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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

Stir Fried Rat and Rooster Head Stew

Within the warm hearth of love, curiosity, and welcome that is my host family of three (We’re the Huang’s), every day presents a new culinary adventure. Virtually nothing – animal, plant, fungi or other – found within the greater Bangdong vicinity is incompatible with the family wok. In the sagacious words of my host father, “Food is food. If it tastes good, that’s what matters.” My adventurous appetite enthusiastically approves.

Yet the limits for what may be considered “food” in China stand slightly differently from such limits in America. I have found myself sampling dishes I would have never found in the Tex-Mex border area, and often wonder which dish would seem the “most foreign” to my friends back home. The slices from a rat caught this morning (the “He tried to eat my chicken eggs, so I ate him” complex) simmered in light spice and vegetable oil? A small crab caught on the trail home, now a roasted snack eaten with shell and all? Stir-fry cicadas, whose crunchy shells are laden with earthy flavor? Or, maybe the great rooster’s head which, when offered to a guest (myself, in this case), is the most humbling honor?

Foreign or not, I sample each dish with an open mind, remembering to always save a bit for the other mouths in our bonded family of four. Each dish is new, exciting, and bursting with unique flavor, with the savory rat being my personal favorite. Despite my enthusiasm for these culinary undertakings, most of my fellow Bridge Year participants view such foods with disfavor, and continue to ask me with speculation: “How have you not gotten food poisoning yet?”

When my host mother watched me, a foreigner, sample the dishes with such interest, she commented: “You’re not like most foreigners, they normally don’t eat these weird things.”

Rather than reaffirm her point of these dishes being “weird,” I instead recalled upon some of my favorite delectable, innovative Mexican delicacies that people of other cultures might deem “weird” as well, like chopped tripitas (intestines) sautéed over an open fire and seasoned with onions and cilantro, or crunchy chapulines (grasshoppers) engulfed in an irresistible powdered spice flavoring. Not only did my host family show interest in these “creepy creations,” but they also said “Wow. I want to to go to Mexico now!”

When my family members saw my eagerness to try their cooking and, in turn, acquainted them with the experiences abroad of a fellow adventurous eater, they took me in with more warmth and welcome than ever before. Who would have known that sharing food – sprinkled with the salt of new experiences and the pepper of good conversation – could be such an effective channel of intercultural communication?

Near dinner’s end, I recalled that I might have been finishing my last spoonful of cereal at this hour in the United States. Now, I eat my final cicada and place my bowl and chopsticks down to express a full stomach. To show my gratitude to the family for the delicious meal, I present a universal thumbs up and say Nin men de chu yi tai gao, which when roughly translated, amounts to “Your culinary art is amazing!”

Though I certainly starred in my own episode of “Bizarre Foods,” I meant every word. After all, aren’t the greatest masterpieces created from the strangest ideas?