We’re more than Char Siu, Lo Mein, and Jook (Rice Porridge.) We eat all edible parts of the animal – in soup, with rice, and by themselves- and they most likely have tons of nonsensical health benefits as touted by your Cantonese mother.
1. Pig Blood Curd
Rectangular cubes of coagulated, solidified pig’s blood most seen in Hot Pot or as a kebab. It’s thick, gelatinous, chewy, and has a distinct flavor – blood, but all in all the flavor is lighter than you’d expect and adds a nice consistency to the right dish.
2. Fish Eyeballs
Cantonese steamed fish is fantastically prepared. It’s one of the few Cantonese dishes that uses a lightened version of soy sauce that’s mixed first with water and then oil. The fish is topped with beautiful and fresh pieces of ginger, cilantro, and scallions. It’s presumably fresh… if you’re in a restaurant with multiple fish tanks and a net, which brings me to my point. This is legit because you’ve most likely had it at a banquet in a large seafood restaurant and your parents most likely plucked that eye out with chopsticks and jokingly successfully or unsuccessfully got you to eat that eyeball. I did and am not a fan.
3. Chicken Feet
If you have Chinese friends, this one may be the most recognizable to you because chicken feet is usually ordered as dim sum. It’s the Chinese sushi in terms of a general, nameable go-to fare. Chicken feet look odd and have the color palette of orange chicken. They’re not intimidating though; it’s just skin. The flavor is fat along with garnishes of chili, sometimes peanuts, and thick black bean sauce. The oiliness of the dish captures the spirit of quintessential Cantonese cuisine.
4. Prawn Heads
Now this is a snack! Unless you’re eating it as a meal with rice and stir-fried green beans, it’s comparable to crinkle fries or popcorn chicken, but in a higher class. After all, it’s real seafood. Topped with jalapenos and fried garlic, peppered and salted, it’s traditionally eaten skin-on and with the head in true Cantonese style. Please, eat it whole. It’s deep-fried and the mushy brain blends rather silkily with the seasoned, chitinous shell and the thick, juicy meat of the prawn.
5. Cantonese Snails (Periwinkles)
Not your typical escargot lathered in butter and pesto sauce, these miniature snails, or periwinkles, are only 1-2 centimeters and so their meat can be difficult to extract for the inexperienced. If you don’t want to spend an embarrassing amount of time heaving or choking trying to suck it out, use a toothpick for the job. Tastes like: your average chewy mollusk, but with a twist. That magical Cantonese infusion of soy, garlic, ginger, star anise, and greens will have you sucking the slug out of it.
6. Bitter Melon
My least favorite vegetable, bitter melon has a bitterness that is impossible to completely mask. It’s a warty, pickle-shaped gourd sliced thinly and mixed with eggs and either tomatoes or meat. You can also find it chopped and stuffed in a bell pepper. I would never order this voluntarily, but my favorite vegetables are broccoli and brussels sprouts, two of America’s most reviled. Don’t form an opinion on bitter melon without trying it, its taste is inimitable and its bitterness rare in common cuisine.
7. Pig’s Feet
Yum! Braised in thickened dark and light soy sauce along with Chinese wine, brown sugar, star anise, and oyster sauce, pig’s feet is cooked until it looks less intimidating. It culminates in a hearty and browned tenderness. It’s comfort food and that fat to meat ratio hits a near 50/50 that’s unparalleled everywhere but the rest of the pig.
8. Chicken Gizzard
I may have misspoken on #3. Gizzards are quite popular worldwide. Reminiscent of lengua in tacos, they’re meaty, but texturally not quite meat. The gizzard is a digestive organ so it’s tough, muscular, and bounces. It’s mainly served either as a snack as seen in the picture above or on a skewer and has a factor of less than one on the repulsive scale.
9. Stinky Tofu
So what do I mean by stinky? It’s fermented, pungent, you’ll grimace, and the smell will overpower the room immediately upon its cooking. Typically deep fried, it smells like a dirty boot – but so can whisky. I say it’s Tofu 2.0 because of its audacity and mature open-mindedness. You’ll hold your nose, bite into the rubbery skin flavored with hot soy sauce and chili sauce, and taste a spongy, aerated, less smelly, slightly sweet, substantial piece of bean curd.
10. Shark Fin Soup
Controversy alert, I’m aware. Unsustainable and cruel in practice, Shark Fin Soup has some deep-seated cultural roots. In Chinese weddings, it’s the tossed, bridal bouquet or the floral, three tiered cake. Served last, it completes the onslaught of back to back to back dishes. It signifies wealth, respect, and luxury. Its stringy, sinewy texture pairs well with the gooey, warm, and jelly-like soup. Undeniably delicious, but also pricey. More likely that I had the affordable and eco-friendly alternatives of lobster or abalone, which are just as good and guilt-free.