Scorpion kebab, anyone? It's fast food Beijing style.... But will any Olympic visitors have the stomach for it?
(By Geoffrey Wansell)
There is a Cantonese saying that the Chinese eat everything that flies, except aeroplanes; everything with four legs, except tables; and everything that swims, except submarines - and visitors to Beijing's fast-food market during the Olympic Games will be left in no doubt of that.
A stroll among the food stalls of Wangfujing Snack Street, not far from Tiananmen Square, reveals delicacies of every conceivable kind.
Laid out in trays and boiling in cauldrons are everything from goat lungs with red peppers to scorpion brochettes, seahorses on skewers, iguana tails, dung beetles and silk worms on a stick, by way of fried sparrows, grilled snake and turkey vulture schnitzels.
The locals insist that Western visitors shouldn't be put off the food on sale on this street - after all, it is mostly 'conventional' Chinese cuisine and great for lunch or dinner.
Indeed, even though dog meat is off the menu for competitors during the Games - they'll be filling themselves up with high-protein drinks and masses of carbohydrates - tourists can still sample dog brain soup or dog liver with vegetables.
It's not a view shared by the Chinese, who take great pride in their cuisine - dog, in particular, which is a speciality in the Korean restaurants of Beijing, where it is known as gou rou (which is pronounced 'go row').
But Chinese chefs insist they do not cook pets - they say the dogs are specially raised for cooking, 'just as cow, lamb or chicken would be in the West'.
So the visitor must put their ideas of good taste on hold for the duration of their visit and try a freshly fried and seasoned skewer of farmed scorpions, one of the most famous of the delicacies on offer, which costs about 50 yuan.
At the weekend, one 19-year- old British tourist plucked up the courage to try a seahorse on a stick for 15 yuan.
'It's not too bad,' he said, while biting into the cooked tail. 'It's definitely a different experience.'
But the delicacies of Wangfujing Snack Street are not only about taste and appetite.
The Chinese also believe that certain animals, or their limbs and organs, have medicinal or lifeenhancing properties, such as deer's antlers boiled as tea or snake pickled in China's popular baijiu alcohol.
'Seahorses are good for men's kidneys and their virility,' says Sun Hainan, a young food trader from the Anhui province in the east of the country, who has a stall in the street.
'Crustacean are good for girls - they improve their skin and looks - and lizards boost virility.'
Scorpions are said to make your blood hotter in cold weather and to cure 'certain conditions', although no one seems sure what grasshoppers on a stick are a remedy for, or mixed cow and horse soup, come to that.
Ever since the first European merchants and missionaries visited China, Westerners have been appalled by what the Chinese eat.
In the late 13th century, Marco Polo noted with distaste that the Chinese liked eating snakes, dogs and, in some places, even human flesh.
French Jesuit historian Jean-Baptiste du Halde recorded a Chinese banquet in 1736 in which guests ate: 'Stag pizzles [penises] . . . bears' paws . . . nay, they do not scruple eating cats, rats and such like animals.'
As Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop writes in her fascinating book Shark's Fin & Sichuan Pepper, the 19th-century British surgeon C. Toogood Downing described British sailors in the port of Guangzhou picking carefully at their food 'lest they should detect themselves in the act of devouring an earthworm, or picking the delicate bones of a cat'.
Dunlop describes a Chinese cookbook she came across with full colour photographs in which the heads and feet of various fowl loll over the rims of serving dishes.
On one page, 11 lizards have been partially skinned and deep-fried, 'so their bodies, golden and crisp like chicken nuggets, are sandwiched between scaly tails and heads in which the ruined eyeballs have been replaced by fresh green peas'.
There is a whippy egg-white pudding decorated with cherries and what look like chocolate sprinkles, but on closer inspection turn out to be dried ants (good for dispelling rheumatism).
And then there is the piece de resistance - a whole puppy, roasted crisp, with a garnish of coriander and flowers made from pink radishes.
While living in China, Dunlop ate rabbit heads, pig brains, scorpion and preserved duck eggs - known as 1,000-year- old eggs - whose oozy black yolks and 'noxious aroma' caused her flesh to crawl, made her feel sick and left a toxic black slime on her chopsticks.
She visited a restaurant in Sichuan that specialised in insect dishes, where she had the expensive delicacies bee pupae, timber grubs and sand-crawling caterpillars, which she pronounced to be delicious. She ate sheep's lungs and even the ovarian fat of a snow frog.
'Although a typical Chinese meal consists of grain, pork and vegetables with a bit of fish or seafood thrown in, there is little that can't be considered a potential ingredient,' she says.
'Most people eat dog meat and donkey penis rarely, if at all, but there is no taboo in China about the idea of eating them.'
Mind you, according to the ancient historian Pliny the Elder, the Romans ate flamingo tongues, while medieval Europeans dined on living geese and 19th-century Americans liked deer testicles, so you can't call one culinary cuisine more cultured than another.
On Wangfujing Snack Street, however, the fried silk worms and dung beetles, baby sharks and fried starfish jostle with that most famous, and admired, delicacy - bird's nest soup.
It is made from the nest of the swiftlet, a tiny bird that lives in caves in South-East Asia. Instead of twigs and straw, it makes its nest from its own saliva.
Harvesting the nests requires great skill: men balance on tall bamboo poles to grab the nests from inside the dark caves. Sadly, bird's nest soup actually has a rather bland taste.
But then its recent rise in popularity comes from its growing reputation around the world as a health tonic - and aphrodisiac.
So there might just be a point in trying it, along with lizard legs and a couple of seahorses on the side, from that roadside stall in Beijing after all.
Chinese Soup Of Duck Blood