20 May 2008

Some Unusual Food

Warning/Disclaimer: This article may be shocking to some people. If you hate watching shows like Survivor or Fear Factor, you are advised not to read on. The writer absolves himself from all responsibility. You have been warned.

For the brave-hearted, I dare you to scroll down.

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I have blogged about unusual food before, e.g. dog meat being served in a hotel in China. This post is about more strange food found around the Asian region including Singapore.

We all know that live frogs are abundant in urban Singapore. No, not in ponds in the countryside but in fish tanks in coffeeshops, usually alongside tanks of live crabs.


Some people relish eating frogs. Their (usually the frogs') most fleshy parts are their legs. Hence we have stalls selling an assortment of dishes cooked with frog legs - porridge, claypot stew, stir-fried with spring onion and ginger, etc.


Eating frogs, even if the whole frog is eaten and not just its legs, is considered cruel by some people. It is just like eating turtles and tortoises - these creatures usually have a long life, if they didn't end up prematurely on our tables, that is.

Yet what is so different about eating these creatures compared to eating fish, prawns and crabs? One colleague told me that fishes do not feel any pain because they don't have nerves. Well, that may or may not be true but it did make me feel less guilty about eating my favourite yu sheng (raw fish) dish.

What I have narrated so far is still quite tame when compared to the exotic food you could find in this region. If you have been to China, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam or the Philippines, you may have seen even more unusual street-hawker fare.


Like scorpions and locusts(?)

A few weeks ago, a colleague brought back a box of snacks from Thailand. The price tag on it said 150 bahts or about S$6.40, not cheap by any standard. I was expecting a savoury treat but when I opened the box, I got a nasty surprise.


They looked deceivingly like french fries especially those cut by a curvy knife but on closer examination, I realised that it was actually a box of crispy fried maggots! Only my bravest colleague dared to eat them. He claimed that they tasted like fried anchovies and were actually quite delicious. (In fact, he nearly finished the whole box!)

"Nice, try?", he said while offering the last few pieces to me. I screamed squirmed and replied, "Nice try". Despite the title of this blog, this is one challenge that I will never take up.

Yet when you compare the above snacks with what one blogger tried in Cambodia, they all seem quite mild.


Photo taken from www.weirdmeat.com

It's a fried spider! Mind you, not your average "next-door spider" but the "large American tarantula" type, okay?

It makes the recent story of a man who found a cooked spider in his kai lan sounds quite uninteresting, doesn't it?

While we are on this topic, Chun See's article about itinerant food vendors of yesteryears reminds me of a roadside hawker who sold a rather unusual dish in Singapore in the 1960s.

The closest modern-day food I could think of is the balut, a fertilized duck (or chicken) egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten in the shell. It may sound gross to you but it is considered a delicacy in Asia especially in the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam.


The version sold in Singapore in the 1960s was cooked differently. It was called gai chai dan in Cantonese (鸡仔蛋) meaning literally "foetal chicken egg". The embryonic egg was not cooked in its shell. Instead, the contents were cooked in soup contained in an enamelled metal basin. I don't know what else went into the soup but having tried it once or twice before, I remember that it smelled strongly of ginger and actually quite tasty. Your order would probably include a whole chick carcass (with newly-formed feathers, beak and all) and some yellow stuff that looked like poached egg, probably the chick's "leftover dinner". :p

The stall was located at the same spot in Queen Street every night, i.e. it did not move from place to place. It would be business as usual when there was no rain. Customers sat around the stall on small 8-inch-tall wooden stools and devour their gai chai dan in the dim flickering light provided by a Milo can contraption. (When you are eating such a dish, perhaps it is better that you couldn't see so clearly.)


Photo by courtesy of National Archives of Singapore, showing a roadside hawker and customers sitting on little wooden stools

Fortunately for some, this dish somehow didn't catch on in Singapore. Otherwise, today it could have been more common than chicken rice or chilli crab.

8 comments:

Lam Chun See said...

When I was working in Philips around 1980, I saw some men at the coffee shop in Lorong eat live baby mice with dried longan! The mice were dark greyish pink in colour. Just thinking about it makes me want to throw up!

stanley said...

Chun See-
Your story of eating live baby mice reminds of a similiar story that my grandmother told me when I was a young boy in the 50s. According to her, this practice of eating live mice was quite common during her time. It was believed that the eating of the mice could cure a host of illnesses,especially for the asthma sufferers. The live baby mice was completely wrapped with a small leave and swallowed with a gulp of wine or liquor. The process was repeated three times in order to obtain maximum efficacy.

Lam Chun See said...

If I remember correctly, they wash it down with wine.

No wonder they say the Chinese eat anything with its back to the sky!

Kopi Soh said...

Let me tell you my balut story....I wanted to cook char kuey teow and tot to myself, if I put duck egg will be very nice, big and nice, so went to supermarket to look for duck egg, I saw balut and tot it was Vietnamese name for duck egg, happily bought my egg home, and cook my kuey teow, then knock knock knock egg on side of wok, hmmm how kam kenot break wan, knock harder sum more, then decide to kopek the egg.....as soon as shell kopeked i saw feather tiny feathers, tiny feet, tiny body ewwwwww, the hair on my arms stood up and i threw the egg up, unfortunately it fell into my pan of kuey teow and you can guess the rest, i was turned off eggs for the longest time....blearrrkkkk!!

peter said...

One time I brought an old Singapore friend and his English wife to dinner at the Hwa Yue Wee Restaurant at Upper East Coast Road.

I thought my friend's wife would like to try something Singaporean and ordered drunkard prawns. The waitress brought a glass bowl with live prawns inside and a glass of brandy. We watched the waitress pour the brandy into the glass bowl and suddenly the prawns jumped like mad and gradually turned red.

My wife's friend almost threw out.

I just wonder how would my friend's wife react when she sees Victor's dishes?

tigerfish said...

I'm already quite brave. I dare to eat "Sweet Chicken". The rest....too yucks and frightening :(

Victor said...

Chun See and Stanley - Yes, I heard Chinese believe that newborn mice has medicinal properties. So does snakes soaked in wine.

Kopisoh - My, that was quite a reaction to a boiled duck egg.

Peter - What? Only drunken prawns and your friend turned red together with the prawns? Luckily, I didn't recount the story of people eating monkey's brain.

Tigerfish - I also eat "sweet chicken". Not considered as very brave lah. I have also eaten snake soup, escargots and other types of snails before.

Philip said...

Chun See, I witnessed my childhood friend ate the live mice with salted vegetables. He did not bite but swallowed it water. He did it many times over, as his home was a breeding ground for mice. His elder brother did the same thing.