Exploring the food of other cultures can be one of the most interesting parts of traveling the world. And in China, the vibrant street markets are where some of the strangest and most unique foods on the planet can be found. So take a trip with us and check out some of the most bizarre Chinese foods on the market menus. Warning: strong stomachs only!
1. Silkworm Pupae
Don’t like the idea of being around these silkworms? Then you may just have to reconsider ever wearing silk again. These precious little caterpillars are the primary producers of the luxury fabric sold across the world. But in markets throughout China, the silkworms themselves are also for sale — for a very different reason.
Eating silkworm pupae was a tradition that first started in northeastern China and, for maybe obvious reasons, did not catch on too much outside of the region. Still, they are sold in street food markets on skewers and are said to taste a lot like shrimp. They commonly come drenched in spices, and we assume that trick is to make people forget they are essentially eating worms.
2. Flying Lizard
Anyone who already is not a fan of lizards will surely be delighted to know that flying lizards exist, let alone that they are served at some markets throughout China. As if the name could not be terrifying enough, these guys are also known as flying dragons or gliding lizards. Sure.
For those who just cannot wait to try eating one of these reptiles with their membranous flaps (“wings”), head on over to some of the street markets in China and Hong Kong. These creatures come usually deep-fried or salted on a skewer. And for those who love flying lizard in a food option, there’s also a flying lizard tea to go along with it.
3. Snake Soup
What better way is there to warm up on a cold winter evening than with a giant bowl of hearty snake soup? This was apparently the idea behind this dish, traditionally a luxury. It’s made of shredded snake meat and bones, and originated in southern China.
The soup is said to warm the body to offset the cold of the winter. In China and Hong Kong, restaurants that specialize in snake are called se wong, meaning “snake kings.” Today, se wong restaurants are becoming increasingly rare because cooking with these creatures requires special training. So if this somehow interests anyone, go on and get it while it’s hot!
4. Thousand-Year-Old Egg
Okay, so the egg is not actually a thousand years old. But the name is meant to convey that the egg is supposed to look like it is a thousand years old, which is does not make it much more appetizing. Known as pídàn in Chinese markets, these eggs are left to ferment for weeks or even months.
The preservation process involves taking an egg and coating it in a mixture of ash, clay, salt, and lime before burying it underground. After a period of time, they are taken out of the ground and sold. The insides are said to smell like the stinkiest cheese and vinegar. Yum, right?
Ever wanted to crack open a starfish on the beach and try a bite? Neither have we. But in markets across China, tourists and locals alike love to walk around eating starfish on a stick. And people say that the taste is better than one might expect.
In traditional Chinese medicine, starfish are used to help treat asthma, heart disease, and allergies. But in food markets, starfish are served broken apart on a skewer. Once they are opened up, the insides have a meat-like texture. One YouTube reviewer said that it tasted like a mix between cheap fish sticks and ground beef. Sounds…interesting? (Sorry, Patrick)
Let’s face it, pigeons are definitely not the most beloved birds in the world. In some areas, they are shooed away and angrily called “rats with wings” or “rats of the sky.” But in some parts of China, as well as in other parts of the world, these urban birds are called dinner, and they are served up only for the most special occasions.
Commonly known as squab, is dish is usually served up deep-fried for Chinese New Year. Sometimes, the pigeons are sold live to prove their freshness. And in case anyone was wondering, online reviews say that they taste gamey, and one Reddit user described the taste of “somewhere between chicken and rabbits.”
Balut is one of the most notorious street foods. It is commonly sold and most well-known in the Philippines, but can be found in Chinese street markets as it, surprisingly, catches on. So what is balut? If anyone must know, it is an actual egg embryo, often duck, that is boiled and eaten with the embryo still inside.
Once one cracks open the egg, there’s a broth that gathers at the top that they can drink. For anyone who is willing to eat on the wild side, they can continue on to eat the embryo with a little salt and vinegar. According to reviews, it is tender and feels like a mousse or cream cheese when consumed.
Many people would never want to go near a venomous scorpion, let alone eat one. But these little critters are actual quite common in some Chinese markets. Like many of the other creepy crawlies that are on the menu in markets, scorpions usually come on a stick, so they are the perfect little snack for an on-the-go bite! (Or sting?)
Those who have been brave enough to try eating a scorpion say that the texture is crunchy on the outside while chewy and soft on the inside. An Internet reviewer named Samuel seems to have tried a bunch, and reported that the black forest scorpions have a “mild barbecued nut taste” while the lighter species have a “salty, mildly bitter shrimp-like taste.” What kind of shrimp has Samuel been trying?
9. Shark Fin Soup
Especially around the Chinese New Year, shark fin products can be found all over China. There are small shark fins, large ones, single fins, or entire packs wrapped in ribbon to display that these fins are luxury items that represent celebration and wealth.
Shark fin soup is by far the most traditional of shark fin dishes, and was created to embody status and good fortune for the new year ahead. But today, more and more people are able to afford the pricey shark fins and want to show that wealth off. The dish’s increasing popularity has created a market for shark fin hunters, furthering this deadly and highly controversial market.
10. Fried Tarantulas
For some, eating gigantic hairy black spiders is the stuff of nightmares. For others, this dish is considered to be a delicacy, and the perfect mid-afternoon stack. And for anyone who wants to try, there are actually deep-fried spider recipes crawling all over the Internet. Lucky us.
While the dish has been around for a long time, it is not until the 1990s when they, surprisingly, grew in popularity. Now, tarantulas are covered with salt, sugar, and garlic before they are covered in oil and fried to a crisp. The legs do not contain any meat, so those useless eight appendages are usually discarded to make way for the meaty center.
11. Fermented Tofu
We know tofu is a staple of Chinese foods as well as other East Asian cuisines, but have you heard of this variety? Fermented tofu is also referred to as “stinky tofu” in many street and night markets, and there is no reason to ask why. When walking through a market in China, this food is often smelled before it is ever seen.
Stinky tofu is created by a process that we can almost whiff through the words on the screen. Tofu cubes are smoked in a pungent brine, with a base made from fermented milk, vegetables, meats, and herbs. The cubes stay inside that brine for up to several months. Once that process is over with, markets sell stinky tofu steamed, cold, or deep-fried.
12. Rat Meat
Eating rat meat definitely is not for everyone, but apparently, it is for some people. And to supply the sought-after meat to those who want it, China has built an economy around rat meat breeding in hopes that it will lift some of China’s poorest out of poverty. Years ago, the Chinese government began supplying bamboo rats to some of its lowest-income communities.
The rats are easy to maintain and can live in small spaces, and families that raise even 20 rats can make 10,000-15,000 yuan (about $1,430 to $2,150) a year. That might not seem like a lot, but for some rural families it has been enough to offer them a sustainable way of making a living.
13. Pig Brains
According to an online Chinese recipe book, “pork’s brain is popular among Chinese foods due to its pudding-like texture and its ability to soak up the flavors of the dish it is prepared with.” Based on that description, we’ll go ahead and pass.
Once cooked, pig brains are said to taste “creamy”, sporting a “savory umami flavor.” Their texture has been compared to scrambled eggs or tofu. And for any of the brain lovers out there, you’re all in luck, as this dish is versatile. Pig brains can be prepared by sautéing, frying, or boiling the brains as part of a hot pot.
We all know the daddy seahorse carries the babies in his tummy — but how would you feel about carrying seahorses themselves in your tummy? For those who are more adventurous eaters and need something quick and on-the-go, skip that morning smoothie and pick up a seahorse on a stick at the local market.
Seahorse is said to be extremely salty and has the same consistency has squid. When eating them on a stick, people are warned to watch out for sharp pieces getting stuck in their gums. To avoid all that, luckily, there are other options of preparing this fish. For example, one can instead enjoy a seahorse soup.
Did anyone know that there is an actual name for the practice of eating insects? Yes, it is called entomophagy and about 3,000 ethnic groups around the world practice it. In China, historians guess that the practice of having bugs appear in Chinese foods might date all the way back to 2500 BCE, after insect carcasses were found in ancient ruins with marks suggesting they had been eaten.
Today, that same tradition is practiced in markets across China. Insects are prepared either through frying, boiling, braising, roasting, or stewing. And the deep-fried grasshopper is said to be the most tame of the options, as far as its taste.
16. Sea Cucumber
Sea cucumbers are recognized by many to be those slug-like, black, slippery sea creatures that are found on the sea floor and sometimes have spikes covering their bodies. Their bodies are coated in tube-like tentacle feet that are used for moving and for feeding. What’s more, when startled, they shoot their guts out their backside. Sounds appetizing, right?
We might think that if someone is going to go ahead and eat something like that as part of a cuisine, it probably tastes really good. Think again. Many online reviews say that they are actually pretty bland and take on the taste of whatever sauce they are covered in. Here’s to hoping its a darn good-tasting sauce.
17. Blood Tofu
The practice of eating blood is not just for vampires. From England to Spain to Thailand, many cultures consume blood products. As a staple in some Chinese foods, blood is usually congealed into tofu-like blocks, to be used in soups and stews. But if the words “congealed into tofu-like blocks” do not dissuade anyone from trying blood tofu, maybe the taste will.
According to online reviews, the blood tastes, well, like blood. Some say that taking a bite out of the “jelly-like tofu” tastes as if someone has accidentally bitten their lip. To enhance the flavor, the tofu’s taste is usually masked by a bunch of other less terrifying foods in a hot pot. Are you game?
18. Drunken Shrimp
Drunken noodles, locally known as Pad Kee Mao, are a popular run-of-the-mill dish that has become a staple on many Thai restaurant menus throughout the United States. So at first, the idea of eating drunken shrimp might not seem too out of the ordinary. But think again.
Drunken shrimp is a name that describes the dish quite clearly. Vendors at markets fill a bowl with an alcoholic substance and then dunk live shrimp inside. The shrimp then consume the alcohol and become sluggish, making it possible for people to then eat them alive. Well, at least the shrimps get one last goodbye party beforehand?
19. Tuna Eyeball
We have to hand it to these Chinese markets, they really do not let any part of the animal go to waste, including the eyes of fish. But among one of the biggest, slimiest eyes in the underwater kingdom would have to be the tuna eyeball. We will spare you the image of what it looks like sold raw at markets.
But before anyone thanks us for sparing them, here’s an explanation of what it is like to eat a tuna eye according to The Mad Traveler blog: “Parts of the eye seemed more like egg white and mussels…the wall of the eyeball was rubbery and I couldn’t even get a piece off. Gag factor was minimal unless you let it get in your head.” Nope, too late, we already have.
20. Bird’s Nest Soup
This dish has been called “the caviar of the East” because it is such a rarity and can come with an insanely high price tag. But for all of those fancy diners who want to learn the secret ingredient, they need look no farther than the dish’s name. In bird’s nest soup, a bird’s actual nest is a main ingredient. But most bird’s nests are made from twigs — how can that be soup?
This gelatinous soup is made specifically from the nests of the swiftlet, which are made from the bird’s solidified saliva. The process of collecting the nests and cleaning them is extensive. Retrieving the nests involves hiking to the pitch-black depths of caves at the perfect time, just after one batch of eggs hatches and before another batch is laid.
Who has 100 legs and can be served on a dinner table? Centipedes, obviously! There are 100 reasons why we would not want to snack on a giant venomous centipede, but for the more adventurous diners, trying this insect can be just another thrilling part of the Chinese street market experience.
Centipedes come powdered, salted, dried, or fried. According to some, they smell a bit like seafood, and one courageous foodie said they taste like “hermit crab food, and an underlying grassy flavor.” Another wrote that it “tasted like a bunch of shells. There was no mushiness, creaminess, chewiness or texture besides crispy and a bit crunchy.” No thank you.
22. Dog Meat
China is the largest consumer of dog meat in the entire world, with about 10-20 million dogs killed as part of the dog meat trade annually. Eating dog meat is not illegal, as long as the dogs were initially vaccinated.
The tradition may date back to 500 BCE, when the Chinese were said to have domesticated wolves in order to eat them later. The consumption of dog meat became notorious because of the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival that takes place in China every year. The festival lasts 10 days, and thousands of dogs are consumed in the process, drawing sharp outcry and criticism from people both inside and outside of China.
23. Bamboo Worms
Trying to go green? There are plenty of ways to become environmentally friendly, like carpooling to work or using eco-friendly lightbulbs. But for those who want to go the extra mile, try eating a plate of bamboo worms. These worms are high in protein and are far better for the earth than raising cattle or chicken.
Bamboo worms, much like silkworms, are said to taste milky and creamy. Delicious! And according to some online reviews, “people love bamboo worms because they taste a bit like corn and are slightly fibrous.” Others write their taste falls somewhere on the spectrum between corn and cheese. So, basically Doritos, right?
24. Caterpillar Fungus
This one is not for the faint of heart. There is a spore that exists that is known to take over a caterpillar’s body. Like a vampire, it drains all of its energy before eventually poking itself straight out of the head of its host. Gross, right? Well, brace yourself — it gets even crazier.
This fungus that literally grows from caterpillar’s brains has somehow found itself on the menu as a specialty food in parts of China and in Hong Kong. The fungus has no flavor, but it has still garnered a shockingly high price tag. One pound of this invasive fungus can go for thousands of dollars. Vice Magazine has called it “one of the most exclusive foods in China.”
25. Bat Soup
For many diners around the world, even the most adventurous, this bat soup seems pretty gruesome. And many in China feel the same way. The consumption of bats is not actually common in China, although some people do chose to eat these flying mammals.
More generally, bats are hunted for medicinal reasons rather than for serving purposes. But when they are prepared for consumption, as they are in places such as Indonesia, Palau, and Guam as well, the glands in the armpits and the neck are removed to rid the bat of its “bad smell.” Then the bat is grilled to get rid of hairs before being served at markets and restaurants.
26. Roasted Cat
While over here in the West, we couldn’t dream of someone serving up our pretty little kitty, Mr. Mittens and serving him to a family of four. We don’t mean serving him up to a lifetime of hugs and kisses either, we mean literally serving him on a plate.
While crazy to even think about here, in China the sight of a roasted cat wouldn’t shock anyone. Some might not agree with it, but it isn’t a rare sight to see. If you want to get a clearer picture in your head, the little feline would be served up like a roasted chicken, except the head would still be on the cat’s body. Absolutely terrifying.
While we’re more used to screaming and jumping on a table when we see a roach, things are much more different in China. You probably won’t see roaches on a menu in Beijing or Shanghai, but in some parts of the country, these late night disturbances are all the rage.
There are actually roach farms that are dedicated to breeding these little guys for consumption. They apparently go very well in a salad and make an excellent fried treat with a great source of protein. We doubt you’ll ever see this in your local chinese restaurant, but you can always take a vacation over there for your roach fix.
28. Roasted Crocodile
Most people would never associate an animal as fierce and mighty as a crocodile as something to be served on a plate. Those people probably aren’t from the great country of China. Crocodile Dundee can eat his heart out when he sees how people in Chinese meat markets handle crocks.
They don’t just hunt these amazing animals and strip them for meat, they roast them whole. It wouldn’t be a crazy sight for most Chinese to see a giant crock being roasted in the middle of a market. For us, it’d surely feel like something out of a strange movie.
29. Duck Blood Soup
A roasted duck here and there is no problem. We all love Donald Duck and Joey’s pet duck from Friends, but that won’t stop us from digging out teeth into that tasty piece of meat. However, there is one fate we would never want our childhood ducks to face and that’s a future as duck blood soup.
If you’re wondering what duck blood soup is, it’s exactly what you picture it being. A bowl full of red vibrant duck blood with some veggies and meat tossed inside. The blood also comes in a more solid form as well and people love it. If you can eat blood pie, this wouldn’t be hard to swallow by any means.
30. Sheep Head
Anyone who has ever taken a bite out of lamb will know that it’s pretty much the best meat at the market. It’s juicy, soft and tastes amazing. However, in China they take eating sheep to a whole new level. They eat all the parts we love but also go for the head.
They clean the head very well and then boil or roast it. They aren’t just eating cheeks and chins either, they eat everything. They crack into the brain, eat the eyes and even eat the tongue. While this may seem like a bit too much for some people, the Chinese absolutely love it.
31. Stinky Black Tofu
While most people who aren’t vegetarian don’t typically find themselves eating tofu, they aren’t missing much. Regular tofu isn’t anything to go crazy about, as it is kind of bland. However, if you want to find tofu that will definitely be memorable and leave a mark on you, go to China.
If you go to certain markets, you’ll be able find a tofu called stinky black tofu. It looks sort of like tofu that has been crusted over with black mold. It that isn’t off putting enough, apparently it tastes like rotten garbage. Now who on earth would want to eat something that taste like rotten garbage?
32. Fried Cicadas
If you come across a Cicada in your house here, the first thing you do is scream, run into the other room and then syke yourself out and prepare for war. We would never dream of eating one of these disgusting looking bugs, but across the world in China these little bugs are beloved.
They have a rich history in the country as bugs that are pure for their ability to stand perched up on a tree. They also make delicious snacks there. No one will be able to resist a plate of fried cicadas. They are crunchy and have a buttery center that’ll make even the most picky eater a fan.
33. Giant Octopus
While eating octopus is nothing new in Asia as a whole, most countries tend to settle for smaller octopus’. Even these babies need to be eaten with caution though, as they are served alive and will go to war with your mouth before being chewed up and swallowed.
Anyone who fancies themselves as a quick chewer can find themselves at the losing end of a fight with their dinner. In China, they eat the babies as well as the giants. Giant Octopus can be found at a number of meat markets. We’re guessing dinner becomes quite the sport with one of these bad boys.
34. Sea Serpent
While you might envision a sea serpent as some kind of mythical creature from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, they are actually quite real, just not half as epic looking as they were on the show. They are way smaller, but still a little intimidating.
If you were swimming in a lake and saw one of these guys coming towards you, you’d definitely want to move out of the way. That is, unless you work at a Chinese meat market because these brave workers toss about and chop these serpents to serve with zero worries or fears. They are even supposed to be quite delicious.
35. Sea Urchin With Boiled Eggs
When it comes to animals that you definitely don’t want to eat from the sea, a sea urchin is definitely on the top of that list. They are covered in spikes that look as if they could easily cut the flesh. Nobody is going to be too eager to bite into one of these creatures.
The Chinese sure don’t have a problem with it. However, they aren’t biting into the shell. They are opening up the urchins, boiling their insides and eggs and then eating out of it like a pudding cup. It sounds like the worst thing ever, but I would knock it until I’ve tried it.
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