They had me at frog fallopian tubes. Then they sucked me in with duck tongues. Now they sealed the deal with beaver. I’m talking about the intriguing menu items that are offered through the Los Angeles Gastronauts dinners, unique dining experiences that bring like-palated adventurous diners together. What started out as a huge success in New York has now traveled to Los Angeles, with Helen Springut as our LA chapter guide who sniffs out interesting international fare with unusual themes.
“You have to try to try to eat what’s in front of you” is their motto, with previous Los Angeles Gastronauts dinners featuring silkworms, crickets, freshwater eel and agave worm for a first hand experience into your very own episode of Bizarre Foods. The Gastronauts guides work with local restaurants to devise a most interesting tasting menu, often featuring off-menu specialty items that otherwise would never be available to the non-Gastronaut. The July dinner delved deep into adventurous Chinese fare at Elite Restaurant, a Cantonese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley popular for weekend dim sum. The main attraction of this dinner was live drunken shrimp, but I was there for the frog fallopian tubes, the only thing on the menu that day that was new to me.
An assortment of appetizers featured 4 delicacies starting with jellyfish salad, long golden noodles of jiggly slippery jellyfish flavored with sesame oil and a hint of red chile. Slivers of sliced pig ears tossed in sesame oil and seasoned soy sauce, its crunchy cartilagenous center sandwiched between gelatinous outer layers, were a textural delight. Then the duck tongues, little torpedo shaped morsels of deep fried spongy muscle with its awkward bone running through the center- not an easy or graceful eating experience but delicious nonetheless.
Strong notes of soy sauce and anise made the chicken livers and gizzards an enjoyable bite and a delightful companion to our free flowing bottles of beer and stimulating conversation with our new found Gastronaut friends.
The main course of live drunken shrimp arrived, a course where I was hoping to relive a fond childhood memory of weekend family dinners at our local Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles. Live drunken shrimp was the highlight of these dinners, a fascinating ritual where fresh tiger shrimp would literally be drowned in Shaoxing rice wine, the gruesome process on public display in a lidded glass bowl placed in the center of the table for all to see. The process of death was a slow one, a very long 5 minutes of agonal seizure-like activity that I watched, as a little girl, with sadistic interest.
The experience that day at Elite didn’t quite live up to my expectations, as they used Santa Barbara spot prawns instead of tiger shrimp, and sweet plum wine instead of Shaoxing wine. In addition, the prawns were already slumped over in complete inebriation, its nervous system too wasted to put up a fight as we swiftly decapitated and peeled our catch all too easily. The sweet succulent meaty flesh was delicious, and the experience was still worth it.
The best part of the drunken shrimp experience came quickly afterward, a plateful of freshly deep fried crispy shrimp heads tossed with garlic, green onions, salt and pepper that created a feeding frenzy at the table.
Then there were the sea cucumbers stir fried with green onions, ginger and garlic, a delightful plate with generous servings of tender gelatinous pieces of sea cucumber that kept slipping out of my plastic chopstick grip. Luscious, bouncy and soft with a light flavor that took on the essence of its simple seasonings, these sea cucumbers were my favorite course of the evening.
Frogs- limbs, abdomen and all other stray parts- stir fried with a Chinese tea glaze, were like a bucket of wings and drumsticks, its light white flesh resembling the texture and flavor of chicken. Little tiny bones meant more work for our reward, but the rewards, coupled with a swig of complementary cold beer, were tremendous in this fantastic frog dish.
The Gastronauts, including myself, all slowed down on the pig stomach course, a clay pot soup with unapologetically large cuts of stomach that outlined the anatomical structure and mucosal foldings of this digestive organ all too vividly. Gingko nuts, tofu skin and whole peppercorns did little to temper the intense mustiness of the stomach, and for the first time that evening the enthusiastic Nauts showed signs of hesitance.
After a slurry of offals and proteins, the stir fried Chinese broccoli dish came as a welcome palate cleanser, although in Gastronaut style, it contained bits of deep fried fish fins that added a different layer of crunchiness.
We finally arrived at the dessert course, the course that I was looking forward to the most as I had never had frog fallopian tubes before. I was imagining long gelatinous noodles of a more grotesque nature, but what arrived in front of me was a bowl of sweet white almond milk with plump nuggets of wrinkled gelatin resembling morels. Asiatic Grass Frog fallopian tubes, also known as hasma, are typically sold dried, then rehydrated and double boiled in rock sugar to achieve that unique opaque glutinous quality. The dainty pieces floating in the milky soup were slippery and slightly chewy like tapioca, making for an enjoyable dessert.
The next LA Gastronauts dinner is on August 7th at Starry Kitchen, with talented French chef Laurent Quenioux preparing bear tenderloin, duck hearts, veal feet, beaver leg and a cockscomb dessert. Sign up to become an LA Gastronauts club member and join us on our ongoing culinary adventures, where you’ll expand your mind, train your palate and make new friends.
Random trivia: Did you know that young children are not recommended to eat frog fallopian tubes as the high contents of hormones may cause puberty to begin early?