There is something about the idea of deep-fried scorpion as a culinary treat that's hard for an American to warm up to. Perhaps it's the stinger or the spindly legs jutting from the oval-shaped torso. Maybe it's the memory of warnings to avoid contact with these creatures. But at the Donghuamen Night Market, a Beijing landmark, scorpions, sea horses, sparrows, and snakes are only some of the options for late-night dining.
Brightly colored lamps hang outside the stalls, their yellow glow tempered by ubiquitous red shades indicating that food is being served. Steam rises from caldrons of broth as vendors shout out their offerings in an effort to entice some of the throngs of people to plunk down their yuan for a skewer of meat or a bowl of noodles. Like carnival barkers, they single out individuals to lure them closer, hoping to close a sale.
The more exotic fare is displayed alongside skewers of beef, chicken, and lamb, which give the less adventurous diner a means to fill the void created during the long walk down nearby Wangfujing Dajie, Beijing's most famous shopping street.
Visitors are an eclectic mix. Foreigners, Chinese tourists, and residents alike gawk as they pass the dozens of stalls, trying to figure out what they're looking at. Some lean in close to confer, hoping to come to a conclusion, and then asking themselves the ultimate question: Do we eat it or not? Others stride to the counter with confidence, order a kebab, and disappear into the night.
Only yards away, a sidewalk behind the stalls lies in shadows, a calm counterpoint to the bustling path by the stalls. Here, visitors tread lightly on the grease-slicked tiles as they avoid the nearby human traffic jam.
Children of vendors dance and play, their squeals of laughter bringing a smile to the face of a security guard standing watch over a nearby business. Delivery bikes pull up and dispense their goods to feed the waiting masses.
The hours pass, and the crowd thins. As lights are gradually turned off, darkness slowly envelops the street. Leftover food is packed up, stalls are cleaned and readied for the next night, and, somewhere in China, someone is collecting scorpions to be served as a late-night snack at Beijing's Donghuamen Night Market.