Sunday, June 26, 2011

In Defense of Entomophagy

I am a big believer that we in the Western hemisphere--particularly here in the United States--should be eating more insects. This is not, at present, a point of view likely to earn me many friends. Nonetheless, I remain steadfast in this conviction. In much of the world, entomophagy is not a controversial lifestyle. Some estimate that 80% of the countries in the world include insects as part of their cuisines. Frankly, people who don't eat bugs are the minority in the world. Now, there are lots of good reasons to eat bugs. Entomophagy has something for everybody! You like protecting the environment? Raising bugs for human consumption requires significantly less food, water, and land than beef, pork, chicken, or really any other meat. You want to prevent animal cruelty? Unlike, say, chickens, most bugs actually kind of like being crowded together in tight living spaces. Want to eat healthily? Insects are full of protein and vitamins and (generally) low in fat. Hypochondriac? Insects are much less likely to transmit diseases to humans (remember the swine flu? The bird flu? Mad cow disease? When was the last time you hear of locust fever? Cricket flu? Ant pneumonia? That's right, you haven't.). 

So with all these reasons to eat insects, why don't we? I can only think of one reason, and, frankly, I don't think it's a very compelling one: people find it gross. Let's get past that, folks. 

For a more in-depth exploration about why we should eat bugs, watch this TED video. And keep an eye on this blog later this fall for my own adventures in Chinese entomophagy.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Jon Huntsman Likes Street Food!

I have just learned that lovers of street food have a high-profile name on their side: Republican Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman! Huntsman, who until recently was the United States Ambassador to China (appointed by President Obama), described his love of street food (he calls it an "addiction" at one point!) in a video on his campaign site. Really! He devoted an entire two-minute video to his love of street food on this site that is designed to get him elected as the leader of the free world. Amazing! You can see the full video at this link (unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be embeddable).

Huntsman attributes his love of street food to his time spent in developing countries. "Street food is so fresh, and it's so good, and it's so cheap," he notes. He talks most extensively about tacos, but with the amount of time he has spent in China he undoubtedly has some great stories about Chinese street food. If you happen to be the kind of person who uses "love of street food" as your guiding factor in deciding whom to vote for, it looks like you've found your man.

Jon Huntsman: Street Food Connoisseur

Monday, June 20, 2011

Coming Soon to a Vendor Near You...

So I recently told one of my Chinese friends about my plans to write this book. When he wrote back, he shared the first thing that came into his head when he heard the news.  It was too good not to share.  Here are his thoughts, verbatim:
A deep and strong voice come over to my head (with a calm but powerful background music):
"This Autumn"
"He's tough, he's precise, he was prepared for any battle any time where his stomach need to be."
(Then the background music turn to rock and roll)
"From one place to another, nothing can stop him from conquering the last corner of the menu! He is Caesar of the street food, and champion of a swimmingly stomach! Foods, thou shall just sit there and waiting to be digested."
"Because, he is about to start."
Amazing! My project suddenly feels much more epic...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Obligatory Contrition Post

Hello, friends. In the course of every blog's life span, there comes a time when the blog author must apologize for a paucity of posting. Now is that time for me. Admittedly, it feels odd to apologize for something like this. To me, an apology implies that I owe you something and that I have let you down by not posting more regularly. As if there was a noticeable absence in your life because I went a week without posting anything on my blog. A Chinese-street-food-shaped hole that went unfilled for a whole week. Blogs and the bloggers who write them sometimes have a reputation for being self-centered or narcissistic. I can't help but feel that an apology for not sharing my boundless street food related wisdom with you, anonymous reader, is illustrative of why blogs have that reputation.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that blogs ought to be updated regularly (some say it doesn't even count as a blog if it's not updated at least twice a day). On occasions where it has not been udpated regularly, it makes sense to acknowledge the breach of the unspoken agreement with established or potential readers. The best blogs foster dialogues about interesting topics, and dialogues can't happen if the conversation facilitator is a no-show. What I am saying is that I humbly apologize for not posting more regularly, and I thank you for bearing with me.

That being said, I expect the dearth of regular posts will continue for the next few weeks. Between an upcoming move, two upcoming out-of-state weddings, and all of the myriad preparations for this China trip, times are busy here. Unfortunately, this blog has been shuffled off to fourth or fifth place on the list of priorities. Once I am in China I expect to update this much more regularly with reviews and travel updates and whatnot, but for now it's going to have to be more of a once in a while thing.

Anyway, thanks again for bearing with me. To keep yourself entertained during this time of infrequent updates, you might spend some time perusing the "Awesome People Hanging Out Together" blog. It is amazing.

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mitigating the Inevitable

One of the questions I get most frequently when people hear about my project is, "Will your stomach be all right?" This is, of course, just a polite way (if there is such a thing) of saying, "aren't you going to be spending more time communing with the commode than...well, anything else?"

My usual response to this question is: yes, my stomach should handle itself swimmingly.  I've eaten my share of dodgy food items and have almost always come out victorious.  That being said, it's nearly inevitable that if you eat enough street food you're bound to have some intestinal distress, even if you
—like me—have a relatively iron-clad stomach.

Simpsons lesson #381: Even the mightiest of stomachs has its limits.

Fortunately, there are some ways to mitigate your risk a bit.  The best tip I can offer is to follow the crowd.  This may go against some treasured wisdom about not jumping off bridges just because everyone else is doing it, but this is a situation in which the crowd is probably jumping off of the bridge because there's a violent stomach virus waiting on the other side, so you're better off taking the plunge.  That metaphor disintegrated about six words in, but you probably get the point: the locals know which vendors have a track record of making people ill.  If you follow their lead, you are likely to avoid the worst culprits.

Some other basic tips:

  • Make sure the food you are eating is freshly prepared.  If it looks like it has been sitting in the open air for a couple hours and is not currently the temperature it was designed for, it's probably best to wait for a fresh batch.  Besides, it tastes better when it's fresh.
  • Be careful about raw fruits and vegetables. I wouldn't say you should avoid them entirely (though some would), but at the very least give a quick look around to be sure they are being washed thoroughly with purified water.  
  • Some people recommend taking charcoal pills or Pepto Bismol tablets before you eat. It's easier for your stomach to be pre-armed against microscopic nasties than to try to react after they have already infiltrated your system.
  • A bit of grime (aka "charm") isn't necessarily a problem, but use your common sense.  If there is visible dirt or mold (or rodents) hanging around the food or cooking utensils, you might be better off moving to the next stall.
My main advice is not to be nervous and dive right in. Take some basic precautions, but accept the fact that you're bound to get sick if you eat enough of this stuff. It comes with the territory. If you do find yourself in the throes of dyspepsia, your best bet is to get some stomach pills and a bunch of bottled water and hunker down in a hotel room until you are feeling up to snuff. One thing to keep in mind in these situations is that this may be the time to spring for a hotel room with a Western-style toilet. Chances are that these are not going to be the days that you want to wrangle with a squat toilet.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thoughts on Cultural Evolution: Part 2

I was pleased to find on Salon today a timely exclamation point to my recent post about cultural evolution. Their articlea slideshow of places "where civilizations collide"has some great examples of modern-day cultures that have evolved from the cross-pollination of disparate cultures many years ago. As the article notes: 
These cultural crossroads are the laboratories of civilization. Distinct elements of humanity come into contact, paths cross, mixing and recombining, adapting and innovating, creating something greater than the sum of the parts.
As with productive ecosystems, these are often places of transit, frontiers, or islands amid a vast nothingness. Commerce, conquest, climate and imperialism usually drive the intermingling of different peoples, generating both friction and beautiful moments of coexistence and tolerance. More than abstract social experiments, these cultural crossroads also happen to make some of the most interesting, historically complex places to visit. 
I agree...these cultures are all the richer for their variegated heritages (is that a word? Heritages?), and we citizens of the world are lucky to have them.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Guilin Street Food Festival

The folks over at recently attended a street food festival in Guilin, China, and wrote up a nice review with lots of delectable looking pictures. I'm particularly intrigued by this one:


What in the world is that stuff? It looks like a sea cucumber and a medieval mace had a litter of pups. Delicious.

I've been to Guilin (you should go too--it's beautiful), but I wasn't fortunate enough to see any street food festivals while I was there. Actually, come to think of it, I had very little street food there. A real tragedy, that. I did have this yummy seafood on a stick, but not much else:

Whole crabs on the left, whole fish on the right. 
You are expected to eat the whole thing, shells and bones and all.

I'll be passing through Guilin again later this year, so check back in October or November to see if I was fortunate enough to find some of those foods that the people did. Especially that weird spiky looking thing I shared above...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thoughts on Cultural Evolution

This past weekend I attended a family event in Ohio (happy birthday, Grandma Joy!). The dinner conversation with my five tablemates was lively, thought provoking, and wide-ranging. At one point, the conversation drifted to cultural evolution, and it got me thinking. At their best, cultures are vibrant, pulsating entities that change organically over time, incorporating new elements as readily as they maintain a connection with the past. The Norbertine priests at my college had a motto for their order that I think describes the way cultures should work: “ever ancient, ever new.”