Nehru offered ducks brain in China

April 15, 2020

Interest in the wet markets of Wuhan is a timely reminder of a story my late father used to tell about what happened when he visited China in 1954 as a journalist covering the visit of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. 

At one state banquet in Shanghai the most memorable item on the menu was a whole cooked duck served with head, beak and claws intact. As Mr Nehru watched in speechless horror, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou EnLai cracked open the duck’s head and offered its scooped out brains to his distinguished Indian visitor. 

This was the high point of India-China relations with rapturous Chinese crowds instructed to shout –‘Hindi-Cheeni bhai, bhai’ as a gullible Nehru was lovingly escorted through the cities of Peking, Canton, Shanghai, Nanking, Hankow, Mukden, Anshan and Dairen. 

Nehru was lucky. His Chinese hosts were anxious to make a good impression and at other banquets they were just as likely to have considered serving bear’s paw, dog’s penis, frog casserole and stir-fried snake.

But as it happened, the ever astute Zhou ordered comparatively benign dishes for subsequent meals that could be absorbed without any problem by the Western educated and Kashmiri Brahmin in Nehru, not to mention his daughter Indira Gandhi and the numerous civil servants and journalists travelling with them.

In  secret notes about the visit, Nehru wrote, “I could not help feeling during my visit to China, even more than I have done before, how completely irrelevant was the idea that this great nation could be ignored or bypassed….The time has passed when they can be injured much by this policy. It is the rest of world that is more likely to suffer from it.”

In Chinese culture the outside world beyond the country’s borders consists of uncivilized barbarians, so there is a certain delicious irony about how visiting outsiders have viewed the country. It was Marco Polo in the 13th century who noted how the Chinese delight in eating snakes, dogs and even human flesh. Five hundred years later a visiting French Jesuit historian, Jean-Baptiste du Halde described a Chinese menu of ‘Stags-Pizzles (penises), Bears-Paws..cats, rats ..and such like animals.” 

Two hundred years later a British medic warned British sailors in the trading port of Guangzhou to be careful of feasting on earthworms and cats bones. Wuhan then and now was the tip of the proverbial iceberg. 

More recently, visiting British cookery writer Fuchsia Dunlop cited a local Chinese cookery book that displayed 11 partially skinned and deep fried lizards, an egg white pudding decorated with ants and a whole roasted puppy served on a plate, its skull split in half, served up with “an elgant garnish of coriander…and flowers made from pink radish.”

In London today medical experts warn it is the danger of the unknown that is associated with such unusual food. “Brain is uncertain”, one medical expert explains, “because of mad cow’s disease that affects the brain.” 

This expert who has analysed a variety of cuisines, adds, “ I am sure if you cook flies and lizards well enough, they will be harmless. But you never know. Cow’s brains are said to be an odd texture, soft and creamy. Again, you never know.”

Family banter about how Nehru responded to the  offering of duck brain continued long beyond 1954. Fifteen years later, when father was posted as High Commissioner to Singapore, we sometimes touched on what he would do if he was offered fried dog, cat or some other similar delicacy at an official function.

The overwhelming majority of Singapore’s population is made up of ethnic Chinese and they are all too aware of what is savoured in their motherland and beyond. Thankfully, for my father, he was personally spared any such first hand experience of exotic cuisine, although monkey’s brain was once definitely alluded to on the distant fairways of the Singapore golf club.

Singapore’s then Prime Minister was the highly westernised Lee Kuan Yew (‘Harry’ Lee to his friends) who was all too aware of how knowledgeable foreigners were both  fond and wary about the full range of Chinese cuisine.  At official functions guests were therefore fed a reliable mix of predictable dishes like fried rice, sweet sour vegetables, roast duck etc, but nothing unusual or out of the ordinary. At local Singapore restaurants bats never part of the menu, although chilli crabs were a great favourite.

Lee’s ever astute mother capitalised on her son’s political status by opening up her own private school of Chinese cooking where all ambassadors’ wives ( my own mother included) queued up and paid hard cash to join. But the older Mrs Lee’s repertoire of Cantonese cooking was even more bland than what was on offer at state functions and in local hotels and restaurants. Every now and then she allowed herself to introduce a solitary example of a more spicy Szechuan dish based on a standard type of meat or fish, but that was all.

As for Zhou’s response to Indian cuisine, nothing is known. He made several trips to India in 1954, 1956, 1959 and 1960. Foreign VIPs then and now are offered a mix of breads, including rotis, parathas and nans, as well as biryanis of different types, butter chicken, rogan josh, matar paneer, topped off by gulab jamuns, ras malai etc. This remains the standard fare at places like Rashtrapati Bhavan and Hyderabad House. Some variation is only to be  expected in state capitals like Chennai that Zhou also visited. Whether any of what he was offered to eat provoked a response from the Chinese premier is something for historians to speculate about.

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