Chinese Takeout is a bite-sized, biweekly RADII feature that examines Chinese food from the inside out, by disentangling the (hi)stories behind a single dish or restaurant. Write to us if you have a suggestion or submission.
While to many Westerners, the idea of eating insects — in particular venomous ones — is repulsive, folks in South China have a glorious history of dining on the kinds of creepy-crawly creatures you might associate with an Indiana Jones film.
In Guangzhou wet markets (and the occasional hole-in-the-wall eatery), it’s not uncommon to come across water cockroaches, vibrant red centipedes, jumbo cicadas, stink bugs — and of course, the infamous scorpion.
In southern China, scorpions, like most of the aforementioned insects, are believed to boast medicinal properties. Unlike the skewered and fried varieties found in Beijing and other northern cities, down south they’re usually consumed in a traditional soup.
So, what does scorpion soup taste like, and what are these alleged health benefits? We visited Dade Dun Pin (大德炖品) in Guangzhou’s Yuexiu district to learn more about this — shall we say — interesting foodstuff.
The neighborhood surrounding Guangzhou’s Haizhu Square in Yuexiu district is well known for its diverse consumer outlets, which offer everything from Christmas decorations and Halloween costumes to metal security doors and even national flags.
In addition to being a certifiable mecca for random commercial and consumer goods, the aforementioned neighborhood is a hotspot for foodies, with storied restaurants here dishing out everything from Cantonese sausages and the famed black chicken coconut soup (椰子乌鸡汤 yezi wujitang) to dumplings, milk and lemon teas and even snake-based dishes.
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One of the more notable eateries to call the area home — and perhaps one of the least known among visitors in the city — is Dade Dun Pin.
It’s a tiny and inconspicuous restaurant that hosts a mere five small tables on the ground floor. When we visit on a hot, sticky summer afternoon, the restaurant is almost entirely empty — save for five middle-aged female employees playing cards and chatting in rapid-fire Cantonese. While we dodged the lunch rush, we ascribe the lack of patrons to the area’s ongoing construction work, which has rendered many of the neighborhood’s streets, bridges and public spaces completely impassable.
Set in a qilou-style strip of buildings (a southern Chinese form of architecture, also referred to as tonglau) on Haizhu Zhong Lu — in an area where many structures have been recognized by the local government for their historical significance — this small restaurant has a following. This is easily attributed, according to the cashier (who doubles as a cook and busser), to the famed scorpion-snake soup (蝎子汤 xiezi tang) served on the premises.
“The restaurant has been here since 1984, and served scorpion-snake soup since then,” a staff member barks at us when asked about the longevity of Dade Dun Pin, barely looking up from her cards.
While the nuances of the restaurant’s history are somewhat shrouded in mystery, thanks in large part to our less-than-talkative serving staff, one thing is certain: soups — including snake-based soups — enjoy a long and proud history in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and the surrounding areas of the Pearl River Delta.
Most sources agree that snake soups originated in Guangdong as far back as 1,000 years ago — perhaps even longer, depending who you talk to. Today the soup still has considerable popularity among Guangzhou’s Cantonese population, and is prized for its alleged health benefits, such as curing arthritis, improving blood circulation and maintaining healthy skin.
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Down the river in Hong Kong, snake soups grew to be immensely popular in the 1960s and ’70s, although in recent times snake restaurants have found less success. Last year, Hong Kong’s oldest snake soup shop, She Wong Lam or Snake King Lam, closed after more than 110 years in business, according to SCMP.
Luckily for adventurous diners, snake soups — in particular the variety adorned with arachnids — are still very much available in Old Canton.
“The soup is stewed for three hours,” the cashier tells us, as we place an order for Dade Dun Pin’s best-selling dish (25 RMB). “We make it ourselves. It’s good for helping your body on a hot day, and the scorpion in the soup is good for detoxifying the body.”
When the soup arrives at our table in a scorching-hot white bowl, it looks less than appealing. Pieces of what we presume are thin flakes of snake flesh, muscle or skin are suspended in the broth-like deep space nebulas among pork and carrot. And through the clouds, a jet-black scorpion tail and stinger just barely breach the surface of the soup.
Our first spoonful of the semi-transparent broth confirms what we’d heard from passionate local soup lovers: it tastes just like chicken soup. It’s delicious, and the tender morsels of pork are flavorful with a melt-in-your-mouth consistency.
The ample pieces of snake are — cliché as it may sound — chicken-like, albeit boney, with flaky, tender white meat that leaves us wondering if snakes are actually the ancient love child of a cod fish and some long-forgotten prehistoric bird.
When asked what type of snake is used in the dish, one of the card-loving staffers gruffly responds, “water snake.” Specifically which type of water snake (there are many), we are left unsure.
The jewel in the soup’s metaphorical crown is unquestionably the black, hairy scorpion, which is also the most unappealing part of the dish.
“The scorpion is not for eating,” we’re told by a staffer, who later confides that many people do eat the venomous critter. “The medicinal qualities are already in the soup.”
Defying the warning — and perhaps common sense — we take a bite of the scorpion. Its hard exoskeleton cracks apart and unleashes oozy innards in an unpleasant blast of questionable flavors.
While some diners might feel otherwise, we decide it’s probably best to stick with the soup, pork and snake meat.
It should be noted that Dade Dun Pin does serve other dishes, including Guangzhou’s famed black chicken soup and Cantonese sausage with rice. But let’s be real: if you’re stepping into a shop that draws crowds for its renowned and eclectic snake soup, you might as well do as the locals do and order the damned snake.
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