Guangzhou Grub: Eating the Critically Endangered Chinese Giant Salamander

GIANT SALAMANDER DINNER MEAL

  • Chinese Giant Salamander soup with Dendrobium nobile orchids, lean chicken and a swiftlet (???)
  • Red lines Chinese Giant Salamander stew with ginger, garlic, mushrooms and daikon
  • Dendrobium nobile “Emerald” jelly
  • Steamed white rice and greens
  • Dendrobium nobile tea
GiantSalamander.jpg

Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus) dinner meal

salamanderHere at The Bon Vivant in Yellow I’ve documented some pretty crazy and baffling food creations AND I’ve had some very extreme and “That’s just plain weird, man” “delicacies” in my lifetime, but what I stumbled upon in Haizhu district’s Jiangnanxi Station (on Line 2) is now easily the winner of all things weird. I’m talking, of course, about the Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus). A lot can be said about this bizarre-looking creature. It is the largest salamander and amphibian in the world, spanning up to 6ft. in length from head to tail, it literally sucks in its prey with the astonishing speed of 50m/s, and it belongs to the ancient, 170 million year old family Cryptobranchidae which makes it a “living fossil“. It and its related kin are the inspirations of the Pokémon Quagsire, as well as perhaps the terrifying Kappa monstrosity from Japanese folklore, AND its cries make it sound like a baby, which is probably why the Chinese call this creature wa (娃娃鱼), “infant fish”. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Chinese Giant Salamander is considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, and its blindness, size, relative lack of natural defenses and the destruction of its habitat have turned this amphibian into a critically endangered species. Poaching of the salamander is very much illegal (though the fine is laughable), and many restaurants now use salamanders bred in captivity. I can’t confirm nor deny where the salamander meat I ate came from, but I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity to give it a try while in China. My philosophy about such things is pretty simple – if it’s edible and poses no danger to my health I’ll eat it at least once. So here I am, writing about eating a critically endangered amphibian…

The entire meal cost ¥98, or just ~$15, which is pretty damn cheap all things considered. The restaurant was a cozy, two story building not too far from the Station in Jiangnanxi and had a scratched up aquarium outside with two medium-sized salamanders lazily swimming back and forth. Two different kind of salamander dishes, white rice, steamed veggies, a jelly dessert and a delicious tea made from orchid petals were served pretty swiftly to me, starting with the soup.

CHINESE GIANT SALAMANDER SOUP20150213_133228-1

  • Chinese giant salamander meat
  • Chicken lean meat
  • Swiftlet meat*
  • Dendrobium nobile orchid stems

The first course, the soup, was served in a medium iron pot and was enough to fill about 3 bowls with a clear, white broth devoid of much salt or any other herbs or spices which would otherwise mask the true flavor of the salamander. The picture you see on the right has a closeup of a large piece of Chinese Giant Salamander, which has a decent amount of very lean white meat connected to thin skin via a somewhat gristley, fatty meat, so each bite was tender, yet chewy, and the skin was basically unnoticeable. Maybe it was because of the other ingredients in the soup, but the salamander tasted like chicken, even more so than, say, snake or frog. Like chicken, but less boring. Speaking of chicken, the large cubes of chicken meat were pretty dry and bland, but the other bird mean was very tender and literally fell off the bones. Now, I am not sure what kind of bird it was. Scanning the menu’s descriptions of the food had yàn wō (燕窝) in it, which translated to “swallow’s nest”, so I’m assuming here that the small bird in the soup was something related to the swallows, or swifts. It had very interesting bones which were sometimes so thin they reminded me snake bones, though otherwise the meat, well, tasted like chicken.
Another interesting addition to the soup were the stems of Dendrobium nobile, which is a fairly common decorative orchid and one of the 50 fundamental herbs in Chinese medicine. Claim is it boosts physical and athletic performance. In the soup it didn’t have much of a taste and was like a green bean in texture. Overall, the soup was so-so. A decent appetizer with some interesting ingredients out of which the salamander was definitely the winner, providing the best flavor and the only real texture in the soup. Normally this would have been an average soup, but compared with the incredibly flavorful Chinese soups that I’ve been having in Guangzhou, the Chinese Giant Salamander soup was slightly underwhelming and without that distinct “comforting” feel of most chicken soups.

 

RED LINES CHINESE GIANT SALAMANDER STEW2015-03-09 22.57.58

  • Chinese giant salamander meat
  • Chicken meat
  • Pork meat
  • Mushrooms
  • Daikon
  • Garlic
  • Ginger

“Red Lines” is the translation I got out of the dish’s name, but I am not sure if it refers to a certain kind of salamander or if it’s a certain style of cooking that I am not familiar with. In fact, I’m not even sure that I’ve listed all the main ingredients of the dish, but what I can say for sure is that the stew was the polar opposite of the soup. The red lines stew was cooked with that heavy, flavorful sauce so typical for Northern China and Americanized Chinese takeout. Thick, savory and with a hint of caramelized onions and garlic, the sauce gave the salamander meat a whole new meaning. It was tastier and well marinated with a hint of black pepper and even more tender BUT less chewy than the soup. The crunchy, fresh strips of daikon provided a contrasting texture as well as flavor, adding to the gristle attached just beneath the salamander’s skin, and this time the salamander tasted more like lightly barbecued lean cuts of pork. The stew went great with the generous serving of rice and was easily the best part of the “combo”.

Dendrobium nobile “Emerald” jelly2015-03-09 22.59.50
The jelly made from Dendrobium nobile petals was a nice surprise. I can still remember what it tasted like, and I think the best way to describe it would be like… a  balanced blend of green tea, vanilla and chamomile with the vanilla flavor lingering in the aftertaste. It’s a light, not too sweet desert that I’d love to eat on a regular basis if not for the “benefits” of the orchid then just for the pleasant taste.

What’s my opinion after eating this critically endangered animal? I don’t get the hype, but I can see how this creature would be a tempting source of food and profit because it’s so easy to catch. It’s better than frog and snake in my opinion, and I’d like to try it fried or grilled and not accompanied by other kinds of meat. The animal does look unappetizing, but the meat is tender, lean and very unique for sure, and I’d have no qualms about trying it again. All in all, yet another thing I can add to the ever-growing list of weird things I’ve eaten, and that makes me happy.

Would you give Chinese Giant Salamander a try?

 

 

 

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