Story first published on CNN International on July 7, 2015:
By Jon Jensen, CNN and Thomas Page, for CNN
SHANGHAI, China – The Silk Road crew recently traveled to China, retracing ancient caravan trails that first connected east and west some 2,000 years ago.
There was a lot of ground to cover and long working hours, so when we were on the road, we rarely had time for leisurely meals.
That’s why, when the cameras stop rolling, we usually ate quick and cheap street food.
And in China, that can be an adventure in itself.
Out of our hands
On location in Shanghai, our local producer, Alex Li, took us to only the most authentic spots for a taste of the unexpected.
He’s a man of few words but many flavors, and ordering for us, we had no idea what was about to hit our plates.
A Shanghai specialty that proved popular was “lobsters”, or xiaolongxia (crayfish to you and I), fried in giant greasy woks right on the roadside.
Other dishes we were less used to.
You’ve heard of fried chicken? Well, we had fried pigeon… and fried frog.
It was as if Alex had set out to prove the old Chinese adage that they’ll eat anything with four legs, except for the table.
And if you think pulling the vegetarian card will help, you’d be wrong.
One of the nation’s specialities is the 1,000-year egg, also known as pidan. Preserved in clay and buried in the ground for several months, the yolk turns black and the whites brown, taking on a salty flavor. Despite the smell of ammonia and the rubber-like texture, it tasted alright.
Why offal isn’t awful
Chinese chefs have championed nose to tail cooking long before it became fashionable in the West — the buffalo stomach was testament to that.
For many Chinese, there’s a purpose behind such adventurous culinary delights (or travails — it depends how much you like offal).
As Alex explained, many believe certain animal parts have particular qualities that can be transferred to the eater.
For example: frogs’ legs give one energy and vigor. Monkey brains are said to make your head feel better. And eating the penis of an ox, donkey or horse… well, you get the idea.
(It must be noted that there is absolutely no scientific proof behind of any of this and the practice of eating monkey brains is being clamped down on by authorities.)
Alex had one final surprise for us. “Dessert, if you will.”
It looked like tofu, it felt like tofu. It wasn’t tofu.
“It’s sheep’s testicles,” Alex revealed.
I wanted to vomit.
They say you are what you eat. But next time you’re having street food in China, you might just want to think twice about that.