What it really is - deep fried silkworm larvae
Location - posh Beijing restaurant.
This week I went to one of the best restaurants in town to try one of the most visually appealing things on the menu.
This "Northern" Chinese restaurant is near a friend's house and seems ridiculously opulent. There are a trained team of about ten girls in traditional dresses whose jub it is to say hello to you as you walk in the entrance and toward the stairs. If you're lucky you can arrive while they are doing their warm-up chants and feel like an emperor in a film. Here it is;
The food here is generally excellent, but there's one menu item that's always interested me more than the others - "tasty crispy silkworm". The picture in the menu looked genuinely appealing, if a little on the large side, portion-wise.
Before I came to China I was unaware that silkworms were edible, let alone served at fancy restaurants like this one, but here they are.
Before I start the review perhaps I'd better remind everyone that silkworms are not actually worms but the pupae of moths. If somebody wanted to make a shirt out of the things they would boil the pupae in water for five minutes and wind out the strands of fibre instead. For some reason somebody thought it would be better to deep fry them instead and serve them up as food.
I don't have any problem with eating pupae, probably because they look a great deal more like a plant than an animal. If I was being presented with the caterpillars or the moths I might think twice about putting them into my mouth, but when they arrived these looked not particularly insect-like, but more like some delicious golden-brown vegetable.
On the side there was a small saucer of sesame seeds and salt, presumably for dipping.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. It wasn't good. Something like burned hair, which, in a sense, it was. The smell was pervasive and lingering. I didn't like it at all.
Still, better dig in. The first chopstick contact with the pupae was surprising in its lack of crispyness. While the outer shell itself was quite hard the object as a whole bent quite easily.
The obvious thing to do was to dip it into the sesame salt. Sesame and salt both taste good, no risk there surely?
It stuck to the outer shell very well. The dish had at least been designed by somebody who understood textures.
This boded well for the first bite. I raised it to my lips and bit away a third of the thing.
It wasn't bad. As expected the taste was mainly sesame salt, but the shell was nicely chewy and the inside part was textured in quite a pleasant way - a little like fibery bean-curd. There actually wasn't that much to see inside, just a few wispy fibres.
The shell required a fair bit of chewing, but did eventually dissolve away. Altogether the first taste wasn't bad, though I could still smell burnt hair.
A second bite took me down to the base of the thing, where there was a harder, larger bit of shell. I'd like to call it a head, but I don't think it really is one.
This bite was much the same as the first one, but slightly better as there was less shell to chew. There really wasn't anything particularly bad about either the taste or the texture, but nothing particularly satisfying either.
Inside looked a bit strange this time, though.
As you can see there was a black bit in the centre. I'm not sure what this is and brief research yields no answers. I suppose this must be the moth that could have been.
There was only the end-piece with the "head shell" left. I popped this into my mouth and began to chew.
But this bit wasn't quite the same. After about thirty seconds it became clear that there were chewy bits that would never become swallowable. As much as I chewed they pieces refused to break-up. Whether this was the "head shell" or the black bit inside wasn't really clear.
Finally I managed to swallow it. Overall I managed to eat four of the things before the smell started to overpower me. It seemed a bit of a waste, but eventually we had to have the dish taken away from the table as it became impossible to eat anything else. Then for the remainder of the day I could still somehow smell it, and it just kept getting less and less pleasant.
These are some of the reasons I won't be eating silkworms again.