So why is it that Westerners were so hesitant to try Chinese food for so long? It’s the same reason that some Westerners remain suspicious of Chinese food to this day: because of what they fear might be in it. Since the very earliest days of the Chinese-European relationship, it was well known that some animals that Europeans considered off-limits as foodstuffs were common sources of protein in parts of China.
These of course included dog (still eaten in many parts of China), cat (not as common as a food, especially in northern China) and rat (both the common rat and the big-as-a-rabbit bamboo rat). The consumption of these animals is of course considered a food taboo in the West, at least under normal circumstances. Parisians ate quite a lot of rats during the French Revolution it must be remembered, and dogs were always on the menu for European explorers and American pioneers, at least as a food of last resort.
Rumors about taboo meats in Chinese food were as common in Colonial Era Hong Kong as they were in Gold Rush San Francisco and turn-of-the-century Manhattan. They were the main barrier to entry for most non-Chinese diners in America, even some of the more adventurous ones. But the thing about those rumors is that they were just rumors. Even from the very beginning, Chinese restauranteurs in the New World were aware of the cultural prohibitions on eating household animals and vermin. Their restaurants, being business ventures created primarily for non-Chinese, didn’t serve them.
But of course that didn’t stop the rumors from flying. So in addition to being exotic, Chinese food was also considered potentially dangerous, at least until the very close of the 19th century. That was when a little something by the name of “chop suey” came along.
UPDATE: Reader Lee Comments:
Hey, eating-rat-wise, didn’t the French experience occur during the Paris Commune, rather than the Revolution? The French are always talking about it; also about how, before the siege was over, all the animals in the zoo — elephants, tigers, etc — had sacrificed themselves for the cause.
Great point, that’s probably right (or at least more right). I remember stories like that about the Prussian siege, supposedly the Parisians ate pretty much everything that wasn’t on two legs..horses, house cats, the works. I never thought much about rats, though…why not? I forgot to mention that the eating of bilge rats was pretty common among Europeans in the Age of Exploration, when ship supplies dwindled to nothing. Neato. Now how ’bout I post some recipes?