Fish Eyes for the Fearless

By Chelsea Vollrath

“It doesn’t really taste bad. It’s just…really salty.” She paused, concentrating on something still in her mouth. “And this hard ball in the middle kind is kind of freaking me out. Do I swallow it?” She did, and then laughed. He joined in her laughter. “It’s kind of chewy at first, but yeah there’s like a pellet or something in the middle,” he remarked, and then he swallowed it too.

I sat in shock, my lips pursed and eyes wide open, probably for longer than I should have.

My experience in China, more specifically, my dining experiences, certainly tested my Western sensibilities. After spending two months in the eastern country, I was used to the wait staff presenting a whole, raw fish for customer evaluation, and then bringing the whole fish back after it has been cooked. While I can’t say I was comfortable with the custom, especially not at first, it was one of the parts of the culture I was okay with not understanding but accepting. Eating fish eyes, however, is a custom I neither understood nor accepted.

I never ordered fish myself, or any meat; I decided to be a vegetarian during my stay in China for several reasons. I made a few exceptions when I was at up-scale Western restaurants where I felt I could trust the meat and in instances where I truly felt like I was missing out on part of the culture by not trying a specific meat dish. I tried the popular local dish in Yangshuo: stuffed snails; the pork and beef filled dumplings at Bao Yuan, a restaurant regarded for having the best dumplings in Beijing, and the various kinds of meat served with hot pot, the Chinese version of fondue. Aside from those occasions, I did my best to avoid it, worried about unknowingly eating dog, getting sick from rancid meat, and clogging my arteries with the copious amount of oil used during preparation.

We were on a trip to southern China for fall break and had just arrived at a hot springs resort in Guilin. The Beijing Center staff asked us to bring one nice outfit with us on the trip specifically for the dinner at the hot springs resort, so our expectations for the experience were set high. All of the dishes were pre-ordered, so within minutes of being seated, the wait staff started bringing dishes to our table. Starving, since we always seemed to be, we dove into the dishes immediately. As I spun the Lazy Susan to access the various vegetable dishes, my friends helped themselves to whichever dishes were in front of their place settings at any given moment. They ate some of the vegetables, but mostly feasted on the various chicken and pork dishes, and then on the fish once it was presented in the middle of the table. I watched as everyone dug in with their chopsticks and tried to navigate around the scales and bones to have access to the biggest pieces of meat possible. It always seemed like a lot of work; I was happier not having to deal with it.

On all other occasions where my friends and classmates ordered fish, they ate the meat on the body, and then moved on, but on this occasion, they were advised to look beyond the typical meaty areas. One of the staff members explained that, according to Chinese tradition, it is customary to give the honored guest at dinner the eye of the fish; eating it is said to bring good luck. An old adage of Chinese medicine recommends eating animal parts to nourish the same part within the human body. Applied to this situation, Chinese medicine would suggest eating fish eyes to improve one’s eyes and, by extension, vision. Being one of the recipients of the fish’s eyes, therefore, is a privilege.

Considering all of us at the table were technically guests, no one more honorary than any one else, it was a matter of who was willing to try it. There were only two people willing to try it, so it wasn’t difficult to decide who the lucky recipients would be.

One of the brave individuals was my roommate, which didn’t surprise me at all. She is half Chinese and was always more adventurous than most with her eating. She had been exposed to most of it years before on her first trip to China and at family gatherings. She is also just an adventurous person, so she probably would have been willing to try it regardless. The other student lucky enough to have the second eye was equally as adventurous since discovering he had a stomach of steel. That seemed to be an undeniable factor determining people’s willingness to try new dishes.

We rotated the Lazy Susan to my roommate, Caitlin, so she could take an eye first and then spun it to Matt’s place setting so he could take the second. Watching them reach into the eye socket and pull the eye out with their chopsticks made me cringe. The eye Matt was reaching for didn’t come out as easily as Caitlin’s. As he tried to separate it from the veins and whatever else was holding it intact, I turned away, grimacing.

When I turned around, they both had eyes in between their chopsticks and were lifting them up for everyone at the table to see. Again, I looked away. After everyone’s evaluation, fellow diners at the table initiated a countdown. “Three, two, one, go!” I turned back around in time to see both Matt and Caitlin guide their chopsticks in their mouths.

I decided that if someone had a gun to my head and was forcing me to eat it, or I was being presented with a million dollars, I would swallow the eye whole. That would assumedly make the experience a little more bearable. Caitlin and Matt wanted the full effect, though. I watched them both take their first bites. I tightly squeezed my napkin underneath the table, maintaining a look of shock and disgust across my face. I looked around and saw that most other people were making similar expressions. Considering I was usually more skeptical of aspects of the Chinese culture than most of my classmates, I didn’t feel as judgmental when I saw that everyone around me was reacting the same way.

In that moment, I tried to think of American food that Chinese people may find comparably repulsive, attempting to be less ethnocentric than I often was. I thought about it for about a minute, as everyone else laughed about and reflected on Matt and Caitlin’s experience. I couldn’t think of anything.