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Fishy tales. And heads. And dogs and frogs…
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After a few moments in the broth they began to swell up, and bobbed around on the surface with their heads poking up like fat little drunk men in lifejackets. All too soon, it was time to enjoy the flavour.

It transpired that these were pregnant females from the start of spring. This being the case, their bodies had atrophied over the winter, and there was no meat left on them, nor anything else that even a Frenchman would have recognized as edible.

The trick was to pull their heads off, taking the backbone away with it. You were then left with an egg sac on each side of the body, accompanied by a gobbet of fat – this fat also being the source of "frog oil", a prized and expensive ingredient that is of considerable importance in local Chinese traditional medicine.

The frogs were a great local delicacy, and had cost my friend the astronomical sum of nearly a pound each. This being the case, I was obliged to enjoy them as much as my Chinese friends seemed to, and I did my honest best. I ate perhaps four – maybe even five. It seemed like many more.

The oddest thing I have been served was at another of the restaurants near the lake.

On this particular occasion we had been invited again to eat a fish huo guo. It was all very pleasant. Then the waiter arrived with a strange contraption which he fitted on top of the communal bouillon. It was a cylinder about the size of a top hat, slightly narrower at the waist and with a lid. I wondered what this was all about.

A few moments later he reappeared with a pail of fish. They were the size of goldfish, and they were alive. He took the lid off the cylinder, and upended the pail into the boiling bouillon. For a few seconds there was vigorous splashing, then silence.

I looked on this scene of appalling carnage with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. Fortunately, the screams of fish are inaudible to the human ear. The waiter took the cylinder away, and we ate the fish whole. It was like chewing a mouthful of mud and needles.

Sometimes, though, I get my revenge. For all the breadth of their own culinary tradition, the Chinese are remarkably unadventurous when it comes to other cultures. In fact, they're total jessies. Serve them lean roast beef or lamb with the faintest trace of pink in it and you'll have them bleating like medieval serfs being knouted with a knotted rope.

Give them a taste of it, I say. It'll put a bit of backbone in them – if they haven't already had that for breakfast…

(China.org.cn February 2, 2009)

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