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SOS Rhino : In the News : Noxious Nosh
 

Noxious Nosh

 

In China, people are hungry for a taste of the wild
BY HANNAH BEECH/SHANGHAI
June 2, 2003

It turns out that few people actually enjoy the taste of pangolin—a scaly anteater whose flesh is a blend of gristle and rubber. The same goes for the nocturnal civet, which has a gamy aftertaste that even the thickest brown sauce can't mask. And who really enjoys camel hump, which tastes just as you'd expect a blubbery lump to taste? But flavor isn't what really matters to many of the diners tucking into China's wildlife menagerie. "Businessmen come here to prove their wealth," says George Ng, a Shanghai-based restaurateur who specialized in cobra and other wild animals until last month, when local authorities declared all such fare illegal. "By spending lots of money on game, they can close the deal with business partners who are impressed with their expensive tastes."

With the recent discovery that SARS may have leapfrogged to humans from exotic delicacies like the civet cat and raccoon dog, Beijing has launched a massive crackdown on the wildlife trade. In the past week, police have combed wet markets in metropolises like Guangzhou and Shanghai, confiscating writhing bags filled with all manner of beast. But eating yewei, or wild-flavor cuisine, is a key element of new China's conspicuous consumption, and it won't be easy to curb the appetites of the nation's voracious businessmen and discerning government officials.

It used to be that savoring strange creatures was really common only among the Cantonese or poor rural folk. But these days, even Shanghai residents are hungry for a taste of the wild. With the city's fortunes on the rise, eating endangered animals such as the Yangtze crocodile or Chinese sturgeon has become yet another way to flaunt one's wealth. Restaurateur Ng says his biggest spenders forked over an average of $120 per diner, in a city where the average monthly income is $130. "They order a lot of expensive things, like steamed cobra," he says, "but then they don't actually eat very much."

Snake is especially coveted, in part for its purported health benefits. In May, the director of the Center for Disease Control in the eastern province of Jiangsu was quoted in the local paper as advising citizens to eat plenty of snake to boost their immune systems against SARS. Despite the wildlife ban, mesh bags crawling with snakes are heaped on plywood counters in Shanghai's outlying Fengxian district, alongside hopping nets of wild frogs.

Endangered-animal protection is largely a foreign concept in China. Some 40% of the rhinoceros horn poached in Africa winds up in China, where pharmacists tout its restorative powers. The same disregard goes for many of China's native endangered species. "If I could find a good way to cook tiger, I'd prepare it," says a chef surnamed Chen at Shanghai's Guhua Garden restaurant as he hacks up a freshly skinned king snake.

Today, even neophyte diners know not to chow on pangolin in the summer, as its flesh reputedly warms the blood. Toad, however, is regarded as a perfect June-August nosh, because each bite is believed to cool the body, like a gastronomic air-conditioner. Deer tendons braised with turnip are supposed to enhance a woman's beauty; barking deer is said to cure hangovers, and a sizeable wild deer's penis reputedly does wonders for the underwhelming man. But the most fashionable—and expensive—morsel today is a strip of giant-salamander skin, the reddish tinge of which exactly matches the shade of China's new 100-yuan note. In the modern People's Republic, money trumps manhood any day.

— With reporting by Bu Hua


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