Food Reviood: Chinese Chow-wa-wa
Anyone who knows me knows that I, in private, consider myself a bit of a "foodie." I've gone to a few conventions, written a few pieces for magazines, travelled the country, and above all, enjoyed myself every single time. This trip was different, though. I had never been specifically invited to go somewhere for a single dish, much less even specifically invited to a single restaurant! A friend of mine, who I've known through the SA Forums for well on 4 or 5 years now, invited me to mainland China to try something half-controversial, half-impractical, half-insane, and entirely delicious. He wanted me to try his restaurant's off-the-menu special: An entire poached Chihuahua.
Before you fire up that email client, let me assure you of a few things:
1) I am aware that in Western culture, the thought of eating such a friendly animal is unheard of. I have chosen to omit the photographs I had taken for this reason. Society's perception of certain animals is not the same all around the world, and I would appreciate it if we could all keep an open mind.
2) Chihuahuas are among the least intelligent breeds of dog and can be thought of as having a rodent-like, or at best, an ostrich-like intelligence level.
3) The animal was treated humanely throughout its life, and dispatched painlessly and quickly. The head chef explained to us the procedure, which involved tying a plastic bag over its head and slapping it gently on the rump, which caused it to blissfully run around the room to the point of exhaustion and collapse. Its tail was wagging until it lost consciousness.
That said, I arrived one Thursday evening at my friend's small alleyway restaurant, where we met in person for the first time (which is always surreal) and, after a few drinks, we ordered the delicacy. It took about 45-60 minutes to reach our table, but when it did, it stole the show. Imagine, an enormous decorative porcelain tray that was probably older than everyone in the room combined. It had its share of dings and chips, and you could tell just by the esteem surrounding it that it was only used for special occasions. Any remaining trepidation melted away instantly, and the sweet meat smell filling the room went from being this uncertain, slightly scary odor to supper. The head chef himself removed the lid, and I was shocked by what I saw.
A perfectly poached Chihuahua, lying on its side, resting in a delicate reddish sauce, with a perfectly browned, crispy, seared skin. My friend explained that it had been poached in red wine using a method that can be best described as a modified coq au vin. I described it as "coq au delicious" which was met with some unusually raucous laughter. I haven't quite grasped the Chinese sense of humor at this point, I suppose.
The skin that had not browned turned a translucent shade of tan, something ilke a game hen or chicken, with surprisingly little meat on the torso. It quickly became clear that we would be eating primarily from the legs, rump, head, and neck areas, and possibly into the torso for some organ meats.
Before I realized that, though, I was being stared at by everyone around me. Hindsight 20-20, I now understand that they were probably waiting for my OK to put it down at the table, waiting for an indication of my satisfaction with how the dish was prepared. I mistook it as everyone waiting on me to begin carving the animal (a little of that country Thanksgiving upbringing showing, I guess) so I grabbed the largest knife at the table and sloppily made a cut into the abdomen of the animal, releasing a bit of built-up gaseous pressure that smelled faintly of slim jims and car exhaust. We all laughed, and pressure of another kind-- a kind of cultural one, was relieved as well.
The family explained that they believed a well-treated animal will taste better than one abused or neglected. This particular animal had been raised for over three years by the chef himself and his family, who massaged it thrice weekly with a mixture of soy sauce and chicken broth, and fed it only rice and grass. Digging in, I found the meat itself was just the slightest tad gamey but very natural. It doesn't taste at all like the processed, corn-fed meats we're accustomed to back home. It tastes... well, real. You could tell that in your mouth was an animal, not a previously-frozen burger patty, and not a chicken breast you got with a coupon at the store. Here we had real food cooked by real people backed by real tradition.
The somewhat stringy meat of the thighs we were eating got caught in our teeth, and one of the waitresses showed us a trick. Its claws, weakened by the slow cooking process, snap off, and can be used as toothpicks in a pinch. I still have a few in my wallet. Reusable, natural toothpicks. Can't get much greener than that!
Moving on, one of the guys motioned toward the open cut on the abdomen from earlier. I explored a bit with the knife and found a gland that appeared to be about the size of a baseball and very veiny. This was the stomach, and, for my enjoyment, they fed the beast a mixture of breadcrumbs and spices about an hour prior to its cleaning. Inside I found what amounted to a pleasant wad (for lack of a better word) of stuffing not terribly unlike something we'd have on the holidays. At the encouragement of the others at the table, I popped the entire thing into my mouth and chewed for about a minute before it separated and was swallowable. There was a starchiness and a light acidity that I found pleasant, but overall it was a bit too gingery for my taste.
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