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4 Most Unusual Chinese Ingredients

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Every country has its quirky foods that seem a little strange in other cultures. The French, for example, have their snails and frogs legs, while Japanese diners have a whole host of dangerous ingredients for the more adventurous eater to sample. While Chinese cuisine doesn’t have so many potentially life-threatening snacks as in Japan, there are certainly a fair few unusual dishes and ingredients. We take a look at some of these unique foods.

Sea Cucumber

Popular during festivities and celebrations, such as the Chinese New Year, the sea cucumber is a sea creature that is a delicacy in many southeast Asian countries. As the name may suggest, the sea cucumber looks fairly similar to a cucumber, but with some spikes! It can be brought either fresh or dried, and used in dishes accordingly. Dried sea cucumbers are dried for preservation reasons and must be rehydrated when they are to be used in a dish.

The sea cucumber is commonly used in soups or stews in Chinese cuisine, although it is not the easiest ingredient to work with. Preparing the ingredient takes time and skill, as it is largely tasteless but smells greatly of fish, and can often be found with sand in them. Therefore, it must be cleaned and boiled thoroughly before adding into dishes. Taste is added by stewing it in a broth, which imparts meatier flavours into the cucumber.

Sea cucumbers are also used for medical purposes, as it is believed to relieve symptoms of tendonitis and arthritis, as well as offering benefits for male sexual health!

Stinky Tofu

Also known by its Chinese name Chou Dofu, stinky tofu is a form of tofu that has been marinated in a fermented brine until it acquires a particularly strong odour. The brine is typically made from fermented milk, shrimp or other meats, bamboo shoots and herbs. This mixture is left to further ferment for several weeks or months. Fresh tofu is then marinated in this brine for a couple of days before it is cooked. Stinky tofu has a bit of a marmite situation about it – people either love it or hate it, and tourists come from around the world to sample the stink!

It certainly lives up to its name too, as those who have sniffed it liken stinky tofu to ‘rotten garbage’, ‘old socks’ and ‘gone off blue cheese’. Food vendors even try to out smell each other, trying to create the stinkiest dish possible. While it definitely doesn’t sound very appetising, the taste is far better than the smell, and it is said that the smellier the dish is, the tastier it is.

Image credit: Tzahy Lerner

Bird’s Nest Soup

Bird’s Nest soup is a soup made using the nest of the swiftlet bird, which builds nests using their own solidified saliva. As it is made from saliva, rather than twigs like most nests, this makes the swiftlet bird’s nest edible. Although somewhat bland in flavour, they are highly nutritional and when dissolved in water, turns into a gelatinous liquid that is perfect for making soups. Due to the consistency, these nests can also be used to make desserts such as jelly or egg tarts.

These birds nests are also fairly rare and fetch pretty high price tags when sold, with some nests going for around $3,000 per pound! They are also particularly difficult to harvest. Swiflets form their nests in caves, so those on the hunt for a nest will have to enter the dark caves and balance on bamboo pole platforms high in the air to retrieve them.

Thousand-Year-Old Eggs

More like 100 days than 1,000 years, but regardless, that’s still pretty old for an egg! The ‘thousand-year-old’ eggs are a type of preserved duck egg that is considered a delicacy in China. The eggs are coated in salt, clay and ash and left for a hundred days. When opened, the yolk of the egg will have turned grey or almost black, and the white will be more of an orange-brown colour with a jelly-like texture. When ready, the egg is simply washed off, peeled and sliced. It can be eaten on its own, as a side dish, or with rice. The thousand-year-old egg will have a distinctive salty taste to it.

Would you like to try out any of these dishes? Let us know by getting in touch via our social channels. If you’d rather stick to less unusual ingredients, then check out the range of snacks, sweets and noodles we have available at our Chinese supermarket online!

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