There are some foods in China you’re unlikely to find on sale in your local supermarket. You’re not going to see ox penis in the meat section of Wal-Mart. There’s no McMonkey Brains on the menu of McDonald’s. And KFC haven’t yet discovered the delights of deep-fried honeybees. We asked Jamie, originally from Tennessee, to explain the eating habits of 1.3 billion people.
Were you an adventurous eater before you moved to Shanghai?
Just before I moved I remember my then-boyfriend teasing me and saying that I didn’t like Chinese food, that I would only eat egg rolls at Chinese restaurants in the US. Right off the plane in China we went out for dinner and an American-Chinese friend ordered the food. I think he was trying to shock us because out came this shrimp that was still alive. We also had bullfrogs, which are so bony and hard to eat. The next day I ordered noodles in another restaurant and they tasted a little off, so I was really scared of Chinese food at the start. But then I discovered dumplings and they’re like a gateway dish. I stole a menu from this little dumpling restaurant and it became my bible. I learned about Chinese food through eating dumplings.
What are some of the strangest foods you can find in Shanghai?
Oh, where to start? There’s scorpion on a stick, starfish, deep-fried honeybees, dragonflies – the wings get stuck in your throat – and snake, which is really good for you. In traditional Chinese medicine they recommend white meat and cold-blooded animals, so frog, turtle and snake are all supposed to be good for you.
Have you become used to eating such strange foods?
Eating live things was my only issue but I got my arm twisted into finally trying the drunken shrimp, which is served alive in a strong liquor, and it was surprisingly good. It’s amazing watching Chinese people pop entire shrimp into their mouths with the shell on it, and pull it out their mouth a few moments later without any meat left on the bones.
How do Chinese restaurant staff react to seeing your tours?
They love it. They welcome us into the kitchen, they’re very proud. But when I started they thought it was the weirdest thing ever. When Chinese people travel abroad they only eat Chinese food, so when they see Europeans and Americans eating their food they’re really surprised. They can’t understand why we’d do it.
Is there anything you won’t eat?
I’ve never eaten dog. But it’s not really a Shanghai thing. You’ll find it in the areas close to Korea and Vietnam.
What do you do when you have less adventurous people on your tours?
We always order some non-weird food for people who don’t want to eat strange meat. There’s something for everyone!