COWEN: Let me now see if you can talk me out
of one of my biases. When I eat food in China there’s nothing I’ve ever been served
that I found disgusting, ever, which is saying something. At the same time, it’s rare that
I will prefer to eat organs, or offal, or the various stranger items you might be served.
If I look around the world, those items seem to be what economists would call an inferior
good. That is, in virtually all societies, when incomes go up, at some point people stop
eating those things. My background is Irish. In Ireland, in the
early 20th century, it was very common to eat a lot of organs and offal. Today, it’s
hardly to be found. It’s revived somewhat, but as part of a regular diet, it’s dwindled.
Are offal and organs actually just inferior goods and when people earn higher incomes,
they don’t want it anymore, and they’re worse? Or are they parts of the Chinese culinary
picture as good as anything else and they will persist even with rising income?
DUNLOP: I think it’s complicated. In peasant farming societies, you have the nose-to-tail
eating. You kill the pig and you eat every part of it, for economic reasons as much as
anything. Also, in China, the thing that really sets it apart is this preoccupation with the
delights of gastronomy and the pursuit of the exotic. “Fire-exploded kidney flowers” prepared
using Fuchsia’s recipe. Credit: Kake In particular, the appreciation of texture.
A lot of offal foods have very interesting textures. Like these fire-exploded kidney
flowers. They have that kind of slightly brisk crispness with the tenderness of a kidney
that has been cut in this beautiful, ornate, crisscross pattern and then stir-fried very
fast. It’s a textural pleasure. There are other things. In Sichuan, people
love eating goose intestines, which any Westerner would throw away. If you’re a Western person
it’s pointless. They’re tasteless. Why would you eat a goose intestine? From a Chinese
textural point of view, they’re slippery, crisp, snappy. They have a delightful kou
gan or mouthfeel. The other thing is that some bits of what
Westerners would consider to be old, awful, and rubbish, it’s a very different concept
in China. For example, a duck’s tongue. From a Western point of view, there’s no
meat on it. It’s a small, fiddly thing that’s all bone and cartilage. “What’s the point?”
As my father would say, it has a high grapple factor for very little reward.
[laughter] DUNLOP: In China, one of the ways of looking
at this is that you’ve got a whole duck. The meat is very commonplace. Each duck has
one tongue. It has very particular textures. If you’ve got the duck tongue, you’ve
got the prize. You’ve got the best bit. The small, precious morsel.
In the past, before refrigeration, if you could afford to have a whole plateful of duck
tongues, the number of ducks it represented, or a plateful of boned goose feet, a goose
was a huge luxury. If you have 12 goose feet from 6 geese on your plate, you have got the
command — [laughter]
DUNLOP: Of all these ingredients. The appreciation of these delicacies exists — not only
the poor farmers but at the highest tables as well.