I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry when I heard the news that an urban myth about a woman choking on a dog's identification chip at a high-end Chinese restaurant in Yorkshire, England, had led to an exodus of diners. Bizarre as the story sounds, it didn’t surprise me. When I lived in Britain, I met people who refused to go to Chinese restaurants because they believed – they were utterly convinced in fact – that such places sold dog meat (and their neighbours' pets at that!). Racism takes all forms, and in the case of the Chinese, it often takes the form of disgust with Chinese food.
Just this month, I saw another example of that when I watched the DVD of the first episode of the hugely popular travel documentary An Idiot Abroad, in which Karl Pilkington (the Idiot) is sent abroad to visit the New Seven Wonders of the World. The first episode is set in China. It did make me laugh – it’s funny. But the sour smell of colonialism taints the programme. It dwells so much on the weird eating habits of the Chinese people: cicadas and worms at a Beijing night market, a long shot of a young woman stuffing scorpions into her mouth, Karl commenting on a man eating ‘foetus egg’ and a family by the Great Wall killing and feeding him toads! (Bullfrogs actually.)
China has a fabulous and sophisticated cuisine, but westerners always seem to focus on the tiny percentage of what we eat that’s weird. And the very good reasons that the weird stuff made it into Chinese kitchens is never mentioned: Chinese cuisine is very much a famine cuisine; historically, Chinese people have had to make use every bit of available resources.
A few years ago, when British comedian Paul Merton came to China to make a travel documentary, I was invited to take part. As if by accident, Merton and I met at the night market – the same one Karl visited (the only market in Beijing if not the whole country where you can see such creatures sold as ingredients). I explained to him that the cicadas tasted of childhood for me because, to satisfy my craving for meat, I used to catch cicadas and roast them over a small bonfire and munch them up. Merton sampled the insects with disgust. Then I was instructed to tell him: ‘If you think this is disgusting, let me take you to somewhere interesting,’ before leading him, as pre-arranged by the director, to a penis restaurant. Merton and I actually walked up and down the street, talking about serious matters – social change, women’s role in society, and my own journey from factory worker to writer.
Merton was genuinely interested in learning more about China, but the director whisked us away to the restaurant where all sorts of animal’s male organs were served. Eating an animal’s penis is thought by some to improve a man’s performance in bed. But this isn’t something that runs deep in Chinese culture – there are only two penis restaurants in China, and both belong to the same owner. The crew spent hours tirelessly filming us eating stir-fried bull’s penis, snake's penis in a soup and a large boiled donkey’s penis. Poor Merton struggled and even threw up at one point.
In the final film, the donkey’s penis dominates the scene. Our serious discussion was edited out.
Lijia Zhang is a freelance journalist and author of 'Socialism is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China.' This is an edited version of an article in The Guardian republished with the permission of the author.