Travel is all about broadening the mind and allowing yourself to be enriched by new possibilities. From the art and music in your new surroundings to quirky local customs, letting the culture of a new place wash over you is what makes travel so rewarding and memorable. Dining as the locals do is another great way to immerse yourself in a new culture, although, depending on where you go, doing so may not always be rewarding (and may only become memorable for all the wrong reasons!).
If you’re an adventurous type of traveler, sampling the local cuisine at trendy cafes and restaurants can get too predictable, and pretty soon you’ll want to find out what’s cooking in the local food markets on the street (hint: it’s usually whatever’s found crawling along the street!). At least, this is the experience people have come to find while exploring the street cuisine in China, specifically down the Wangfujing Snack Street of Beijing. The creepy crawly-filled menu here may turn the stomachs of even the bravest foodies. Think deep-fried tarantulas and animal genitalia (boy, are the Chinese fond of those things). As much as we’d like to believe in the whole when in Rome kind of philosophy, you simply couldn’t pay us to eat this stuff. Here are 20 of the most bizarre street foods found in China...
20 Sheep What??
It’s fair to say that China is fixated with animal privates as a food type. In fact, the country is home to the first and only restaurant in the world that is dedicated to solely serving animal bits. But for those that don’t fancy their animal privates in a gourmet setting, they can always try their luck in the Beijing food markets.
As gross as this looks, it’s not all bad. Apparently, animal bits are said to be quite beneficial for your skin as they’re rich in collagen. Then again, no amount of money or fountain of youth powers are going to convince us to chow down on a stick of lamb genitals that have been described as “chewy,” “tendon-like,” and “similar to overcooked squid.” Nope!
19 Deep Fried Spiders
Seriously, there is no figure you could come up with that would even make us consider putting these hairy creepy crawlies anywhere near our mouth. The kind of thing most of us might look on as a gross forfeit or a quick way to induce vomiting is no more than an afternoon snack on the streets of China. Streetside vendors across the country are well-stocked in deep-fried insects and other nasties, but Hangzhou markets in particular are where you can expect to find this: your worst nightmare stunned, fried, and turned into the devil’s own lollipop.
The Canadian couple Nick and Dariece behind the travel blog ‘Goats on the Road’ admitted that these hairy beasts were so massive that they were scared “even taking a photo of them.” You know spiders are simply not right for human consumption when they’re still intense to look at dead. There is a saying about Chinese tastes along the lines of “We eat anything and everything on four legs, except the table and chairs.” They’ve clearly since relaxed the rules on how many legs they’re willing to eat and how terrifying the dish can possibly be. Give us a fried dining table on a stick any day of the week!
18 Pig Brains
When animal genitalia isn’t on the menu, the next best thing on the street food menu (and by that, we mean the weirdest) is often animal brains. Chinese street vendors have been known to sell all kinds of animal brains from goat to rabbit and monkey. But as far we know, the brains of pigs appear to be the most popular dish. Yep. Luckily for any extreme foodies out there, sampling pig brains in China leaves you open to a lot of options (that is, assuming you can manage not to throw up at the mere sight of this stuff). Depending on where you go in China, pig brains can be served up to you sautéed, fried, or boiled as part of a hot pot stew. Don’t you just love being spoiled for choice?
The latter serving suggestion seems to be the most popular way to enjoy pig brains—boiled in a stew of vegetables and other meats (presumably to give diners something to eat other than pig brains?). Locals have recommended dipping the brains in satay sauce to help disguise the flavor of rancid meat. Brains that also smell rancid? If we weren’t sold before, we are now.
17 Thousand-Year-Old Eggs (Pidan)
In spite of their rather off-putting name, this unusual dish doesn’t actually consist of ‘thousand-year-old’ eggs (like this makes a difference though, right?). Instead, these eggs are only made to look as if they have been hanging around for a whole millennium. In which case, this makes it okay. The thousand-year-old eggs or ‘Pidan,’ as they’re known locally, are a delicacy on the streets of Shanghai and are specially preserved to give them that appetizing shade of dark green. These are duck eggs which are coated in lime and ash, preserved in clay, and buried underground for around 3 months. The result? Agreed jelly-like yolks with a strong cheesy stench and vinegary flavor. Bon apetit!
So why would the Chinese wish to purposefully create the appearance of rotten eggs for a dish they’re hoping to sell to people with taste buds? Apparently, eating eggs in this condition is thought to bring diners good luck, which is why the dish is popular around the Chinese New Year. According to some strong-stomached tourists, the dish doesn’t taste too bad either, once you get past the faint smell of ammonia and the eggs rubbery texture. Hmm. Count us out.
16 Bird’s Nest Soup
We may not be able to move for fast food chains with all manner of grilled and fried chicken options in Western culture, but there’s something strange about serving up a bird dish with this grim name. Thankfully, this isn’t exactly what it sounds like, so if you’re imagining helpless baby birds being rudely awoken and tossed into a pot of stew, then you’d only be half right because this bizarre broth only consists of the actual bird’s nest itself. As glad as we are to find out the real ingredients behind the name, this doesn’t make it sound any less gross. A bird’s first home...for a snack?
Sure enough, though, bird’s nest soup is a rare delicacy in China and a firm favorite on the street food circuit, despite its less than tantalizing secret ingredient: saliva. The particular bird’s nest used in the making of this broth belongs to the Swiftlet bird of southeast Asia, with a clever but disgusting nest-building hack. The swiftlet is the only bird in the world to solely use its saliva to form a nest, i.e. waiting until the strings of gummy saliva have dried in the air to form a kind of hardened spit bowl. And it’s this very hardened spit which can be found in your soup. Yum!
15 Fermented Tofu
Most people aren’t a fan of regular tofu, so if you fall into that category, you may want to stop reading now. Yet another bizarre street food favorite in the streets of Beijing is tofu that has been fermented or ‘stinky tofu’ as it has been affectionately named by the locals (although, they should probably know, calling it ‘stinky’ doesn’t make this sound cute enough to eat). Unsurprisingly, stinky tofu is the type of street grub you can usually smell way before you can even see it, so we’re gonna straight up assume that the people who devour this stuff have little or no sense of smell.
As its name suggests, ‘stinky tofu’ is created using the disgusting process of smoking tofu cubes in a pungent brine mixture of fermented milk (as well as dried vegetables and meat). Locals then have the agony of choice as to whether they’d prefer their stinky tofu eaten steamed, cold, or (the most popular option) have the tofu deep-fried. (Here’s a clue, no option makes the tofu any less smelly.) Oddly, the taste of stinky tofu is nowhere near as strong as its smell, although we’re not quite ready to test that theory...
14 Tuna Eyeball
Say what you want about the oddities of Chinese cuisine. At least they’re resourceful. When it comes to animal body parts, almost any leftovers are considered fair game, as evidenced by this appetizing dish of tuna eyeballs. Second, only to perhaps animal genitals in the contest for ‘weirdest leftover', we can make edible fish eyes seem to be a popular weird dish on the streets of Beijing, and tuna eyeballs in particular are considered a delicacy in both China and Japan.
Tuna eyeballs are normally served on a bed of fish fat and severed muscles from around the eye, so for both gross factor and value for money, an adventurous foodie tourist can really get their money’s worth! If you can stomach it, the actual eyeball is said to resemble squid in both taste and texture, and when you consider the fact that most people would avoid squid with a bargepole, this description doesn’t do much to lure in tourists. According to a blog entry by The Mad Traveler, Kevin Revolinski, the tuna eyeball experience is no more appealing in a restaurant setting either: “Parts of the eye seemed more like egg white and mussels. The wall of the eyeball was a bit rubbery and I couldn't even get a piece off. Gag factor was minimal unless you let it get in your head.” Too late...
13 Drunken Shrimp
Unlike the rest of the strange street snacks here on our list, this one requires the poor creatures to still be alive when you’re eating them. We can only assume that this is to enhance the experience for the shrimp since the taste doesn’t change whether these are dead or not. This bizarre drunken shrimp dish, as its name suggests, involves the shrimp being doused in alcohol before a curious diner comes along and is encouraged to bit the heads off before eating them alive. Unsurprisingly, this is considered to be one of the coolest snack foods in China. But hey, at least the shrimp get to party one last time though, right?
Drunken shrimp is served in both restaurants and by street vendors across the country, but however this is prepared for you, this is a dish served cold (in more ways than one). A bowl is usually filled about halfway with Chinese Baijiu liquor before a handful of live freshwater shrimp are immersed in the alcohol. Another bowl is placed on top, covering the dish while the shrimp jump about and become more and more sluggish as the alcohol hits them. The dish is usually ‘ready’ to eat when the shrimp appear drunk enough to eat. Nope.
12 Bee Pupae
We’re not quite sure what it is with Chinese cuisine and insects, but it seems to us that their motto is “if it flies, eat it,” because another disgusting food item on our list is deeply fried bees or, to be more specific, bee pupae. Pupae are the stage in between larvae and adulthood in insects, so essentially, this dish should be called teenage bees in batter. (And if that somehow sounds more appetizing to you, then go for it.) Whether you want to sample deep-fried bee pupae in the form of skewered snacks or in bowls of the stuff (because, why not?), food stalls in the Chinese province of Yunnan is the best place for them. Here, things like wasp larvae, bee pupae, and other insects in their developing stages are considered a delicacy.
As odd as it might seem, battered bee pupae don’t taste half as bad as they look according to tourists who have frequented the insect snack stalls. Since the puppies are so heavily fried in batter during the cooking process, the end result is fairly tasteless other than a salty (or sometimes sweet) flavor with a crispy texture. In other words, quite similar to popcorn. In other words, why eat gross adolescent bees in the first place?
11 Snake Soup
Along with our furry eight-legged freaks further up in the list, snakes are a common phobia for some people, so the idea of seeing bowls of snake broth at every turn in China’s many street stalls can’t be of much comfort. Dead or alive, these creatures don’t exactly scream out cuddly or the ideal ingredient for making soup (just how big do the bowls of these street stalls have to be?). While snake soup is served both in street markets and restaurants, it is still considered to be something of a gourmet dish and is most commonly eaten in Hong Kong.
So, how did shredded snake come to be such a popular choice of soup dish in China? Well, whilst we might opt for a hearty veggie broth or chicken soup to warm us up, a snake is also said to have warming properties. According to traditional Chinese medicine, snake meat promotes blood circulation to heat the body when it’s cool outside. Speaking to the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s own snake soup chef, Chau Ka-ling, admitted, “It’s better than taking Western medicine because there are no side effects.” I dunno. Attempting to try and keep shredded snake down could lead to a possible barfing side effect if you ask us.
10 Sea Cucumbers
Believe it or not, this slimy globule of black mess is actually one of the most highly sought-after foods in Chinese cuisine, since it’s one of the main dishes eaten during the Chinese New Year celebrations. Each to their own, but we can think of less disgusting ways to celebrate than chowing down on this—a cold and slippery sea cucumber. Yuck. There are over 1,000 varieties of sea cucumber living in the Asia Pacific region, but only 40 kinds of the slimy sea critters are used in cooking (only 40, huh?). A particular favorite in Chinese cuisine happens to be the smoother varieties with the soft spines on their backs. Kinda like a hedgehog in a wetsuit...if hedgehogs were also terrifying eyeless slabs of black slime.
It’s been thought for centuries that sea cucumbers were an aphrodisiac, which is why some Chinese pharmacies still sell them in a dried-up form (you’re welcome). Eating one of these cold slimy creatures apparently has many other benefits besides its age-old use. These are high in protein and chondroitin sulfate which slows muscle aging and can help to improve our immune system. Despite its less than cuddly appearance, the taste of a sea cucumber is also apparently a lot milder than something resembling a pickled slug would have you believe. But we’re not desperate to try it out in a hurry.
9 Balut (Duck Embryo)
Duck meat is very popular throughout China. So popular, in fact, that many streets and food markets have even taken to serving up ducks in their developing stages. The dish known locally as Balut is made up of a partly-developed duck (and sometimes chicken) embryo which is served while still in its shell. In terms of preparation, the cooking time is pretty minimal. The actual bird embryo is boiled before being lightly salted and served within its shell. Wow. As gross dining goes, this is pretty extreme.
Other than in the street food stalls of Northern China, Balut is also a common weird snack throughout places like Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. For any tourists having trouble with the idea of sampling partially-developed duck, locals suggest tipping the egg up and sipping on the liquid inside to get the best out of it. Others state that the surrounding embryo broth should be consumed before peeling the shell and eating the insides. Seriously, though, why stick to the rules when eating something like this? Considering that what you’re eating is effectively a half-developed duck, it may be a miracle if you can even keep it down. So choosing which order to eat parts of the dish is probably going to prove pretty irrelevant.
8 Starfish On Sticks
For those of you who grew up watching SpongeBob, this has to be disturbing on a whole other level. Of all the fish in the sea, the humble starfish is not exactly the first thing that springs to mind when you picture a tasty seafood dish. Putting the adorable image of Patrick Starr aside for a minute, real-life starfish don’t seem as if they’d be all that nice to eat. Their bodies have a stubbly rough texture (a lot like a cat’s tongue). And to imagine the insides of one of these creatures? It just doesn’t seem right.
If you’re traveling through the Northern parts of China though, expect to see lots of locals (as well as a few overly curious tourists) tucking into some starfish on a stick. The street food stalls in Wangfujing’s night market in Beijing offer up skewered starfish for just 20 yuan (around $3.75). And if you’ve ever wanted to know what they taste like? Well, according to crazy travel foodies, they can range from creamy, salty, bitter, and crunchy. Nice. As for a more detailed review, the FoodFunTravel blogger has previously described starfish innards as “a texture in between toothpaste and ground beef.” What’s not to like?
7 Rabbit Heads
We’ve all heard that a rabbit’s foot is lucky, and maybe this is because this is the only body part yet to be eaten in Chinese food markets. All else appears to be fair game as far as street food goes. Even down to serving up actual rabbit heads as a tasty snack. Believe it or not, these gruesome decapitated snacks are now a rare delicacy in the food markets of China. Many’s the time you could find these dotted all over the streets of Beijing food stalls, but today, cooked rabbit head can be found mainly in the southwestern city of Chengdu where these so-called ‘treats’ are a specialty. Yuck.
Because severed rabbit head on a stick isn’t quite gross enough as it is, street cooks in Chengdu like to, quite literally, spice this snack up a little by marinading the heads in a choice of five spice powder (guaranteed to give even decapitated bunny heads that nice aromatic hit) or either stewed in chili and Sichuan pepper. You’d assume stewing the rabbit heads in such strong stuff was to disguise the revolting flavor, but it doesn’t look like there’s much meat to be eaten here in the first place. The price for one greased-up chili rabbit head? Yours for 8 yuan (around $1.25). Pretty good deal!
6 Chicken What?
Chicken gonads are surprisingly common around China and they seem to be enjoyed–if you can really apply that phrase–by street food customers and restaurant goers alike. In Hong Kong eateries especially, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t feature these things on the menu. We don’t know about you but that alone is enough to put us off restaurant dining here! We’re not sure how much more appetizing a restaurant dish of chicken bits could look, but it can’t be as bad as a street-side table covered in them. In case you were wondering, they are usually served boiled or fried and arrive in a bowl of broth and rice (or noodles for the fussy eater).
Yep. You can also ask to have these boiled or stir-fried if you prefer because who doesn’t have a preference on how their gonads are cooked?
5 Skewered Scorpion
Just to walk around and explore the Beijing food markets can be an experience in itself, as you get to see the kinds of things you never expected to see on a stick as if it were fairground candy floss. Most tourists in these parts of China would be content with seeing these bizarre food concoctions up close, but to consider eating one? You would either have to be bored, starving, or have more money than sense because while a stick or two of Scorpion won’t exactly break the bank, $3 a pop isn’t cheap street food when you consider what it is you’re actually eating—a big scary bug on a stick.
Find yourself yearning for a munch on a scorpion? You’ll have to really commit to eating them. For one thing, most of the scorpions served in the Wangfujing street markets sell the creepy jet black crawlies on a skewer of four at a time, like a shish kebab of once deadly critters instead of tasty beef and veggies. On that subject, what’s it like to sample a scorpion kebab? According to a rare customer to a bug stall in Wangfujing, they are “crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. A little like eating a french fry,” says Matt from Iowa. Sure.
4 Donkey Meat
It might look like a regular pulled pork burger at a friend’s summer barbecue, but don’t be fooled. This is genuine donkey meat, shredded up into a bun for your dining pleasure. As Chinese street food goes, this may be the most visually appealing item on the list, but not quite appealing enough to make our mouths water (even when people have described the taste as being close to corned beef). Somehow, eating donkey doesn’t sit right with our stomachs. Interestingly, donkey meat has been consumed in China as far back as the Ming Dynasty, and judging by its popularity in the Beijing food markets, a love of donkey meat–specifically in burger form–is still going strong.
Donkey meat burgers, or ‘Lv rou huo shao’ to give them their local name, are made by shredding the meat and braising it while cooking it in various spices. It is then served up in a freshly-baked pocket of flatbread with seasoning and garnished with green peppers. Donkey burgers are a pretty well-loved snack in parts of China. In fact, in the Hebei province of China, there is an oft-quoted saying that goes: “In Heaven, there is dragon meat, on Earth, there is donkey meat.” These guys clearly never tried a meatball sub.
3 Duck Blood Tofu
Bored of regular tofu while in China even if you had your fill of the locals' favorite ‘stinky tofu’ dish? Well, you’re in luck. The street vendors of northern China have found another way to make tofu that extra bit disgusting with their unique dish of ‘duck blood’ tofu. (Yes, this is every bit as revolting as it sounds.) Duck has proven to be a fairly popular food in many parts of China with some markets selling everything from full roasted ducks to just the heads and even the tongues, so it’s no wonder that some street vendors have begun to make the most of even duck’s blood too. (This just in, duck saliva, coming to a Chinese street stall near you!)
Duck blood tofu is pretty much what it says on the tin. It is the blood of a duck that is congealed enough to resemble a soft tofu-like texture. Why anyone would want to try tofu in this form, we’re not sure. Boredom, we guess? Thankfully, duck blood tofu doesn’t have to be endured on its own, as locals will normally eat the congealed cubes of yuckiness as part of a hot pot stew, as with pig brains. In addition to making a great hot pot accompaniment, duck blood tofu is also popular in Nanjing style stir-fry dishes, complete with duck blood noodles. Mmm.
2 Goat Head Soup
Do we really need to explain why this is essentially horror in a bowl? The soup options in the food markets of China come in all kinds of weird varieties of animal meat, but none has attracted more controversy or disgust from tourists than the delightful-sounding goat head soup dish. Away from the trendy night markets in Beijing, the far western city of Kashgar is home to most of the usual street food fare in China of fried fish, kebabs, and fried dumplings (or ‘hoshan’). But amongst the more normal street foods, vats and pans of goat heads can be found bubbling away, and it’s not a pleasant sight to say the least!
If you wander the night market of the old town in Kashgar’s Xinjiang province, you’re likely to find tables full of sheep and goat heads ready for making the most revolting broth you’ll ever come across. If the skulls of goats aren’t found floating around in giant vats of broth in the market, the intact heads are often piled on top of each other like a big bowl of fruit (or a big bowl of wrong, in this case). Sorry, China, but no amount of display flair or gift of the gab would make us take even the tiniest spoonful of this stuff!
1 Fried Seahorse
Proof that the Chinese are sea critter crazy, here’s another unconventional choice off the seafood menu—the seahorse. Not only do we think of seahorses as sweet and placid creatures, but they’re also pretty tiny, so surely, there’s very little nutritional value you can get from munching on one of these poor things? Judging by the fact that Chinese food markets sell barrels of the stuff, locals probably don’t just stop at the one seahorse on a stick, and if they do, they’re only looking to have a quick morning snack. So says taxi driver Tian Liming from Beijing: “In Beijing, breakfast is about being quick. You eat something and you go to work.” Someone needs to introduce these guys to fruit smoothies or something. Anything but a cute little seahorse!
Alongside traditional meat stalls of lamb and chicken in Central Beijing, tourists will also find as many stalls in the Wangfujing Day Market selling seahorses on sticks. Day or night though, the locals aren’t fussy about when they choose to eat small creatures on sticks as long as they’re always in snack form. If you’re ever pressed to try a skewered seahorse, the Donghuamen Night Market in Wangfujing sells them for 18-20 yuan ($3.50).