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Subtlety, thy name is not camel

By Earl Foell / October 6, 1987



WEARING a smile both smug and beatific, the waiter whispered in my ear. ``The next dish we serve distinguished guests is camel's paw,'' he announced proudly, turning his volume up to a stage whisper. He hovered, awaiting my reaction.

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``You mean camel's hoof,'' I blurted out, not meaning to be ungracious - just puzzled. The dish his Chinese cohorts were setting before us contained no Bactrian clodhopper that I could see. The only meatlike ingredient visible among diagonally sliced bok choy and wood ear mushrooms was a translucent, slightly bouncy, colorless substance.

``Ahhh. Hoof!'' the waiter beamed. ``Yes, we are giving your guests camel's paw hoof. It is a greatest delicacy. Very rare for our tongues.''

A dozen of us sat in an exclusive Peking restaurant, overlooking a charming lake. It was rumored to have been a favorite dining spot for Mao's imperious wife, Jiang Qing, in her heyday. (In America it would surely have been renamed to capitalize on that notoriety. Perhaps something like The Gang of IV or The Gourmet Gang.)

Had Mme. Mao been served camel's paw? Was it perhaps a cherished dish of the Gang, the quartet of political villains that were China's equivalent of Nixon's Plumbers? Not likely. Mme. Mao and the Gang were Shanghainese, and coastal tastes were not likely to run to what sounded like a Gobi Desert dish. Several guests, government officials and intellectuals, wore a look of awe. They had overheard what the waiter meant them to overhear.

One announced to me, ``I have heard of this rare delicacy, but it has never been my pleasure to eat it. Even to see it.''

His reverence in the face of camel's paw was infectious. An unreasoning pride swept over me. Through no calculation of my own, I was bringing to these recently acquired Chinese friends what might be the treat of a lifetime.

Afloat on this sea of pride, I clamped ivory chopsticks around a small lump - hump? - of camel, lifted it toward expectant lips, and bit down.

Hard as a rock. Oops! I had bitten a chopstick. The camel must have slipped back to the plate. As the saying goes, there's many a slip 'twixt chopsticks and lip. Especially when the sticks are ivory or plastic, and the food is something like jellyfish tentacles or sea slugs. But we'll get to that in a moment. Success on the second try. Hmmmm... All guests watching expectantly. Better register a reaction. Not much flavor to discuss. Rather neutral and mysterious. But, yes, that's it:

``Very bouncy,'' I said approvingly.

Solemn nods of agreement. Not much further conversation as everyone sat around chewing this substance that rebounded between the teeth like a rubber eraser.

The perfect lifetime food supply. No replacement needed. No calories. Three squares a day from one little bite.

After much chewing and some thought, when we resumed conversation we agreed that the cherished substance was probably a kind of shock absorber embedded in the camel's hoof to make a long caravan trip jostle the beast of burden less harshly. What an evolutionary marvel: humps to cushion thirst; shocks to cushion the chassis.

Westerners who think they know Chinese food from their local Cantonese, Szechuan, Hunan, or Chop Suey outlet are almost always surprised by what turns up in the mother country. Even gurus of Chinese cuisine abroad like Joyce Chen say that the homeland lost some of its old food skills while going through the Cultural Revolution and the scornful destruction of the Four Olds - elements of traditional culture. But China has nonetheless sustained the tradition of imaginative use of whatever edibles are at hand, animal or vegetable.