It’s 8pm and I’ve just eaten my first sparrow. Twelve pairs of eyes watch closely as it goes into my mouth, twenty-four pupils wait expectantly to see my reaction. I crunch through the tiny little bones and feel the unpleasant sensation of a curled clawed foot scraping the inside of my cheek. Working it around my mouth for another minute I manage to extract the tiniest morsel of dark meat from the bones, and spit the rest out directly on the table. Smiles of relief break out all round, and immediately all twenty-four eyes fix on my husband, now tackling his first sparrow. An imperceptible shudder goes across his body as I hear the unmistakeable crunch of bones, but no-one else seems to notice.
Sparrows. Tiny, defenseless birds. Karmic retribution will be coming down heavily on my shoulders, I just know it. I keep thinking about Mao’s campaign against the ‘four pests’ – rats, flies, mosqitoes and sparrows, when peasants had to eliminate as many of the four pests as possible. The poor buggers have probably only recently come back from the brink of extinction in China. Even more damning, the sparrows had been alive until just before dinner. You may well ask what I’m doing eating recently alive small birds in the first place – but remember Tao Hai Ying, she of the char-grilled fish restaurant on the Yulong river? And remember her invitation to have dinner with her family in their village home? Well, here I am and the sparrows are the first course.
An hour earlier her sister had collected us from the river bank in the communal family car and brought us to their tiny riverside village of around thirty houses. The village sits in a small clearing surrounded by karst mountains on three sides and the river on the other, fringed by tall feathered stands of bamboo. It’s an incredibly beautiful spot, and we go for a walk in the deepening darkness to see the rest of the village and the riverbank. Although it’s night I’m sweating heavily in the near forty degree heat and dense humidity, and the frogs and crickets are singing up a storm down by the water’s edge. In the dark there’s someone doing their washing, and next to them someone gutting a fish in the water, but I’m hoping the second is downstream from the first.
We walk back to the house, and it’s now completely dark. Which means, sadly, my photos are rubbish, so you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure the rest. The house is a communal family affair, owned by all four siblings and their parents, and has been freshly built near the family’s old claybrick farmhouse. Four storeys high and perfectly square, it appears that the family of ten adults and two children, three generations in all, cram together on the bottom two floors, with the top floors spare and empty. Perhaps for future growth? Up on the roof I’m proudly shown the new solar hot water system in all is shining silver glory.
Back downstairs in the kitchen, the husband of daughter number two appears to be the family’s designated wok chef. To keep the rest of the house cool from the wok’s heat, the kitchen is housed in a separate low building to the side of the main house, just concrete walls and floors, a single naked bulb for light, a sink, and a low table for food preparation. Tao Hai Ying, her mother, and her two younger sisters are busy preparing the food ready for cooking – peeling, slicing and chopping, crouched on the floor on their haunches. Despite hanging around outside the kitchen a fair bit I miss the part where the live sparrows, tethered by a string to their feet, meet their fate along with one of the village chickens in the hotpot.
Tao Hai Ying’s young nephew surveys the dinner preparations, chopsticks in hand, ready to steal a choice morsel. Shortly after cheekily thieving a juicy piece of pork his mother chases him out of the kitchen and back into the garden, where he tries to get a rise out of the family dog.
Another low table, similar to the one in the kitchen but larger, is rolled out from behind a door and assembled outside where it’s coolest. Sixteen low stools are arranged around it, and bottles of cold LiQ beer are brought out from a cold box. We take our seats, along with all the family, as the dishes are brought from the kitchen.
The menu: Hundred-year eggs with stir-fried tomato, roast crispy duck, pork belly stir-fried with water spinach and black bean, fried tomato-egg, slivers of squash, pumpkin shoots cooked in chicken stock, local river snails fried with garlic and chili, fried beans, and lastly, the table centrepiece: chicken and sparrow hotpot. An intense smell of garlic and fried chili envelops the table. I notice there’s no fish, but I guess if you spend all day cooking and serving fish it’s the last thing you feel like for dinner!
There is a lot of excited chatter, and everyone rushes for the best bits. The four of us hang back, being polite, and it’s at this point that Tao Hai Ying serves my husband and I a bowl of broth from the hotpot to get us started. I can see her dredging the bottom of the pot for something dark, and I worry that it’s the prized chicken heart, or liver, or even worse, the head. That’s OK, I say to myself, I’ve eaten chicken’s head before. I can do it again. In the halflight I can’t make out what it is until I lift my spoon from the milky broth and discover a neatly cleaved sparrow body in my spoon, feet and all.
Having tackled the first one, I cautiously spoon through the broth, hoping against hope that sparrows are so prized that each guest at the table will only get one. But no. I have six. There are six sparrows in my bowl. Tao Hai Ying smiles kindly at me, and I smile back and do the only thing right and proper in a situation like this, in front of such generous and lovely hosts. I tuck in. Karma will have to get me back later.
(For those interested, sparrow meat is tougher and gamier than quail or pigeon. Like many things eaten in China, I suspect it’s for the texture – all those little bones – rather than the flavour. By the end of the meal every plate has a small pile of picked clean sparrow bones next to it.)