It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
STAR FISH (星鱼, xīng yú)
Regions of use: Coastal China
Tasted at: Shouning Road, near Xizang Road (寿宁路, 近西藏路)
At first, starfish seemed just another exotic eat; slimy, multi-limbed, lacking an advanced nervous system etc. But then we asked Chinese diners what they thought of it, and became intrigued by the responses. About 70% had never eaten it, while the other 30% said they did once and vowed never to again. Even a Shouning Road vendor who’d initially espoused the starfish’s deliciousness, said after I bought one; “yea, no one really eats these.” Still others claimed that it was not only terrible, but also offered no medicinal or nutritional value. Our curiosity was piqued.
It turns out sea stars have many purported medicinal pros, including the ability to increase male virility (what Chinese medicine doesn’t), while their slime could possibly cure inflammation, asthma and arthritis.
Starfish often share apothecary shelves with dried sea horses, dried geckos, certain snake species like banded kraits, and other traditional medicines. Many Chinese diners I talked with claimed people only eat them because they’re pretty-looking, but starfish are so widespread in Qingdao and other coastal areas that seemed hard to buy. Even food streets in Shanghai like Shouning Road serve them dried and refried with the same black vinegar dip used for hairy crab and other scrumptious shellfish. We thought there must be something more to them. Flavor-wise there was not.
You know that nanosecond of visceral disgust when confronted with something you find gross from another culture. It’s before your politically correct hardwiring does synaptic somersaults to deny your cultural insensitivity with thoughts like “what’s strange to you is another culture’s delicacy,” etc. Yeah, we’re sticking with our initial reaction.
Because a starfish’s skin is like freaking pavement! Biting down, I felt like the Crip from American History X right before Edward Norton curb-stomped him. The coarse, sandy exoskeleton made me feel as if I was gnawing on a Precambrian invertebrate fossil from the Natural History Museum.
It was only later we realized you’re not supposed to eat the armor, but rather locate the splits on the arms’ undersides and pry them back to reveal green gunk lurking beneath. Some compare this to crab tomalley or sea urchin, but I thought it tasted more like sun-rotted seaweed you find on a beach’s high tide line. The whole experience reminded me of eating decaying algae that someone had poured cement over. Clearly, the vinegar dip served to mask, rather than enhance the flavor, and even with copious sauce, I couldn’t finish it.
As someone who advocates going native and celebrating local cuisine, my reactions might seem hypocritical. But I have my limits, and starfish is one. Fortunately, if you don’t like starfish, the fact your Chinese compatriots detest it equally will make you feel like less of an ugly laowai.
[Image credit: @kitlogan]
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Donkey
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].