BEIJING Got a hankering for a bite of scorpion? Ever wondered what starfish tastes like?
If anything can be fried, grilled, stir-fried, sliced or candied and then skewered on a stick, it can be found and eaten at the Donghuamen Night Market in downtown Beijing.
The area is known by al-most as many names as the selection of meats, fruits and vegetables offered at the side-by-side food stalls. There's the Donghuamen Night Snack Street, the Donghuamen Delicacy Collection, the Donghuamen Snack Stands, just to name a few.
Situated conveniently between the eastern walls of the Forbidden City and northwestern corner of the famous Wangfujing Street shopping district, the night market attracts as many if not substantially more Chinese and foreign tourists than Beijing locals.
They come to look at the skewers loaded with fresh and candied sliced fruit.
They come to smell the aroma of Chinese vegetables sizzling on huge woks.
And they come to gawk at bizarre meat offerings, well beyond the basic small-cubed cuts of beef, chicken, pork and lamb on a stick and including seemingly any imaginable internal organ or part of digestive or reproductive systems of the four aforementioned animals.
For those with a more discerning palate, creepy-crawly menu items range from grilled snake meat to fried silkworms and scorpion the latter in two sizes.
Sir, would you like to super-size your scorpion?
And it doesn't stop on land, with the sea and air well-represented, too.
A variety of insects such as giant cicadas and grasshoppers can be had cooked on a stick. And besides the expected sea fare of shrimp, squid and octopus, one can dine on deep-fried starfish or cooked sea urchin.
Cedric Prim, a Seattle-based graphics worker with the Olympic broadcasting production crew, halted his co-workers as they recently walked wide-eyed past the food stalls.
A chance to try the deep-fried starfish was too much for him to pass up.
"Very succulent juicy, even," said Prim, in his best mock-food-critic voice while his friends chuckled at him. "It tastes like a mixture of fried chicken that's been fried in some fish grease."
Meanwhile, other visitors nearby chomped or nibbled away on their Donghuamen delicacies, becoming as much the show as the food itself, since onlookers watched their reactions as they feasted.
While the night market's history dates back decades, the collective sight almost looks like the equivalent of a modern, outdoor Beijing diner, what with its shiny metal food carts covered by red-and-white awnings and sharply dressed cooks and servers manning the side-by-side stations.
A well-lit sign at one end of the line of food carts and grilling stands explains both in Chinese and in English the history of the Donghuamen Night Market:
"Originated from 1984, from the east of Donganmen street to the north of Chenguang street, Donghuamen night market collected more than 60 specialty snacks throughout the country based on Beijing snacks," it reads.
"In 2000, to carry forward the Chinese culinary culture and enhance the friendly exchanges with foreign countries, the people's government of Dongcheng District rebuilt the night market for dainty snacks.
"Assembling nearly 100 kinds of famous, special, delicious and new snacks all over China, integrating the traditional delicacies with the modern business facilities, combining the culinary culture and sightseeing, adding flowers to the brocade of Wangfujing Business Street, the night market becomes an enchanting scenery of the Capital night when the evening lights are lit."
Over the years, and especially during the current Olympics, the Donghuamen Night Market has become a must-see for Beijing visitors.Even if not a must-taste.