I'm in Guangzhou, China, with two colleagues from the Media24 stable. We're working with a Chinese publishing company on the launch of a new magazine. So far, so glamorous.
But here's the thing: our host company has been very, very kind; taking us out for dinner a lot. Guangzhou is after-all the culinary capital of this part of China, and we're getting a load of it.
Bowls of unidentifiable stuff
But what do you do when you're in the private dining room of an upmarket restaurant, 10 of you round a lazy Susan, and it's spinning bowls of unidentifiable stuff towards you?
What distinguishes Chinese cuisine from our own, is a sterling waste-not-want-not culture. For example you're making soup. Why not pop the whole chicken into the pot for a Chardonnay-yellow, intensely flavoured soup? Then smash the poached chicken so it fits into a serving bowl. The gizzards would cloud the clarity of the soup, so cook them separately, and serve in a rich-looking gravy. And do not throw away the feet and throat, heart and liver.
Maybe that's why Westerners get jumpy: you could get the bits you're not used to; the bits you're conditioned to think of as dirty.
As I said, your hosts have just spent a 10-hour day patiently explaining and interpreting their culture for you – they're exhausted. The last thing you want is to exhibit bad faith. You can't point your chopsticks at various bowls and – intact Western prejudice and ignorance implied – say: "What the...?"
Very old eggs
I've been to China before, so I know, for example, about the delicacy which some translate as "1,000-year-old-eggs". They're duck eggs that have been coated in a "clay" of earth and ash, lime and salt, wood ash and tea, and herbs. Of course they're not 1,000 years old. They're probably closer to oh, a mere 100 days old. They look like semi-precious stones. The white has turned into a kind of deep green glass, and the yolk is black-green.
My colleague, Ruben, without knowing any of this, mastered one of the slippery quarters with his chopsticks, and – yum, yum – gobbled it up. He handled it manfully.
A bowl, I liked the look of, lazily Susanned past. "Calamari, I love calamari," I cried with relief. My neighbour popped some into my bowl. "It's intestine of fish," he said as it reached my lips. Yum yum. I gobbled it up. Fish guts don't taste bad, but it's an acquired taste.
PS: What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten?
Heather Parker is the editor of Health24 and Bride magazine. She is one of SA's most respected journalists, and a serious foodie to boot.