BEIJING — I have good news and bad news about the food here. The good news is, there's a lot of excellent food, and it can be unbelievably cheap. Four of us went to a restaurant near our hotel and ate a delicious and plentiful dinner, including Peking duck and other dishes, as well as a number of large Chinese beers, and the total bill was $23.
At least I think it was. They use this Chairman Mao currency here, and to convert it to dollars you have to either multiply or divide by the cosine, so I'm never totally sure what anything costs, especially after the beers. But I think it was cheap.
I would describe the cuisine in China, for the most part, as "Chinese food." There are things I recognize - rice, to name one - and most of the restaurant menus have the names of the dishes translated into English, more or less. For example, I ate at a restaurant that offered "fried groove liver" and "mafia salad." I assume "groove" means "goose," but I don't know what they mean by "mafia salad." Maybe they whack the lettuce. Or the salad comes with a little horse's head on the side.
When China was preparing for the Olympics, the tourism authorities were worried that some of the literal menu translations used by restaurants here would be unappetizing to visitors. So according to a story in China Daily written by Xin Dingding (really), the Chinese government issued a pamphlet suggesting that hotels and restaurants use tamer names for such traditional menu translations as (I am not making these up) "Husband and Wife's Lung Slice" and "Chicken Without Sexual Life."
I'm with the Chinese tourism authorities on this one. If I'm eating a chicken, the last thing I want to be thinking about is whether or not it had a sexual life.
Which brings us to sheep penis on a stick. This is the bad news - the dark side of Chinese food: it can be scary. Sheep penis is only one of the alarming things on sticks being sold openly at the Wangfujing (Yes, "Wangfujing") Night Market in downtown Beijing. Other items you can buy there on sticks include seahorses, centipedes, scorpions, snake (regular and sea), silkworm, fried chicken heart, fried sleeve-fish head and something called "mealie." I saw one woman who was grimly whacking away with a cleaver at a pile of squirming gray slime.
"What is that?" I asked.
"Stomach," she answered, and resumed whacking.
Some of the food is totally unrecognizable. Do you remember the scene in the movie "Alien," when the hideous thing bursts out of the astronaut's chest? Imagine if THAT thing's chest burst open, and an even MORE hideous thing came out. That second thing would wind up on a stick in the Wangfujing Night Market.
These items are sold by vendors who, as you walk past, yell out, "Hello! Centipede!" etc. (I kind of liked it when a vendor yelled to me, "Hello! Snake!" I was not so happy about "Hello! Chicken Heart!") You're supposed to bargain with the vendors for the items, but it seems to me that the only fair bargain involving a centipede on a stick would be if the vendor paid YOU thousands of dollars to eat it.
The market was bustling with people. But here's the thing. The Chinese people I saw all seemed to be buying things like lamb kebabs and fruit. On the other hand, the people gathered around the centipedes and scorpions on a stick were, in almost every case, tourists or American TV reporters doing fun features on weird Chinese food. These people were basically lining up to eat scorpions. A reporter would hold up a skewer of scorpions, and the camera person would get a close-up shot. Then the reporter would scrunch up his or her face, take a bite of a scorpion, chew, swallow, and declare that it really wasn't that bad. Then, depending on how in-depth the feature was, the reporter might take a bite of seahorse.
I watched as this procedure was repeated with several different TV crews. Then the truth hit me: The Chinese don't eat scorpions. They feed their scorpions to TV reporters. I would not be surprised to learn that the Chinese word for scorpion is "TV reporter food."
So that is the dark side. But as I say, there's plenty of non-scary, delicious and cheap food here. And if you're jonesing for American food, there's always McDonald's, which offers its standard menu, plus a few special local offerings. Stay away from the McStomach.