The delicatessen of the world is something I have only slightly cracked into. And on that note, let’s talk about the time I cracked into an innocent skull, becoming victim to the hands at work.
On a spontaneous, last minute trip to Sichuan, I was welcomed to Chengdu by a handful of wonderful Chinese students. In completely normal fashion, they treated me, the Westerner, to a fancy dinner of the local hotpot. The group assembled itself around an all too small, but familiar table. In the center of it all was a boiling pot of spicy oil. The aromas of hot pot are something that cling to every pore and inch of fabric on your body — and linger for a minimum of two days. This food is a commitment.
We sit, enchanted in conversation. When Cecilia arrives, she comes with a plastic bag in hand. It was an actual plastic bag, like the ones you use in a trash can; not something appealing like a Ziploc freezer bag — a small, dingy, plastic bag. She greets us and says, “I brought us something very special.” It’s not frowned upon to bring in food to a restaurant. The others express excitement for what is inside. She slowly opens the bag to show everyone, who, in turn, one by one, quickly shift their attention to me, mostly, I think, to catch my reaction, or maybe because I foolishly asked “What is it?!” I wanted to be in the loop, too (kind of hard when you only know a handful of Chinese phrases, complicated by the fact they are all using a local dialect). She shows me the contents. I only really remember seeing several medium-sized brown blobs of goop. There were teeth. I remember that part.
“It’s rabbit heads! I got one for each of us!” Yep. THOSE were the teeth I saw. Wow, okay. “You wiiiill try it, right? It’s a local specialty!” Cecilia remarked. Well, in that case, sign me up! I’ll be the first in line. “Ok, but how exactly do you eat a rabbit head?!” I asked. “We will show you. Here, you can have the biggest one. We give the biggest one to our guests.”
I feel like I faced off with the goopy mess in front of me for at least a minute. We just sat there, staring at each other. Who would make the first move? Oh right. Me. Because I was alive. I had the upper hand.
Cecilia walked me through how to eat it. “First you open up the jaw and break it into two halves.” I saw one half with the purple-ish tongue, and the other half with two beady eyes staring at me. “You can eat the cheeks, the tongue, the lips, the eyes, and the brain.” For a moment this felt like they were just testing their English body-part vocabulary. “Then you crack the top half into two to get to the brain.” The brain looked identical to a walnut shell. The cheeks were the best part, meaty. The tongue wasn’t terrible. But the brain, how do you mentally prepare to eat a brain at age twenty-two (or any age, for that matter)? I closed my eyes, counted to three, and popped it in my mouth… WELL, I did it!! What’s the prize?
I’m not sure how exactly they managed to cook the head in its entirety. And how did they get rid of the fur? Boiled, maybe? It was sautéed in some type of sauce.
One thing we all agreed on was that we weren’t going to eat the eyes. You can, and people do… But even the students were grossed out by that thought. The concept, for a Westerner, is hard to wrap one’s head around, but really, the way they sauté them up, makes the head as a whole pretty tasty.
Okay, I can’t talk about eating brains and have you thinking this was the only time it happened. They definitely made sure to serve me up another rabbit head the following day, but while at the hotpot restaurant, another student, Tony, expressed his liking for pig brains in hotpot. He ordered a plate full of them! Pig brains are large. He dumped them into the oil. There were now four white blobs of mass floating in the red oil. I don’t know how to make this sound any more appealing. Tony was the only one fond of pig’s thinking parts. There were still three left. Since I must have been feeling adventurous, they insisted that I try it! I took one bite, probably the smallest bite ever. And I just remember it being creamy — like, that one tiny bite completely spread throughout my mouth. How does a MEAT get to a creamy point?! Are brains a “meat?” I don’t know, but it was not something I care to try again.
…or maybe I did?
Two days later, I was celebrating a family reunion with a friend, Patrick, and his girlfriend, Yolanda, in her hometown of Jiajiang. Guess what one of the dishes being served was! Of course — it was brain! This time, it was cow brain. I will admit I seemed to eat a lot more of this dish than any of the other ones available. It wasn’t terrible; looked a bit like spiced cauliflower. Or was I just growing fond of brain — an experienced veteran at this point? Is there a belief that eating more brain will make you smarter?
Whatever. It’s just another animal part, right? No different than eating the leg, maybe.