Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Spider, Spider, Burning Bright!

"No spider! No spider! Scorpion!"

The food stall vendor's voice was taking the same exasperated tone as the last four and I was getting the strong impression that dinner was off  for tonight. I'd been up and down the narrow lanes of the Beijing night market but, try as I might, could not find the deep fried tarantula I had been prepping my taste buds for.

Months before our trip, I had planned a trip to the Donghuamen night market, famed for cooking up the most horrible things imaginable and feeding them to tourists. There were all manner of crunchy delights emerging from pots of smoking oil. Here were racks of fried silkworm larvae, fronting skewers of live wriggling scorpions. Off to the left was a brace of skewered intestines with my name on them (In English; seriously, what were the odds?) and row upon row of whole fried quail whose tiny heads stared back at me reproachfully. Every imaginable horror was present, accounted for and ready to be dipped in hot sauce for my gastronomic delight, save one.

The quail stared back reproachfully.

The big black scorpions are meatier.

Skewers of live wriggling scorpions
Where, oh where had my fried tarantula gone? I'd seen them on TV travel shows, checked them out on YouTube videos, learned the best way of eating them and what to avoid. (Their taste is apparently reminiscent of crab except  that crab doesn't make you scream inside for several months after eating them... ) I had also internalized a cautionary tasting note that the abdomens of some are full of egg sacs that are, apparently, not as fun to eat as the rest of the otherwise yummy arachnid. I'd even planned ahead. Our tour guide, Joe, had  e-mailed us several weeks before the trip to ask if there were any special requests; sights we wanted to see that weren't on the itinerary or a bit off the beaten path; cultural highlights or holy sites that called to us. I gave careful, deliberate consideration to his question and replied back, "Night Market! Fried tarantulas!"

Drumsticks for everyone!

I could imagine his internal response. "In all of China and it's 9,000 years of history and culture, he wants to eat crunchy nightmare with the tourists..." I followed up with a lame explanation that while I, of course, would rather drive a few extra hours to see how the restoration of my favorite gorge Buddha was coming along, I had promised my (fictitious) grand kids that I would go eat a giant spider and film it for them to take to show and tell. "Kids", I chuckled weakly and unconvincingly. He promised to write out a route for us to follow and, I assume, consigned us mentally to the lowest level of hillbilly tourist hell.

In Beijing, on our first night, as we visited with the guide and our 12 travel companions, I sheepishly brought up a reminder of our interest in spider eating. I explained to the group that we were planning to skip the Chinese face changing show in favor of a visit to the night market in a bid to achieve hard core immortality in the eyes of some 8 and 10 year olds. The response was amazing. Several others had the same idea and, in short order, all the others did, as well.

"We want to be hardcore, too!"

"We want to eat tarantulas with Dennis! "

"Yeah, let's go to the night market and gross out the little kids!"

"I am Spartacus!" (At this point I was feeling a bit giddy...)

Joe's expression shifted back and forth from dismay to disbelief a few times before coming to rest on resignation. Face Theater was off; Night Market expedition was on.

This turned out to be a good thing as that weekend happened to be Mid-Autumn Moon Festival weekend and you know how hard it is to get a cab during moon festival. Even if you can find one, they jack up the price by a factor of 10. Joe ended up having to herd 10 Americans ( Still chanting "Spider! Spider!"  and giggling amongst themselves) through a series of subway and bus changes through crowds that could only occur in a country with 1.5 billion people on call for crowd duty.

We finally arrived at the night market and plunged into narrow lanes that were a riot of sound, color and smells; and, oh, the smells...  The aromas of roasted nuts and corn intermingled with barbecue, the occasional waft of open sewer and lots and lots of ????. I went stall to stall, followed by my hard core foodie posse but, though we found everything imaginable that shouldn't be eaten by rational beings... no spider. The crowd turned surly and drifted off to shop for other deals among the lanes. I pestered additional food sellers for a while before conceding defeat. This was a shame as I had reams of carefully prepared ad libs ready for my tarantula encounter:

"Are these spiders farm raised or free range?", I'd ask with a sly grin, imagining millions of these multi-legged horrors sweeping majestically across the open plain.The vendor, despite understanding no English, would point both index fingers at me and go "Ooooooohhh!" (Chinese for- My, what a witty riposte. Well played, sir!)

"Hey", I'd burble to the appreciative tourist audience as I pulled off a leg. " Drum sticks for everyone!"

"Mmmm. That's good spider!", I'd mug to the camera in my best Dave Letterman, before looking down at the skewer and screaming uncontrollably.

"Staci! Are you eating the centipedes? I was saving those for company!"

A dozen or so similar gems went begging.

I settled for picking out a skewer of live, wiggling scorpions which were then deep-fried before my eyes for guaranteed freshness and tucked right in to them. It wasn't fried spider but would still garner some hard-core respect from those 8 and 10 year olds.

Staci unaccountably turns down my generous offer to share the scorpions.

2 days later, I was still picking legs out of my teeth.

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