09/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Strange Foods -- China Takes Gold

Hosting the Olympics is the ultimate commercial for China, showcasing its ancient history and the country's amazing ascent into modernity. Global cameras zoom in on China's rich culture and the can-do power of its people. Chinese food is one of the world's greatest cuisines and exotic foods do play a part.

There was a segment where Al Roker, Meredith Vieira and pals munched on dried scorpions, silkworms and other assorted bugs-on-a-stick sold by Beijing street vendors.

I recalled my own food (mis)adventures in China where so often I had to ask, "What is that?"

Unlike me, the Chinese understand the healthful benefits of so many foods.

Like snakes. Friends once took us to a local place "for something special." The waiter brought to the table a basket of live snakes and I was invited to pick one with a choice of three preparations. Black bean? Ginger and garlic? I didn't even hear the third option. I was screaming, "No! Take them away! Please! No!"

Good manners prevented me from jumping onto the table, but I still failed in international etiquette. Later, my husband told me I had disappointed our hosts. Apparently, eating snake is a special delicacy and a rare treat.

"Did you see how sad they looked? They wanted to eat it," said David.

I hung my head. Too busy thinking about myself, I guess.

Another time we were treated us to "hot pot." At our table, broth was brought to boiling and diners could choose from a buffet of various raw ingredients. Meat and vegetables are then dipped into the hot soup for quick cooking.

A spicy broth was suggested and soon a small cauldron of red liquid with a gazillion tiny chilies bubbled in front of us. I dipped a spoon into it for a tentative lick. YOW! Incineration! David quickly ordered an alternative broth for me and shot me a look that signaled, 'Stop panting and put your tongue back in your head."

At the buffet, I had never seen so many strange items, like "river eels" that looked like long, red worms, or the bowl full of pig snouts. I stood, stumped, before trays of items that appeared gelatinous, liver-ish or fringe-y.

I, who always prided myself on being "out there" on the food front, now found myself "outed" as a know-nothing. I returned with sesame crackers, a slice of chicken breast and some greens, boiled to perfection in chicken broth and consumed with my look of defeat.

Before our departure from China, the crowning event was a farewell banquet, a ten-course, gourmet affair. Each course had all the elements that make Chinese cuisine legendary - the genius blending of sweet, salty and sour tastes, the artful presentations and the freshest ingredients - crab, duck, pork, beef and scallops!

Too bad I had a cold and could only pick at my food. But I did my best to enthuse and converse through congested sinuses.

At one point, a huge glass bowl of water appeared and a superheated rock was placed inside, causing the water to boil. Then the server dropped live shrimp into the bowl. I was eyeball to eyeball with the little critters through the glass. One minute the white shrimp bobbed happily in their new home, and the next minute they steamed to hot pink, throwing accusing looks in my direction.

Our host caught my eye, smiled and nodded, "Very fresh!"

I felt faint.

Toward the end, a large casserole was brought in and I was asked to do the honors of tasting the next entree.

Trying not to wheeze and sniffle, I said, "I can't wait! What is it?"


My innards went weak, but my smile remained strong, "Ah!"

"But a very special kind of bullfrog," he added.

"Farm-raised?" I asked, hopefully.

"GIANT bullfrog."

"Oh, giant bullfrog!" I repeated with a scream that I hoped passed for enthusiasm.

Twelve pairs of eyes trained on me as they put a generous portion on my plate. American diplomacy rested on my shoulders. No time to shrink from such ambassadorship.

I took a lusty bite. Hmm. Tender, juicy, very mild. Just like chicken!

"DELICIOUS giant bullfrog!" I said.

And everyone clapped.

(But I know I didn't earn a Bronze).

Back in the U.S. I've eaten alligator nuggets, turtle soup and Rocky Mountain Oysters (lamb testicles). On the South Korean Island of Jeju, I ate my way through raw sea cucumber, abalone and sea squirt, fresh from the sea and sliced on the rocks by the divers who caught them. Yum!

I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater, but I've got to hand it to China. They grab the gold on the food front.