Displayed among the various roots, powders, and potions at a Chinese herbalist shop, the thin, dark brown curiosities are about five inches long and the texture of cheap leather. ”Deer penises!” Jerry Hopkins says triumphantly. ”Chinese Viagra. You scrape it into shavings and steep it like tea.”
Hopkins, 64, the snowy-haired, bespectacled author of Strange Foods (Periplus, $29.95), a photo-filled guide to offbeat culinary offerings around the globe, is giving a personal tour through the streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown, pointing out some of the more unusual delicacies: gelatinous bricks of pork blood, plastic-encased sea cucumbers (a.k.a. slugs), and shriveled duck feet. But it’s a can of Spam that stops him in his tracks.
”Now, this,” he says, holding up the tin cube, ”is strange food.”
A pretty bold statement from a man who’s sampled everything from live, wriggling shrimp sushi to dog meat (”tastes like beef”)—despite growing up in a New Jersey household that considered onions exotic. Since then, he’s traveled the world in search of new tastes, insisting that there’s nothing he wouldn’t try twice. But then again, Hopkins says that strangeness is simply a matter of perception.
”One of the reasons we like the food we do is that it doesn’t look the way it did when it was still walking around the barnyard or crawling across the ocean floor,” he explains, settling into his seat at a crowded dim sum eatery. He orders barbecued eel, fermented eggs, and braised pork noodle soup, then furtively pulls a bottle of amber-colored liquid — with an intact reptile coiled inside — out of his bag.
”Would you like a little snake wine?” he asks, oblivious to the horrified stares of the lunchtime crowd. Who are we to demur? The fiery-tasting cocktail looks like tequila, only with a rather bigger worm. We shudder to think what the hangover is like.