Chop Suey Syndrome

Our restaurant critic travels to China to unravel the riddle: Why can't Dallas do Chinese?

The kitchen at Kirin Court is bright and spacious, almost clinical in its intense fluorescent cast. It smells of sesame, garlic and a moist fleshy musk clouded with ginger. Bins are heaped with bright green spinach. A half-dozen denuded, shriveled ducks dangle from chains in a back corner. Along one wall, a row of gas nozzles spits fierce streams of blue flame. These are the wok burners, and they flare with such ferocity the stainless steel back-splash panels must be constantly doused with water to keep them from buckling under the intense heat.

A plate carpeted in lettuce shreds and parsley snips rests on a prep table. In the center of the plate is an elephant--with detailed skin wrinkles, hoof contours and eyelid creases--carved out of taro, a tropical Asian tuber.

Chen offers an abridged tasting of his upcoming meal: creamy yin and yang soup with the classic symbol perfectly rendered in two soups--deep green puréed spinach and finely minced crab--commingled in the same bowl; slightly rubbery, pliant fish lips culled from big head, or jiangtuan, fish; and coils of chewy turkey intestines with pickled vegetables in black bean sauce.

Kirin Court owner Mike Chen plans to host an exotic prix fixe dinner featuring duck tongues and bear's paw at $1,000 per person.
Tom Jenkins
Kirin Court owner Mike Chen plans to host an exotic prix fixe dinner featuring duck tongues and bear's paw at $1,000 per person.
Arc-En-Ciel owner Mickey Luu, seated. "Americans don't want to see the blood," he says.
Tom Jenkins
Arc-En-Ciel owner Mickey Luu, seated. "Americans don't want to see the blood," he says.

Duck tongues are heaped haphazardly into the center of a plate ringed by an orange chain of meticulously carved carrot links. The tawny, slightly rippled tongues are boiled and then chilled overnight in a sweet soy marinade. They're chewy, tender and slightly sweet, with the meat fraying into strands until your teeth strike a blade bone in the center of the tongue.

A hash of shark fin with bits of dried scallop, scrambled egg and bean sprouts billows a fierce bouquet, like the salted minnows I used for bait as a kid. It tastes better than it smells, its potent seashore musk blunted by the egg. Chen says it's a hedge against cancer.

As we taste, Chen describes other exotic Chinese delicacies I sense he wishes he could serve: duck brains, live baby mice wrapped in buns and the mythical mother of all Asian culinary exotica, live monkey brains.

China is a smorgasbord of exotic foods: from the flanks of dog to the pads of camel's feet. Brian Young, the ethnic Chinese executive chef of Mainland, a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan's Upper East Side, describes eating deep-fried scorpions (bitter) and camel's hump ("like eating a salty sponge") on his trips to southern China. But no dish generates more morbid fascination than the ritual of dining on the brains of a living monkey. The stories circulate with vigor both here and in China. The 1978 cult "documentary" Faces of Death, a compilation of scenes of death and dismemberment, features a staged live monkey brain-eating sequence. On her travels through China, my sister ran into a Chinese man, Scott, who claims to have observed the ritual. Diners are seated at a round table with a hole in its center and a small monkey tucked underneath. The monkey's head is pulled through the hole and secured with a vise-like collar containing an array of set screws. A server arrives at the table, cuts around the top of the monkey's skull and lifts it from the head. Then a chef arrives and seasons the exposed brain with oil, garlic and other spices before diners begin digging out bits of the gray spongy matter, which allegedly tastes like tofu. The delicacy is savored as the monkey screams until the critical neuron bundle controlling vocalization is pulled from the cranium.

Chef Young says his father partook of the delicacy decades ago in Singapore. He says his father described how diners can feel the table vibrate as the animal struggles, kicking and flopping against the table legs.

"They think eating monkey brains makes you more smart," says Catherine Liu of Cathy's Wok & Grill. "Chinese are very funny people."

Pinning down the veracity of this tale is difficult. The people I interviewed, both here and in China, offer nebulous second- and third-hand accounts--the markings of urban legend. In an August 2002 article in The Japan Times, Mark Schreiber writes that after he queried scores of Asian military men, businessmen, chefs and government employees, he found none that had either participated in or witnessed the ritual. He pegs the legend, possibly, to an unsourced 1948 tongue-in-cheek column on the feeding habits of ethnic Chinese ("They eat everything in the water but submarines").

But a November 1982 United Press International story details a Singaporean government crackdown on restaurants serving live animals after the Northern Village, a Hong Kong-style restaurant, allegedly offered tourists a $5,000 (more than $10,000 in current dollars) Manchu emperor banquet that included bear's paw, stewed anteater, sizzling geese legs--prepared by chopping off the legs of live geese as they dance on a hot plate--and live monkey's brains, the pièce de résistance.

"The consumption of 'exotic' meats is nothing new in Asia," insists Corinne Trang, author of Essentials of Asian Cuisine: Fundamentals and Favorite Recipes. "It is generally associated with improving stamina and consumed by men...Personally, I've seen bull's penis, worms, rice paddy crickets, antlers...snake bile, dog, cat, rat and armadillo, to name a very few, eaten. I've tried some of these myself. All are eaten for their believed medicinal values, though many have been banned."

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