Pangolins are in the news. It may be that the small ant-eating mammal covered in armour plating was the source of the virus striking fear into the heart of the Chinese state and giving us all a nasty turn elsewhere. I rather hope it does turn out to be the pangolin, for if that is the case I may have inadvertently acquired immunity, and the pangolin some timely protection.
The Chinese are catholic eaters, free from the taboos we have erected around the food we eat. Try serving tripe to your friends, or tongue to the young, and see what happens. The last truly poly-phagous Englishman was the Victorian naturalist Frank Buckland, who ate everything that crossed his path in his role of unofficial vet to London Zoo. He snacked on puppy, giraffe and fried viper. He thought boa constrictor tasted like veal, and recommended roasted field mouse as ‘a splendid bonne bouche for a hungry boy’. Earwigs he reviewed as ‘horribly bitter’, while the prize for the most disgusting thing he ever tasted was split between bluebottle and mole.
But we, his successors, are dreadfully wet about what we’ll eat, or not. In Spain, say, or Ghana, they think nothing of lunching on cat stew, simmered till tender: the Ghanaian recipe, with peppers and peanut oil, sounds particularly delicious. Brunswick stew is a tasty southern classic from America, made with squirrel, okra and a little Worcestershire sauce.
Larousse Gastronomique, the chef’s bible, serves up a regional French delicacy: grilled rat Bordeaux style (Entrecote à la bordelaise). Alcoholic rats inhabiting wine cellars are skinned and eviscerated, brushed with a thick sauce of olive oil and crushed shallots, and grilled over a fire of broken wine barrels.
The French are pretty omnivorous, but the Chinese are a step ahead. Children in China do not think liver is the devil’s food, or turn up their little noses at lungs. The Chinese are the original nose-to-tail diners, the people who will eat everything but the squeal. The experience of famine has been a depressing constant in China’s long history, and it was the need for big-scale flood and famine relief that seemingly underpinned the creation of the early centralised Chinese state. But like the French, the Chinese have turned their voracity into one of the world’s great cuisines. There may be hens’ claws and duck tongues on the menu in Chinatown, but they taste delicious.
As did the soup I was given years ago, in a roadside shack in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian. I was on the track of the old China tea trade for the first book I wrote, The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels Through China and India in Search of Tea, flush with the money I won in a prize awarded by this very magazine. The Wuyi Mountains are the origin of what was called bohea, one of the earliest teas drunk in England, and while I was scouting through the hills I encountered tea gardens and exquisite tea houses, where the tea water was drawn in a bucket from a burbling spring, and the thatch-roofed smoking lofts where Lapsang Souchong acquires its peaty taste.
My host in the mountains, Chen Ping, had migrated there for his health: the air, the climate and the tea, he claimed, allowed the Wuyi people to live for a thousand years. That, he said — punching his stomach to show how fit he was — was why there was no hospital there.
I thought of this encounter last week, when I first saw in the paper a picture of a pangolin, the breed suspected of delivering coronavirus to the human population in the Wuhan meat market. In my book, I wrote that Chen Ping ‘had a very special dish for me, if I liked it. He showed me a white haunch lurking in the back of the fridge. It did not look familiar, but I said I’d like to try’.
Chen Ping promised we’d have it for supper. For the rest of the day, as I peered into the smoking lofts where the tea in shallow baskets was spread out across the bamboo slats, I thought about it. Blue smoke drifted from the thatch outside. The thing had been curiously shaped, pointed at both ends and crisscrossed with a pattern of raised lines. I wondered what it was.
I went back to Chen Ping that evening. I drew an armadillo as best as I could and showed him. He grinned and jabbed it with a big finger. ‘That’s right!’
It came chopped in a soup; it was very, very chewy and tasted like strong beef. Chen Ping suggested that I just drank the soup: he would use the meat to make a stew tomorrow, which would be easier to eat.
Of course it wasn’t the South American armadillo, I see that now. And I’m sorry I ate it, really. Pangolins once roamed free across eastern China, but they have been hunted almost to extinction and are mainly to be found in remote mountainous areas like the Wuyi Mountains, and the markets of Wuhan. Delicious they may be, but perhaps they are taking a terrible revenge.