Down the Hatch
Thanks to a memorable travel companion, I learned to navigate a novel culinary line.
This story is adapted from my 2014 memoir Into the Field: A Foreign Correspondent’s Notebook.
Let no one say a word against our human family’s culinary choices. But individuals who parrot the idea that exploring global cuisine inevitably opens us to a world of gastro-orgasmic delights probably haven’t encountered the plated sandworm.
Traveling through southern China on a magazine assignment one summer, I found myself squatting on the foredeck of a dilapidated ferry, chomping my way through a pile of sautéed chicken feet, as we rode the chop through the evening’s buttery glow.
Cooked with fresh scallions, the chicken feet weren’t the problem; it was the prospect of sandworms dead ahead that troubled me. When Robert, a journalist friend in Hong Kong, heard I was bound for the coastal city of Behai, he’d paused, “Hmm,” as if to warn me about a kidnapping-for-ransom ring targeting foreigners. But no, he was talking worms.
“Watch out,” he warned. “The locals consider them a great delicacy, which makes them hard to avoid.” A foot long and tremendously fat, he explained, they looked like nightcrawlers on steroids. Boiled, they were dead-ringers for overcooked pasta. Until you tasted them, of course, when they tasted like mud.
Robert had to be pulling my leg, I’d thought. But now, riding that rust-bucket of a ferry, as my fellow passengers gathered round to enjoy the spectacle of a foreigner enjoying his chicken feet, his words took on new meaning. Culinary luck, like any other kind, can change in a flash and for the worse. As the saying goes: Tonight chicken feet, tomorrow the worm.
Later that night my fixer-translator Mr. Li and I had a rare moment of discord, another worrying omen. We’d been getting along like a house afire, trading jokes and ribbing one another as we traveled the coast, eating our weight in some of the best seafood in the world. Each night, we’d pick an eatery with those big aquarium tanks out front, choose a fish according to Li’s exacting standards, and wait as it made the quick, brutal trip from tank to wok to table.
On the night of the chicken feet, the wind kicked up on the foredeck, and so I went aft for some relief. There I discovered Li sitting on a wooden bench with a woman not his wife and eating an overripe mango. “Li!” I said, feigning shock. “What are you doing?!” Li jumped up, the incriminating juice dripping from his fingers, as he stammered an introduction.
The woman, Ms. Mai, was small and tightly coiled, with a knife scar on her left cheek and a way of talking tough. She’d recently switched her business from selling black-market gasoline to supplying snakes to specialty restaurants, she told me. The mangos were a sideline.
“There are two kinds of sea snakes,” she explained, warming to her topic, “the poisonous and the nonpoisonous.” Which ones taste better? I asked.
“The poisonous ones, of course,” Mai said.
I could see she was a nice woman trying to make a living in a hard world and I enjoyed talking with her. But I do regret my shtick about catching Li in flagrante de mango. Put on the spot, Li grew sulky, and I sensed there’d be payback when we hit the land of the sandworms.
We arrived in Beihai at dawn. Feeling fragile after a night spent inhaling powerful fumes emanating from the nearby engine room, I was delighted when Li steered us to a hotel offering comfy rooms with unimpeded views of a sun newly risen over goopy brown mudflats.
Lord knows Beihai had plenty of mud, but the city itself was clean and pleasant, with a long, curving, palmy beachfront. A genial trio of city officials, eager to publicize Behai’s potential as an international tourist mecca, immediately took us captive. A local TV crew chronicled our extended tour of the circumambient mudflats, the city’s renovated wet market, and a station devoted to the cultivation of the mystical blue pearl.
Then, at lunch, trouble reared its proboscis. Our server plunked down a large platter of sandworms on the oilcloth as our hosts ooh-ed and ah-ed. Robert had been right: The resemblance to limp rigatoni was striking, right down to the striations running the length of the tube. Seeing his opening, Li grew excited, talking on and on about the virtues of the sandworm, as if extolling the finest foie gras. He concluded, preposterously, “I myself prefer them to duck intestines.”
Li was such a faker. A fastidious man from Beijing, I knew he liked the idea of eating worms, or duck intestines, for that matter, even less than I did. Without taking a single integument, he passed the plate to me and, swiveling his head to make sure everybody was watching, said, “Try some.”
Toothpicks hung from mouths waggling expectantly as I grabbed a length of worm in my chopsticks and set my jaws to working. Not surprisingly, it tasted of mud but with the tensile strength of a rubber surgical tube.
“Delicious,” I lied, staring daggers at Li, who rocked back in his chair looking very pleased with himself.
He wasn’t finished. On our last night in Behai our hosts treated us to a send-off dinner at a fancy floating restaurant where a platter of batter-fried Zucchini spears floated by. “Have some zucchini,” Li said, with a comradely smile. In some kind of trance, I greedily chop-sticked a huge pile onto my plate before realizing I’d mistaken the ubiquitous sandworm for something edible. Li pursed his lips, as if savoring something indescribably good.
When I emitted some mild gagging sounds, Mr. Liao, one of our nice hosts, spoke up: “A real native,” he said, “eats them raw, with a little mustard.”
Differences make the world go round, as the elders used to say. And that includes culinary ones. But I was really hoping Li and I were even now.