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Fishy tales. And heads. And dogs and frogs…
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I discovered this the first time I was invited to a banquet at one of the fish restaurants that border the lake. After what seemed like an endless succession of courses, I had thought that the meal must be drawing to a close, when a waiter appeared bearing a fish head the size of a dustbin lid.

Inevitably, the choicest parts of the fish head are the eyes and the brain, and inevitably, as the guest of honour seated by the host, I was privileged to have him pick these out for me and place them in my bowl. The eye was the size of a golf ball. Mercifully, fishes' brains are small; I could have wished this one a little smaller all the same.

The tactic I have adopted when given gobby things to eat is to chew them very aggressively for a second or two longer than I think I can manage, and then swallow them. Mumbling them around your gums in a mealy-mouthed fashion and hoping they'll go away will get you nowhere.

This is an essential approach when dealing with many of the local delicacies. I was once taken out to dinner by a friend in Changchun, and had been promised a treat of frogs. As a long-term resident of France, based in La Dombes where the eating of frogs is central to the culture, I have long been an enthusiast for a hot plate of frogs fried in butter, parsley, salt and garlic. I knew that frogs figure highly in Chinese culinary heritage too, so I was looking forward to this experience.

There is a very popular local dish called huo guo ("fire-bowl"). It's a type of communal bouillon-based fondue. You have a big copper bowl in the center of the table with soup stock in it, heated by charcoal or a gas element. Around it are piles of vegetables, and often seaweed, and whatever meat you are eating, all raw. You throw all the stuff in the bouillon and let it cook, then fetch it out with your chopsticks. Afterwards you drink the soup.

This meal started with tasty fish huo-guo, and continued in similar vein for some time. At length, a little puzzled by the non-appearance of the frogs, I asked my friend when we would be eating them.

"Right now!" he replied. Reaching beneath the table he produced a white plastic bag full of frog cadavers, and grabbing several fistfuls, he hurled them into the huo-guo bowl. They were whole and unskinned, but at least they were mercifully dead when they went into the water.

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