The worm has turned in Xiamen
It is fair to say the dining culture of Xiamen is mixed. Over the last few centuries, Fujian locals and immigrants have been adventurous with their dishes and sources and have picked materials from the mountains and sea to create delicacies that are now widely known throughout southern China and Southeast Asia.
But there is one thing, out of all of the local delicacies, that you should try when visiting the city, even if you’re too scared to try ─ tusundong, or the “earth bamboo jelly.” Traveling is all about adventures, isn’t it?
If you ask a Xiamen local what is the most popular dish in the city, they will say: “Tusundong.”
Don’t be misled by the seemingly harmless name and don’t take it for granted and presume it has something to do with bamboo.
Technically, the dish should be named sipunculid worm jelly. No kidding, many visitors freak out when they see tangled worms inside the ball-shaped jelly.
The sipunculid worm is full of gelatine. When boiled in the water, the gelatine melts and becomes jelly after cooling down.
The origin of the jelly is related to the ancient wars. When the ancient Chinese navy suffered from food shortage, they had to dig out the worm from the sand and boil it. Accidentally people found that the worm jelly was more delicious than hot worm soup.
The taste of the jelly, however, is quite controversial. Most local people love it wholeheartedly, while for visitors only half feel the same way.
“I suggest you eat it with a lot of sauces when you try it for the first time,” said Nina Ye, a Xiamen local. “The taste of soy sauce and hot sauce would cover some ‘fishy’ smell of the jelly. Many of us really like the smell though.”
Compared with the worm jelly, ginger duck is more likely to be accepted by visitors. Restaurants and snack bars in Xiamen love to cook the duck in pottery jars right next to the entrance so that the fragrance floats down the street.
After cooking slowly, the taste of ginger is fully absorbed in the duck flesh with soy sauce and rock candy. The duck is soft and tastes a little bit hot, but not too spicy.
As a Chinese idiom goes: “Turnips in winter and gingers in summer keep the doctor away.” Ginger duck is regarded as healthy in the summer. From the aspect of traditional Chinese medicine, the dish can help chase away the summer heat and dampness in the body and prevent some cold-related diseases in the fall and winter.
As the duck is increasingly popular among visitors, Xiamen people developed vacuum-packed ginger duck so people could bring it home and reheat it. The taste is good but certainly is not as good as freshly cooked duck.
The shrimp pancake is a rising type of snack in Xiamen, but it has become one of the most-mentioned bites in the city.
Different from a traditional-style shrimp pancake, which is made mostly of flour batter with a whole shrimp, shell and all, in the middle, while the new type of pancake is made of shrimp paste.
The snack has been, arguably, inspired by Thai cuisine. Very thin flour batter covers seasoned shrimp paste before it is deep-fried. With sweet chili sauce, the delicate flavor of shrimp is full on in every bite. The diced water chestnut in the shrimp paste cleanses the palate of deep frying.
“I don’t know when the shrimp cake started to become popular, but now there are always long queues in front of every franchise,” said Ye. “The freshness of the material is the key, I guess.”