By Benjamin Cost
Months of chowing on the writhing, biting, stinging, and oozing members of Shanghai gastronomy had taken its toll on both our palate and psyche and it was time to escape to Hangzhou for some culinary detox – perhaps in the form of the renowned West Lake Fish or Dongpo Ro. Surely no exotic edibles lurked in Hangzhou eating establishments, we thought. And as we strolled Hangzhou’s main eat street, Zhongshan Nan Road in the Gulou district, the symphony of aromas wafting from stalls of skewers, dumplings, and jackfruit smoothies seemed to affirm that.
However, upon hitting a certain section of the street, our nostrils were accosted by the familiar scent of fried must, and we turned to the stand responsible: a cart of tarantulas, big black scorpions, green centipedes with red heads, and other exterminator’s night terrors, all speared on sticks.
Not able to “worm” our way out of this one
As we were in Hangzhou we wouldn’t be able to write up an Off the Beaten Palate special on any of the critters (“Way off the Beaten Palate?”), which we almost used as an excuse for wriggling our way out of sampling the crawlers.
Not to mention that the stand was as much geared toward prompting tourists to shuffle half shrieking, half giggling past the critter table, as it was toward providing dinner. Which, in our book, made for a less than authentic dining experience (it’s more of a Beijing and Guangdong thing anyway).
But once you proclaim that “you’ll try anything,” you must live up/live down to that reputation, so we ordered the three creepiest and crawliest of the creepy crawlies; centipede, scorpion, and tarantula.
A foot-long reason why you should check your sleeping bag before bed while camping in the jungle, the Chinese red-headed centipede (20RMB) is the most venomous of the crawler trio, and an appetizer we wanted out of the way. The bug merchant dunked the crawlie in oil and presented it to us, upon which we grabbed it and started nibbling speedily – hoping to reap the same pain-shortening effect you get by swiftly ripping off a band-aid.
The ‘pede’s body proved flimsy with skin that tore easily like rice-paper, revealing a line of green gunk that traversed the entire length of the body. We tucked into the goo, unleashing a flavor of fried mildew mixed with vinegar.
All in all, the ‘pede-cicle’s not wholly atrocious, but we wouldn’t add it to a list of fondu ingredients anytime soon.
Big black scorpion
Imagine your average tiny desert scorpion (the kind that’s served inside lollipops in the US and elsewhere) if it was hit by the same atomic blast that spawned Godzilla, and you’ve got the huge black Asian forest scorpion (20RMB), and one of the more daunting meals we’ve come across.
Hoping that it tasted nothing like its smaller Dajiacun counterpart, we cracked one of its crab-like claws with with our teeth to surprisingly reveal a promising clump of white meat. Unfortunately, like the centipede, the flesh was sour and acidic with a mealy texture removed from that of crab meat’s firm shreds to boot.
It all came down to the tarantula (80RMB), a beast of an arachnid with bristling hairs and curved fangs like a viper. And shockingly, it wasn’t half bad. The brittle legs broke off easily and crunched like slightly harder Cheetos, while the carapace had the same feel as shrimp shells or soft-shell crab.
We clipped off the legs and gobbled them like chips before munching on the thorax, which, unlike the scorpion, did have tender white flesh like a crab. Only the abdomen was slightly questionable as it mushed easily, and combined the flavor of delicious lobster tomalley with a not-so-delicious mud aftertaste.
The bug trio was far from the worst meal we’ve ever had, far from the best meal we’ve ever had, but one of the more entertaining meals we’ve had. If you’re an adventurous eater in need of a rush at mealtime, then scoot on down to Hangzhou by train and have yourself some centipede, scorpion, and spider skewers.
P.S. Don’t be unnerved if you’re bug-munching becomes a spectacle as you’ll probably be one of the few people trying them.
Bug cart – 8 Zhongshan South Road, near Shiwukui Alley (中山南路8号, 近十五奎巷), Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. Hours: 5:30pm-12am.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].