Traveller's Story: My Exotic Food Adventures

During several trips to Asia, Odynovo (formerly Odyssey Tours) regular customer Elliott Brender discovered a plethora of new and exciting dishes and snacks. Here he shares his exotic food adventures in China,  Vietnam and Cambodia.

Who am I? My name is Elliott Brender. I am a retired general and colorectal surgeon. I am a Clinical Professor of Surgery at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) School of Medicine.

In 2008 I began doing volunteer surgical missions to Cambodia and returning from my trips through either Hong Kong or Shanghai. This is where I got involved with China Odyssey Tours.

I have traveled 3 times now with China Odyssey Tours. The first time was after a volunteer mission. Instead of returning through Hong Kong I decided to go through Shanghai and make a side trip to Guilin.

I have been asked how I select my restaurants. With the help of the television food programs, such as Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" and Andrew Zimmern's "Bizarre Foods". I check the Michelin Star Ratings, and I use the internet.

Ever since I was a teenager I became interested in foods, foods of all kinds. I grew up in a Jewish-Italian neighborhood in Queens, NY. There were many Italian restaurants in the neighborhood. I tried calamari (squid) and scungilli (octopus). I used chili flakes to enhance the flavor of the dish. We ate Chinese food every Sunday night. Shrimp and lobster sauce was a family regular. I experienced and liked hot Chinese mustard.

In high school, we studied Spanish so our class took a trip into the City (that is what we call Manhattan) and I had my first experience with Mexican food. Carne asada enhanced with tabasco, refried beans, rice, and tortillas. At the 1964 World's Fair, I went to the African pavilion and had cold peanut soup and lobster cooked with honeydew melon. Fantastic.

I went to college in the Bronx but got into Manhattan frequently. I discovered Indian food and shrimp vindaloo. I was drafted and sent to Vietnam. Vietnamese, Thai, and Southeast Asian cuisines were quickly added to my experience. I loved the food and I loved the spice. Thai food especially but Vietnamese can be quite hot as well. I went to Hong Kong in 1972 and I discovered real Chinese food. I learned there are 8 different varieties of Chinese food. I loved Sichuan because of the spice but Yunnan was quite spicy as well.

1997 was my first trip to China. The Great Dam was starting to be built and it was a see or lose forever the Great Gorges. We flew to Beijing, then Xian, then Chongqing where we boarded a riverboat down the gorges to Wuhan. Prior to boarding our boat, we ate at a Holiday Inn and I had the honor of being invited to a hot pot with the crew and the Chinese guides. Everyone else ran off to the French restaurant. I poked my nose in on the crew who were eating in a separate dining room. I asked "what are you guys eating?" hoping for an invitation which was politely offered. That turned into a fantastic evening. There was a big yin yang symbol and half the pot had boiling clear water; the other half had boiling red water, obviously spicy. I spoke no Chinese, the crew spoke no English, but the Chinese guides did. We spent the evening talking back and forth through interpreters and trying different meats and vegetables in the two sauces. The spiciest was soaking vegetables in the red water. They apparently absorbed the spicy fluids. The weirdest food I ate, the lining of blood vessels which cooked up like a chip. They were amazed by my spice tolerance and that I didn't react. We had a great time.

First stop - Shanghai, and soup dumplings, one of their local specialties. Din Tai Fung. Now with branches worldwide, they make excellent soup dumplings. I love Chinese dumplings. 

Shanghai - Din Tai Fang

Spicy Pork Noodles and Soup Dumplings in Din Tai Fang
Left: Spicy Pork Noodles    Right: Soup Dumplings

Giant Soup Dumpling and Fried Dumpling in Shanghai-Din Tai Fung
Left: Giant Soup Dumpling    Right: Fried Dumpling

For dinner, I selected Lost Heaven on the Bund as they had Yunnan food which I hadn't tried and I knew was spicy.
I selected Lost Heaven on the Bund through a Best of Shanghai search. It came up multiple times on multiple sites.
Shanghai - Lost Heaven on the Bund (Yunnan Food)

 Entrance and Reception in Lost Heaven on the Bund, Shanghai
Left: Entrance    Right: Reception

ThaiZeed and Tea Leaf Slad
Left: Thai Zeed    Right: Tea Leaf Salad

Spicy Pork and Vegetables and Dessert in Lost heaven on the Bound, Shanghai
Left: Spicy Pork and Vegetables    Right: Dessert

Jade on 36 was supposed to be a molecular restaurant when I booked my dinner but when I arrived I found they had a new chef and were no longer doing molecular cooking. I looked at their menu and decided to stay anyway. Although it was not what I anticipated, it was excellent in every way and I was duly impressed. Serendipity!
Shanghai - Jade on 36 (in the Shangri-La Hotel, Pudong) 

Jade on 36 Restaurant
Left: Jade on 36    Right: Interior

Brandy Alexander and Molecular Appetizers in Jade on 36 Restaurant
Left: Brandy Alexander     Right: Molecular Appetizers

Soft Egg and Foie Gras in Jade on 36 Restaurant
Left: Soft Egg Cooked at 65 Degree with some Lemon Jelly and Homemade Sauce Lobster
Right: Foie Gras

The next year we took a family trip to China, a first for my wife. This go-round we went to exotic restaurants for unusual cuisine.
Peking Duck, if you haven't had it you must try it. If you've tried it, you'll want it while in Beijing. This one was Odynovo guide recommended.
Beijing - Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant 

Beijing-Da dong Roast Duck Restaurant
Left: Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant    Right: the Chef Carvesa Peking Duck

Chinese Bitter Melon and Duck Feet in Beijing-Da dong Roast Duck Restaurant
Left: Chinese Bitter Melon    Right: Duck Feet

Pickle and Condiment’s for the Duck in Beijing-Da dong Roast Duck Restaurant
Left: Pickle    Right: Condiment's for the Duck    

Goose Liver,Truffle Jelly, Avocado and Spicy Beef in Beijing- Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant
Left: Goose Liver, Truffle Jelly, Avocado    Right: Spicy Beef

Fried Chicken in Beijing- Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant
Fried Chicken

Fangshan is one of those places you may either be taken to on a tour and eat from a "regular" Chinese menu or reserve in advance a Chinese banquet made of unusual Chinese foods. Unusual foods. That is for me. Odynovo made these reservations for me.
Beijing - Fangshan

Greetings and Appetizing Cold Dish in Beijing-Fangshan
Left: Greetings from the Staff    Right: Appetizing Cold Dish

Venison Brain with Chinese Herb Soup and Bird Shaped Steamed Prawns in Beijing-Fangshan
Left: Venison Brain with Chinese Herb Soup    Right: Bird-Shaped Steamed Prawns

Braised Deer Pizzle with Hot Sauce and Fin & Shredded Chicken in Beijing-Fangshan
Left: Braised Deer Pizzle with Hot Sauce    Right:  Fin & Shredded Chicken

Sesame Cakes with Minced Meat and Camel’s Paw with Garlic
Left: Sesame Cakes with Minced Meat    Right: Camel's Paw with Garlic

Roast Beef Steak and Braised 4 Kind of Treasures
Left: Roast Beef Steak    Right: Braised 4 Kind of Treasures

Tasty dishes in Beijing-Fansghan
Left: Deep Fried & Sauteed Fried Mandarin Fish    
Right: Braised Mushroom with Minced Fish & Vegetable

Mixed Fruits and Small Assorted Cakes
Left: Mixed Fruits    Right: Small Assorted Cakes

I heard of Mapo Tofu and its usual spicy properties so it was on my must-try list. Our guide from Odynovo brought us to Chen's Mapo Tofu rated the best Mapo Tofu in the world.
Chengdu - Chen's Mapo Tofu

Chengdu-Mapo Tofu
Mapo Toufu in Chengdu

Definitely one of the most unusual dishes I've ever eaten. You mouth literally goes numb from the Sichuan peppers. That was a unique experience for me.
Yu's Family Kitchen has 3 Michelin Stars. The diners are raved about. We were going to Chengdu to see the pandas. An experience of a lifetime I will NEVER forget. 
Chengdu - Yu's Family Kitchen 

Entrance and Cold Dishes in Chengdu-Yu's Family Kitchen
Left: Entrance    Right: liáng cài   Cold Dishes

Tasty food in Chengdu-Yu's Family Kitchen
Left: máo bǐ sū  Crispy Calligraphy Brushes filled with ground    
Right: Pork fried taro root and Black Garlic

Black Truffle on Egg and Twist of Dough
Left: Black Truffle on Egg    Right: Twist of Dough

Tasty food in Chengdu-Yu's Family Kitchen
Left: liáng fěn shāo bào yú  Abalone with Glutinous Rice Jelly
Right: A Gelee Based Completely on the Juice of Tomatoes

Fish-flavored Shrimp and dumplings in Chengdu-Yu's Family Kitchen
Left: yú xiāng duì xiā  Fish-flavored Shrimp    
Right:  Boiled Dumpling with Chili Oil, Ginger

Rare Fungi from Yunnan and Light Egg Custard with Rabbit
Left: Rare Fungi from Yunnan    Right: Light Egg Custard with Rabbit

Tasty food in Yu's Family Kitchen
Left: cì guǒ xiǎo bāo  Steamed Bun with Red Bean
Right: diào piàn zhāng chá Ya Filling Tea Smoked Duck served with flatbread

Tasty food in Yu's Family Kitchen
Left: cì guǒ xiǎo bāo Steamed Bun with Red Bean    
Right: DelicateSkate with Chilis on Fine Vermicelli

Home-style noodles and Fragrant flower soup
Left: jiā cháng miàn  Home-style Noodles    Right: Fragrant flower soup

Tasty food in Yu's Family Kitchen
Left: Fruit + Flaky Dragon's Beard Candy    Right: Asian Pear
Odynovo arranged this for me. Dinner with a Tibetan family. Eat local cuisine. Drink with the locals. Of course, my guide translated, one gentleman sung me a song, and we ate. Buttered tea is a specialty. And they had a local homebrew that is quite potent. 
Jiuzhaigou - Tibetan Family Dinner 
Tibetan Family Dinner in Jiuzhaigou
Left: The Dining Room    Right: Buttered Tea  
Jiuzhaigou-Tibetan Family Dinner
Left: Table Setting    Right: Barbequed Yak

Shook! Get strong recommendations on the internet. I knew for our last night out this would be really nice. 
So I returned the next year when tourists were again allowed in Tibet. Also, I wanted to check out the Beijing food stalls that I was told and have some quite unique cuisine. That was something my Odynovo guide told me about. Since I was alone this time, it wouldn't be an issue with my family.
Every ten years China elects new leaders and during that time certain areas are closed to foreigners. Unfortunately the year we went Tibet was closed to outsiders. We instead went to Jiuzhaigou but I wanted to see Tibet.
14-Day Real Taste of China Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hong Kong
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Beijing - Food Stalls 

Beijing-Food Stalls
The food can vary from squid, pork, beef, and chicken to more exotic items.

Beijing-Food Stalls
Bugs such as scorpions, spiders, centipedes are available.

Special food in Beijing Food Stall
Left: Huge centipedes    Right: I chose silkworm larvae.

Traveller's Story: My Exotic Food Adventures
Tasting Silk Worm Larvae

Personally, I found them disgusting. There was a hard shell, similar to shrimp shells, basically inedible. Inside was a granular tasteless gooey mass. That cured me of eating bugs. As an aside in Hanoi at Highway 4 Restaurant I had very tasty cricket spring rolls and grasshopper salad.
Highway 4 was seen in a TV program on Vietnam. The program discussed the bugs and I figured I'd give it a try. Exotic, weird, and I never tried them before were my reasons for eating here.
Hanoi – Highway4 Restaurant

Hanoi - Highway 4 Restaurant
Left: Highway 4 Restaurant, Hanoi    Right: Sauteed Squid

Cricket Spring Rolls and Grasshopper Salad
Left: Cricket Spring Rolls    Right: Grasshopper Salad

The cricket spring rolls were quite tasty. The grasshoppers were deeply fried which made them very crispy. The consistency and taste were that of a burnt potato chip. But after eating the silkworm larvae I was off bugs, at least for a while.
Next off to Zhangye to see the Zhangye Danxia Landform and of course, more eats.
So cured of bugs it was off to Spicy Spirit for something much tastier. I wanted hot food. I told my guide to find a restaurant that serves hot food. And I emphasized HOT! So we went to Spicy Spirit. WINNER.

Beijing-Spicy Spirit
Left: Signage    Right: Spicy Frog& a Spicy Tofu Dish

Next off to Zhangye to see the Zhangyedanxia landform and of course, more eats.

Tasty food in Zhangye
Left: Deep Fried Foie Gras and Squid    Right: Butter Figurine

Dim Sum and Spicy Jellyfish& Cucumber
Left: Dim Sum    Right: Spicy Jellyfish& Cucumber

Shrimp,Lima Beans
Shrimp, Lima Beans served at my hotel and guide selected restaurants.

Zhangye Danxia Landform 

Zhangye Danxia Landform
Zhangye Danxia Landform

And finally Huangshan Mountain, the mountain and the food. 

Mt. Huangshan
Huangshan Mountain

Scallion Pancakes and Spicy Picked Goodies in Huangshan
Left: Scallion Pancakes, some of the best Scallion Pancakes I've ever had.
Right: Spicy Pickled Goodies, at Street Scene in the Town of Huangshan

Huangshan Food
Left: Wang Yi Tiao Wonton    Right: Assorted Wontons

I know I'm not the only one who is challenged by strange, unusual, and gourmet foods. I used China Odyssey Tours to plan my trips. Ask them for a gourmet's tour and they can plan a wonderful experience for you.
Saw this place walking the streets of Huangshan. The idea of assorted wontons in all different flavors intrigued me and I was hungry.
So - from Huangshan Mountain, I returned to Beijing and home.
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Cambodia - Tarantulas & Scorpions

As you may have known, I am willing to try most any food. Durian - no problem. Cricket spring rolls, grasshopper salad - had that in Hanoi. Scorpions - tried some little one in China. But - tarantulas? Deep fried with garlic - actually quite tasty.
Tarantulas & scorpions
Tarantulas & scorpions

I am currently trying to establish an International Surgical Residency Rotation in Cambodia for UCI surgical residents. Please go to Quality Surgery for Cambodia to learn more about what I have done and what I'd like to do to help improve surgical care in Cambodia.

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