, preserves, bread rolls, butter, cold meats and all that jazz - but couldn’t bring himself to eat “any of that dog shit!” Beyond what you can sometimes buy in foreign-owned supermarkets in the big cities, the Chinese don’t eat baked bread, jam, sliced cold meats, and they don’t do butter unless they’re Inner Mongolian. Bread, butter and strawberry jam is as exotic and scary to most Chinese as preserved eggs are to Danny Holwerda, a point which CNN just doesn’t get. I can’t wait to read Xinhua’s list of the Top Ten Revolting American Foods: corndogs, Oreos, American “cheese”, hotdogs, Big Macs, Hershey “chocolate”, Reese’s peanut butter cups...