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Unusual Ingredients That Some Call Precious, Others Exotic

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Fall Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(3) page(s): 11, 12, and 13

Studying unusual foods has long been the province of anthropologists and archaeologists. The kinds of meat and other unusual foods used and the occasions on which they are served showcase important aspects of a culture. In Chinese cuisine, such foods are most often markers of special events. Bird's nest, shark's fin, and sea cucumber have long been important presentation dishes at Chinese banquets. Bear's paw, monkey head mushrooms, jelly fish, and hair seaweed are also served on important and lesser occasions.

Foods such as beef tendons, snake, sea urchins, and cloud ear fungus appear at banquets as well as everyday menus. However, some exotica such as lizard or snake, or lion and bear are restricted to certain rural areas or special restaurants in China and abroad. For example, bear's paw which is considered very unusual can be found in Manchuria whereas snake, a bit more common, is found in restaurants in Guangzhou, Macao, Hong Kong, or Taipei.

SNAKE,I have eaten two banquets, one in Guangzhou the other in Shenzhen. On both occasions, a superb snake soup was one of the courses. Once, it was made with cobra meat, chicken, and chrysanthemum petals, the other time with rattlesnake meat, ham, fish maw, and bamboo shoots. Not only was the soup made with snake, but every other dish in these ten-course banquets was made from a different type of snake. Both meals were fantastic, fun, and flavorful.

Snake is not one of the very top Chinese delicacies. Bird's nest, the edible nest of a particular swallow, namely the Collacalia esculenta, is. On a menu it is called Bird's Nest and is often served as Bird's Nest Soup. This nest of a tiny bird that lives in cliffs mostly off the coast of southern China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and Borneo is considered a major tonic food. It is light gray regurgitated Gelidium seaweed mixed with swallow saliva and needs extensive attention to pick out extraneous items before washing, soaking, cooking, and serving. This hand labor and the fact that it is difficult and dangerous to gather these nests makes them very expensive.

BIRD'S NEST is said to nourish kidneys, lungs, heart and stomach, and to regulate circulation. As they are made with saliva, one of what the Chinese consider to be three precious substances, (the others are breath and semen), there is sexual connotation eating them. Bird's nest, high in protein and with reasonable amounts of calcium, iron, and riboflavin, is deficient in three essential amino acids: lysine, methionine and tryptophan.

SHARK'S FIN is another unusual item. It is the cartilage of a shark, namely its fin. This special sea wing has been popular since the Sung Dynasty, which began in 960 CE. Many westerners know shark's fin and bird's nest in soup but never tasted either of them in a superb sauce. That may be why they can't understand why they are so beloved. Tasking shark's fin braised in a superior sauce is a love becomes understandable. Chang, in Food in Chinese Culture (1977, p. 277) cites early historical records where at a first or second class meal, shark's fins are never omitted. They certainly are prestigious markers for social occasions. From a nutritional perspective, they are high in calcium and iron, and have protein of fair quality.

SEA CUCUMBER has long been one of the three most important presentation foods at banquets; sometimes presented in beautiful and special ways, one of which is butterfly-shaped. These Holothuroidean gastropods have many less than lovely names, including that of sea slug or sea rat. You may know its French name, beche de mer, or know it as a sea ginseng, which is the Chinese name of this food revered and has been at least since the fifth century. Some say it is because of professed aphrodisiac properties. Rarely fresh, they are available dried and need days of soaking and attention, efforts that raise their stature. Nutritionally, sea cucumber is rich in iron with a fair amount of calcium.

The Chinese believe that eating any one of these foods enhances chi or energy and that all are pu or strengthening, are restoratives, and that each one can stimulate a person's sexual appetite. I have never read that in a research journal but have learned that a substance in sea cucumber, called holothurin, has some anti-tumor effects. These exotica accentuate flavors of other foods cooked with them and thus they are relished.

BEAR'S PAW is yet another unusual exotica; some consider it one of the three most important unusual ingredients. For them, the status of sea cucumber goes down one notch. Bears lick their paws, the left one more often, and with the saliva deposited there, they are a popular strengthening food and have been since the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE).

CAMEL, the paw or toe, and bear's paw, and camel's hump were very popular at Imperial tables. Of course, the taste of bear meat depends upon the bear's diet, likewise the camel; both can taste gamey. To remove that taste, paw or other meat can be soaked in lime, then in several strong marinades, and cooked and cooked for hours. Nutritional content is not reported but I did read that it "must be highly rich in nutritious properties" (in Keys, 1963, p. 73). In any case, I do not recommend that process and was told by a hunter that it is really not necessary.

MUSHROOMS are considered by Chinese as the plant of immortality, the Reishi mushroom certainly has this designation. Actually, the more rare the species, the more valuable the fungus.

Monkey Head Mushrooms are a very special delicacy. This unusual ingredient, sometimes referred to as bear's head mushrooms or hedgehog fungus, botanically called Hericium erinaceus, are juicy and with white hair-like ends all over their head or cap. They are highly perishable, and the yellow within hours after picking. Simmons, in Food in China, reports (1991, p 161) that these mushrooms were said to be beneficial for old men and pregnant women. Very few cookbooks discuss this fantastic fungus, perhaps due to limited availability. I once ate them in a hotel in Qinghai. They tasted and were delicious delights, and were again the next day with sea cucumber. As they were superb, I agree with the ancient expression, "mountain delicious the monkey head, seafood delicious the sea cucumber." If you live on the west coast of the United States let me tell you that a couple of years ago, the noted author of information about Chinese and other Asian ingredients, Bruce Cost, advised that they are cultivated by Taiwanese immigrants in San Jose, California.

JELLYFISH, enjoyed and valued by the Chinese, are served on important and lesser occasions as a salad-like hors d'oeuvre or in preparation with other sea creatures such as crab meat. This gelatinous food, highly prized for its texture, is botanically known as Rhopilema esculenta. Jelly fish are harvested in Asian waters and in warm seas world-wide. Nutritionally, they contain a fat-free protein, have vitamins A and B, and also have been reputed to lower blood pressure.

These are but a few of the precious unusual and some say, exotic ingredients the Chinese revere. They also love hair seaweed; not a seaweed but a vegetable called Graciliria verrucosa. They are considered cooling and cleansing to the digestive system. Cloud ear and wood ear fungus, known to lower blood pressure, are also treasured texture foods served at major and minor occasions. There is also turtle, pheasant, dog, and yet other unusual items. All of them are prepared in a variety of ways, and parts of them can be used when making cold platters.

While many Chinese may not know the historical, philosophical, nutritional or medicinal value of these food items, they do know the cultural considerations of when, where, and how to enjoy them. You might mentally taste them, try the real thing, or use typical substitutions such as venison for bear's paw, rabbit for snake meat, and so on. Shark's fin, bird's nest, and sea cucumber are available fresh, frozen, and dried. Try them and duck tongue, beef tendon, and others in Chinese restaurants, or better yet, experiment using the recipes that follow.

When the recipes that follow were tested, in the bear paw recipe the meat used was a mixture of venison and beef as no bear was available; and the snake casserole was made with eel instead of snake. These recipes, variations of classic recipes found in cookbooks in my collection, all tasted great! Their nutrient analysis is omitted because information about the main ingredient, and sometimes other items, could not be located, was done in another country, or was not complete. In most cases, the information was unavailable.
Snake and Shark's Fin Casserole
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 piece tangerine peel
5 dried longans
6 slices fresh ginger
2 scallions, cut in eighths
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1 chicken, about four pounds and cut into eight to twelve pieces
4 cups chicken stock
1 snake, head & skin removed
1/2 pound prepared shark's fin
1 slice ginger root
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 white chrysanthemum
4 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
3 Tablespoons thick soy
1 piece fried Chinese cruller
2 Tablespoons Yunnan or Smithfield ham
1. Soak first three ingredients separately in warm water for 20 minutes, drain and discard the water.
2. Fry scallions and ginger in oil for 1 minute then add chicken, tangerine peel, longans, sliced mushrooms, and stock. Simmer for two hours covered.
3. Cut snake into three inch sections, add it to the chicken mixture, and cook one hour longer.
4. Boil shark's fin with one slice of fresh ginger for three hours. Discard water and shred.
5. Put chicken mixture and sharks fin in stove-top casserole. Add sugar and petals of the chrysanthemum.
6. Mix cornstarch, sesame oil, 1/4 cup water, and thick soy and mix in the casserole. Bring to the boil stirring gently.
7. Slice the cruller and put the pieces and the ham in, stir and serve.
Monkey Head Mushrooms in White Sauce
1/2 pound monkey head (or other) mushrooms
1/2 pound chicken breast
2 Tablespoons Yunnan or Smithfield ham
1 Tablespoon oil
2 shallots, minced
2 slices ginger root
2 Tablespoons Shaoxing wine
2 Tablespoons chicken fat
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup milk mixed with
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 pound bok choy or other greens
1. Rinse mushrooms in warm water to remove any soil or sand, then cut them into quarter-inch inch slices.
2. Slice chicken breasts the same size then mix them with ham and mushrooms. Put all in a bowl, cover and steam for thirty minutes. Uncover, drain, and reserve the liquid.
3. Heat wok and add oil then fry shallots and ginger for one minute. Add the mushroom mixture and fry another minute.
4. Mix all other ingredients except the greens and add to the wok. Boil one minute until thick and set aside.
5. Steam green vegetables until crisp tender, about 4 minutes. Plate mushroom mixture and put greens around.
Serves six.
Bear's Paw in Brown Sauce
1 Bear's paw or 1 pound beef or another meat
1 Tablespoon oil
5 scallions, tied in knots
5 slices ginger root
1 pound chicken, dark meat only
3 scallops, shredded
1/2 pound pork, cut it into 10 or 12 pieces
1 Tablespoon diced ham
1/2 cup Shaoxing wine
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with an eaual amount of water
1. Cut bear paw or meat into two-inch pieces and soak in warm water and covered for twenty-four hours and in the refrigerator. Change water three or four times.
2. Drain then simmer in clean water for about six hours or until tender. Change water at least once early in the cooking. Discard liquid.
3. Heat the wok, add oil and fry scallions and ginger one minute. Next add bear, chicken, scallops, pork, and ham. Fry for one minute then add wine, salt and pepper. Simmer for an hour with 1 cup water (or stock).
4. Add cornstarch mixture. Bring to boil and cook until thickened.
Serves eight to ten.
Beef Tendon in Brown Sauce
1 pound fresh beef tendon
2 pounds beef shin
2 Tablespoons minced shallots
2 Tablespoons minced ginger root
1/4 cup Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
3 Tablespoons Chinese wolfberries
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
2 Tablespoons waterchestnut flour
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1. Blanch tendons in boiling water for three to five minutes. Remove from pan, cut into one-inch pieces. Then blanch beef in the same water for three to five minutes, remove and discard the water. Cut beef in one to two inch cubes.
2. Rinse the pot and return tendons and half of the beef and cover them with 1/2 inch of water. Add shallots, ginger root, sherry, and wolfberries. Cook over low heat for two hours or until tender.
3. Add the rest of the beef and the wine, salt and pepper. Simmer one hour longer.
4. Mix waterchestnut flour and cornstarch with three tablespoons of water and pour this into the meat mixture. Cook vigorously, stirring until slightly thickened; about three to five minutes; then serve.
Serves six to eight people.
Note: Tendon can be purchased in Asian markets or ordered from a butcher.
Turtle and Pork Casserole
1 large piece of dried tangerine peel (about size of two quarters)
10 dry shiitake mushrooms
1/4 cup Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
1 pound turtle meat
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 Tablespoons corn oil
2 slices ginger root, cut in thin strips
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
3 Tablespoons black bean sauce with garlic
2 cups chicken stock
2 pounds barbecued pork, cut in two-inch pieces
Sauce ingredients:
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon water
1 Tablespoon thick soy sauce
1. Soak Tangerine peel in warm water for 20 minutes then mince it.
2. Soak mushrooms in warm water for 20 minutes, then cut cut each mushroom in half.
3. Drain tangerine peel and mushrooms, squeeze out excess water and mix with the wine. Let stand ten minutes, drain reserving the wine.
4. If turtle is still in shell, boil for ten minutes, remove viscera and discard with claws and the head. Cut into 2-inch pieces, blanch for 5 minutes, rinse in clear water and drain. If cut up or frozen, do not boil just blanch, as indicated.
5. Saute turtle in dry wok (no oil) until dry then remove and coat with cornstarch.
6. Heat the wok, add oil and return the turtle to the wok. Stir for two minutes then add the mushrooms, tangerine peel, garlic, and ginger root. Stir-fry for two minutes.
7. Add black bean sauce and mix well cooking until fragrant (about two minutes). Next add chicken stock and barbecued pork. Bring to the boil. Now transfer all ingredients to a clay pot or casserole. Cover and simmer for two hours on very low heat or put in oven at 300 degrees fahrenheit for the same amount of time.
8. Add all the sauce ingredients, bring to the boil and allow to cook one more minute, then serve to eight to ten people.

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