Delicacy decoder: get the skinny on China's most prized foodstuffs

Don't be scared of the more esoteric side of Chinese cuisine – read this!

China may be the land of culinary delights, but not all comestibles are created equal. We sat down with Li Qiang, chef de cuisine at Chinese fine dining palace Cai Yi Xuan, to get the skinny on five of China’s most prized culinary delicacies.

Bird’s nest 燕窝

Aka bird saliva

What are we eating? The nests of cave-nesting swiftlets have long been prized in China for their unique texture and purported medicinal properties. These tiny birds roost on the high walls of Southeast Asian caves, stringing beads of saliva together to form a little bird-sized cup. The colour and texture of the nest ranges from translucent white to dark reddish-brown, and thin and brittle to firm and thick. Dried and then prepared in simply flavoured soups, bird’s nest can be served in simple preparations to preserve its texture.

But why? Bird’s nest is all about texture, with the notably soft-crunch of the nest resisting the tongue only slightly, before breaking apart into shards of soft, springy gelatin. Silky and with an understated minerality brought out through the double-boiling process, bird’s nest remains one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans.

Eat it The rarity only heightens the occasion of eating bird’s nest soup, which is ironic considering the simple egg drop soup favoured by Chef Li (680RMB; all prices subject to surcharges), which is like a pizza topped with caviar.

Also get it Lei Garden.

Abalone 鲍鱼

Aka filet mignon in a shell

What are we eating? An ocean-dwelling mollusc and close cousin of the sea snail, abalone look sort of like the love child of a giant clam and an oyster that has lost its bottom half. With a thick, meaty flesh and slightly sweet taste, abalone is the closest thing you could hope to find to a filet mignon in a shell.

But why? Abalone is a crowd-pleasing seafood with a fresh ocean flavour and light sweetness. Prepared well, its flesh is toothsome but yielding. If there’s one place to start exploring Chinese delicacies, it’s abalone.

Eat it Chef Li’s signature red braised pork with black truffles (398RMB) features abalone as an extra treat, but the classic abalone steak in superior sauce never disappoints.

Cordyceps 冬虫夏草

Aka insect fungus

What are we eating? An insidious fungus, cordyceps grow inside insects, eventually replacing their host’s tissues before erupting from their head to emit a torrent of infectious spores. The mummified body of the host and its unicorn horn of death are harvested in mid-summer from high altitude meadows where the insects had laid down for the winter, hence the Chinese name translating to ‘winter worm, summer grass’. The dried caterpillar and fruiting body of the mushroom are eaten together whole, most often served just-softened in a clear broth soup to highlight the subtle flavour of the mushroom and preserve its medicinal properties.

But why? Mildly terrifying to some, a natural source of stamina and sexy times to others, the fungus-insect combo has been widely prescribed since at least the 15th century throughout Himalayan Asia as a remedy for fatigue and flaccidity. The flavour is that of a mild mushroom with a uniquely grassy finish.

Eat it Chef Li serves up one of his signature soups of double-boiled dried scallop with cordyceps and chicken, an aromatic tonic fit for a king (880RMB).

Also get it Summer Palace.

Fish maw 鱼肚

Aka a fish's flotation device

What are we eating? Fish maw is an organ found in boney fish that helps to regulate the fish’s buoyancy in water, filling and emptying itself of dissolved gasses to raise and lower the fish’s depth in the sea. Fish maws come in various sizes and varieties, but the most highly valued are large whole pieces from freshwater fish and the long slender maws of eels. The maw is either dried, or deep-fried then dried, but almost always fried before cooking to puff the tissue and bring out the spongy texture of the flesh. Maw is soaked in water or simmered before being braised or added to soup to soften its toughened texture.

But why? Fish maw is almost pure collagen, the springy biological rubber stuff that keeps everything nice and perky. Three guesses as to why this might be popular with the ladies. Fish maw is purported to help with circulation, hair retention, eye whiteness, wrinkles, all the age-defying guff. Fountain of youth or no, fish maw has a marvellously silky mouth-coating texture and light flavour that sings of fresh fish and river rocks in spite of its leather-hard beginnings.

Eat it Chef Li recommends pairing shredded fish maw with aromatic hairy crab roe to add extra colour and flavour (380RMB).

Also get it Huang Ting at The Peninsula.

Sea cucumber 海参

Aka a slippery, knobbly love truncheon

What are we eating? Found in nearly all the world’s oceans, sea cucumber is eaten in various forms, but in China, when we are talking about the good stuff, it’s the whole, dried then reconstituted version. Although they may appear comically simple, the animal is actually rather complex, with different cuisines making use of different parts. Chef Li serves up the whole outer fleshy body of the sea cucumber that retains the most ocean flavour, slippery texture and visual appeal.

But why? Manly health in question you say? Look no further than this edible phallic. Eaten daily one never need worry again about, er, performance. Apart from its use as an aphrodisiac, sea cucumber’s texture and unique flavour are what keep us strong, virile men interested. Its alien appearance and spiney sheen are unmistakable; there is nothing else quite like it.

Eat it Chef Li recommends that fresh sea cucumbers, which have a lighter flavour than the dried and reconstituted version, be braised in superior sauce and paired with a rich starch-like caramelised barley and cut with sharp roasted leeks (398RMB).

Also get it Country Kitchen.

Read more

  • 4 out of 5 stars