The Jewels of Asian Fare

These rare and strange delicacies are the ambrosia of the East. This piece also appeared in the Spring 2010 issue.

By Eunice Huang
Illustrations By Lauren George

Asians are infamous for eating all sorts of weird things, but they don’t eat them without reason.  Asians dine on the following delicacies not only for their unique flavors, but also for their health benefits and prestige.  However, contemporary views on nutrition cannot be applied to the historical value of these foods.  These natural resources have been tested and approved by ancient medical practitioners, herbalists, wine makers and imperial nutritionists, according to Joffre Chan, the director of the SU Abroad program in Hong Kong.

Using China as an example, Chan says that during ancient times, concepts of vitamins and Botox did not exist to aid in strengthening health and beauty.  So imperial family members depended on these rare delicacies to strengthen health and prolong thie reigh.  If they could afford it, ordinary families indulged for the health of the father, th important economic supporter of a Chinese family, as well as the mother, the bearer of children.  Although countless replacements exist today in the form of Western medicine and multivitamins, these traditional treats are desired because of custom and experience passed on through generations.  They also symbolize wealth and the highest form of hospitality, she says.

If your palate is curious, many of these foods are luckily available in the U.S.  But be warned: your dinner bill may addup to a whopping $10,000.  Let’s hope the restaurant takes Visa.

FUGU
More commonly known as blowfish, this Japanese delicacy is perfect for adventurous foodies looking for a thrill because this dish can lead to instant death.  Due to its high tetrodotoxin content, fugu can only be found in licensed restaurants where the fish is closely cleansed of its poison, according to the UnearthingAsia Web site.  Then, it is served as thin slices to be dipped in wasabi and soy sauce like any other sashimi.  For special effect, professional chefs sometimes prepare the dish with a small amount of poison to create a sensation of numbness on the tongue and lips.  Such a unique food experience comes with a hefty price tag, so be ready to fork over up to $200.

BIRD’S NEST

This luxury treat has been coveted in Chinese culture for over 1,500 years, according to the Luxist Web site.  Often considered the “Caviar of the East,” bird’s nest is truly a bird’s nest — but one mainly made from the saliva of cave swiftlets.  Although a bird’s spit does not sound particularly appetizing, bird’s nest is highly desired and traditionally believed to help digestion, relieve coughs, lighten asthma, nourish the skin and improve the immune system.

It consists of water, enzymes, salt and protein, which also help repair muscles and produce cartilage, skin and hair, according to a Time Out Singapore article.  With such benefits, the delicacy allows restaurants to charge $30 to $100 for a bowl of bird’s nest soup.  One kilogram (about the weight of a typical pineapple) can cost between $2,000 and $10,000.  But don’t go climbing up any trees to make some quick cash, as bird’s nest is typically found in coastal caves.

SHARK FIN SOUP
For centuries, shark fin was only eaten by the wealthy in parts of Asia.  But recently, this controversial status symbol has made headlines worldwide.  Demand for shark fin, commonly touted for its health benefits and aphrodisiac qualities, has spiked due to the exploding middle class in China, according to a CNN article.  Shark fin, which is chewy and resembles thin noodles, is usually served in a soup.  Prices vary depending on quality; bowls can cost up to $100.  Thailand is known for their cheap and delicious shark fin, says Chan.  She also says that shark fin has more protein and less fat than pork and beef.  It’s no wonder insatiable appetites have driven the shark species to near extinction, causing outrage among animal activists around the world.  Despite controversy and a large bill, this fearsome food is still very much sought after.  But always hungry for more, human “jaws” are much scarier.

SNAKE BLOOD & WINE
In Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, drinkers pass over the Gin-and-Tonics and Cosmos for a shot of snake blood or a cup of snake wine.  They’re believed to cleanse the blood and soothe lower-back pain, according to a New York Times article.  Snake wine consists of snakes soaking in rice liquor and is used as a natural aphrodisiac.  In Vietnam, a large jug of King Cobra can cost over $700 — much more than a bottle of Dom Perignon.  Bored of Keystone?  A quick Google search results in AsianSnakeWine.com, where you can have a bottle of snake wine shipped to you for about $70.  But of course, no matter if it’s made with grapes, wheat or reptile, drink in moderation!

BEAR GALLBLADDER
In parts of Asia such as China and Korea, bears are poached for their meat and paws.  But their gallbladders are actually the most valuable commodity.  An average size gallbladder can fetch up to $3,400, according to the Humane Society of the United States.  Despite bans in some countries for selling bear parts, gallbladder is in high demand due to its health benefits.  Bear gallbladder and its bile have been found to treat fever, liver disease, diabetes and heart disease in traditional Asian medicine.  The society states clinical research has indicated that gallbladders may be effective for treating ailments, although many other natural and synthetic substitutes are available.  Despite these substitutes, the medicinal trade increasingly threatens these fierce beasts.

ABALONE
The meat of the abalone, a simple sea snail, is one of the most prized of seafood.  Different types of abalone are farmed all around the world, especially in Australia and New Zealand.  But buyers are mainly located in China and Japan.  In addition to being a symbol of affluence, the flavorful abalone is rich in vitamins and minerals and is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, according to Asian Restaurant News.  In Hong Kong, a quality abalone can range from $100 to $1,600.  So the next time you’re trying to impress a date, skip the lobster and steak dinners — you can’t go wrong with the abalone.

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