The Scallop that was Chicken

Chicken or Scallops?

Chicken… or Scallops?

Recently Mark visited Shanghai. One night having dinner at my place, there was a conversation that went something like this:

> Mark: This seafood is really good.

> John: Huh? What seafood?

> Mark: This seafood!

> John: That’s not seafood. That’s chicken.

> Mark: Really? Oh. In that case…

It wasn’t the first time that has happened. Sometimes chicken in China gets mistaken for scallop-like seafood. It’s not that the chicken tastes fishy, it’s that the texture is very much like scallop meat.

Why is this? Does anyone out there know? Should I be worried? What the hell am I really eating??


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Actually, “bay scallops” are made from rays. They just punch out little circles from the rays & calle them “scallops”. “Bay scallops” are uniform in size & shape; real scallops may not be. Just thought that I would add to the confusion . . .

  2. Da Xiangchang Says: August 1, 2006 at 9:12 am

    Who’s the woman thinking of the scallops and chicken? That’s what I want to know!

  3. Maybe because chicken’s eat naturally in China, are smaller in size, and are not pumped up with artificial genetically modified food/nutrients.

    Taste and texture differences could potentially be the way the chicken is cooked.

    Costco, a big box warehouse high volume discount chain, sells chicken breasts that are frozen, wrapped in single serving baggies, and ready cooked for the masses.

  4. Was this food cooked by “ayi”?

    This is the topic of many discussions when eating Chinese food. Bear in mind, I’m not a trained culinary artist, so I have yet to verify the baking soda theory below. T

    The phenomenon is called 撣口 (P:dan kou) in Cantonese, meaning, “bouncing mouth”. Think of hte meat to tender and springy your mouth snaps back open.. you don’t even need to sink your teeth into the meat.

    1. High cooking temps and rapid cooking. A very hot wok lets food cook very quickly. A very hot wok can cook in seconds vs. minutes (on typical american stoves).

    2. The second believed is believed to be soaking of meat in baking soda 蘇打粉. That’s the Cantonese word for it.. don’t know the putong word for it…. which leads to the the slightly preserved chemically taste at times.

    Such phenomon’s can be seen when order dishes such as 芥菜肉片湯. The pork slices are lean and not marbled in fat, yet after cooked in the soup broth they don’t come out dry, characteristic of boiling… but instead they come out bouncy and tender.

    but there are very distinct difference in breeds of livestock. This also has been discussed widely though I’ve yet to see solid evidence and actual specie and genus names. In general, the consencous is that Asia has superior pork and chicken, while the States has superior beef stocks.

  5. There is a canned tuna called chicken of the sea.
    This would be its evil twin: scallops of the land.

  6. lol gin. “scallops of the land”. I love it.

  7. Maybe because chicken’s eat naturally in China, are smaller in size, and are not pumped up with artificial genetically modified food/nutrients.

    Except that would make it LESS likely for them to have that weird soft-grain texture of scallops. The rapid growth+high fluid retention (low shrinkage due to modern packaging techniques) makes for a softer bird with very neutral flavour. The intial Chinese bird would, at least initially, be tougher and more chicen-flavoured, at least to a western mouth. It’s almost certainly cooking technique related.

    Ugg, I’m a culinary & nutrition student, I should KNOW what’s most likely to cause this, but I can’t quite guess. My first thought it it might be collegin related, but I’m very curious about this “baking power” technique.

  8. Maybe somebody’s using too much meat tenderizer…

  9. My Cantonese wife says it’s a combination of the breed of chicken
    (skeptical), the food they’re fed (still skeptical), the freshness (this I believe) and the preparation methods (also believable). Down here in Guangzhou, they are obsessed with the freshness and tenderness of chicken.

    Long time reader by the way, don’t know what prompted me to comment today. Must have been the chicken I had for dinner.

  10. That was kinda neat. I’ve never had any chicken even remotely like that in Taiwan. I was sure it was fish! Nonetheless, it was passingly yummy.

  11. This has never happened before. Ayi served us scallops and you both conspired to lie to me and say it was chicken. Fact.

  12. i used to buy fresh chicken sometimes in china and i always thought it was tough when i cooked it. smaller and tougher than western meat because of said methods we use to make it more appealing.

    BUT, i did sometimes have wierd soft meat in dishes and honestly, i think its because its undercooked. they flip it around in the wok for 12 seconds and call it a day. we had several occasions where we sent RAW meat back. i mean, meat that was still squealing or clucking. but other tiems, even though it looked cooked, i dont think it was brought up to the right temperatures or something.

  13. Here’s a recent related discussion about chicken toughness nad breeds in Asia,56710

  14. This last year I grilled out most every day at my bar. Tke chicken here (very small town) is exceptionally thick, and tasty.
    The pork for that matter is far better than what I am used to in the USA. Very red, very lean.
    I get ZERO flameups on the grill with the local pork, whereas I cooked some imported frezze-dried pork recently that almost caused a 3 alarm fire.

  15. I miss the chicken back in Shanghai, especially the tender little ones found in soup. The chicken in the states always carries a strong stinky smell/taste that is hard to erase or cover in dishes. I can never expect to steam the chicken or make a soup without putting a lot of ginger/spice to kill the stink.

    I also remembers the first time I ate fried chicken in KFC in US and ended up throwing up because of the wax-like taste. No one would disagree that the KFCs in China taste much better.

    I guess the distinction came from the free-range chicken vs. caged chicken and rice eating chicken vs. hormone-pumped chicken. Anyway, now the free-range eggs cost 3-4 times as caged ones. They are from happier hens.

  16. Just to add a bit to the thread. The stuff about free range vs. steroid-pumped in the sense that it’s China vs. Western chickens is a falsity.

    My fiancee informed me none too long ago that she had a good friend from middle school that let her come out to her farm – about thirty minutes outside Dalian – and all their chickens were fed speedy-growth formula in their food to make them mature faster. The small farm sold most its chickens to local KFCs, but I imagine that many of the chicken rearers of China feed local KFCs and sell the rest at market.

    Just didn’t want anyone assuming you were getting a healthier chicken in China than I’m currently getting in Canada 🙂 Though you can rest easy in the fact that you pay about a 3rd of the price. F’in’ thieves and their damn “quality control”…

  17. as long as it’s not those
    human meat buns, i wouldn’t
    worry too much. =)

  18. this is interesting. my boyfriend and i had many discussions about how BAD kfc was in china. it was just pure grease and fried to the point where there was almost no chicken in the chicken. we stopped eating there entirely.

  19. Hmm…back in hangzhou:

    My wife always tries to buy organic chickens…well, free range at least (some little squawker that was running around someones back yard for the past few months I guess)..which is much more expensive than usual ones.

    If I buy the usual ones they are all fat and meat, pumped full of steroids that allow them to be eaten a few weeks after hatching. You can always tell if there free range by the bones — you can bite the bones up if they are hormone fed, but I damn near broke my teeth last time I bit a free range one.

    As to KFC — I prefer it here…last time I was home we went and it was gross; we actually found it oily and unpalatable at home, not here.

  20. My girlfriend and I rode the train a few years ago from Beijing to Shanghai. As she is Taiwanese and had never been on an overnight train (Taiwan is just too dang small)), we thought we would celebrate with a meal in the dining car.

    not a good idea, but how were we to know at the time.

    We ordered a few dishes including Gong Bao Chicken. I swear to god it was made with fish. She thought so too. So we called over the waitress xiaojie, and told her to send it back, we wanted Chicken, not fish. She returned it later telling us the cook said it was chicken. Of course, it was a complete lie, and we never should have forced the poor waitress to lose face in the first place. Sometimes those western habits die hard in the Middle Kingdom.

  21. Professor Loco Says: August 12, 2006 at 1:52 am

    I think it’s Soylent White…

  22. Really interesting site about Chinese culture. Thanks.

  23. The Machines didn’t know what chicken tasted like, so they made it taste like everything…

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