The four pizzles lay sprawled out on the kitchen counter. Two of them were neat and tidy, as gorgeously tanned as homemade bacon, still attached to their pubic bones and exuding an appetizing aroma of wood smoke. The other two looked as if they had only moments ago been hacked off. Both came with the whole apparatus — not just the bones, but also pairs of testicles in cozy sporrans of fur and flowerlike protuberances through which, we worked out, the erect penises must protrude. Leaking pink juices, they had a ferocious, feral smell that assaulted our nostrils—the mighty stags’ last stand.
Over the course of my career, I have prepared and eaten many unusual ingredients, from sea cucumbers to frog ovaries, but until recently, I had maintained a maidenly innocence when it came to cooking penises of any species. Never in my life would I have imagined that I would be in command of not one but four male members, and of such extravagant proportions. Prone and passive as they were at that moment, they were still a daunting sight. But I sharpened my cleaver, tied tightly my apron, and steadied my nerve.
I can’t say I had previously harbored any ambition to cook a penis. When I trained as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, penises were not on the curriculum. And I’m not one of the many foreign adventurers who have made pilgrimages to Guolizhuang, the famous penis restaurant in Beijing, where you can grapple with a smorgasbord of cocks and balls, including those of oxen, dogs, yaks, and occasionally, it is rumored, tigers.
I did eat one once, inadvertently, in China. It was early in my explorations of Chinese cuisine, and I naively assumed that the “ox whip” listed on a Chongqing restaurant menu was an oxtail. I ate it, sliced into pieces, tasteless and flubbery in a clear chicken broth. Years later, I saw a group of men tucking into an “ox whip” hotpot at a restaurant table in northern Hunan. And I often pass by a couple of liquor stalls in the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, that sell a special brew for the gentlemen of assorted animal members steeped in rice wine.
Of course I was aware that penises have magical properties in Chinese medicinal terms. According to the doctrine of curing like, animal pizzles can zhuang yang, or strengthen the forceful, masculine yang energy of the body. Stag pizzles, fresh or dried, are a particularly prized tonic, extraordinarily expensive in China, which may be prescribed for impotence and infertility. If you needed to boost your virility in the days before Viagra, eating stag-pizzle soup was certainly easier than following the example of the priapic hero of Li Yu’s seventeenth-century erotic novel The Carnal Prayer Mat, who undergoes surgery to have a massive dog’s penis grafted onto his own.
I came by my four pizzles through what the Chinese call yuanfen — a happy, fateful accident. At a dinner party for my sister and some of her friends, I was recounting the tale of a visit to London’s Borough Market with a pair of Sichuanese chefs. These chefs, old friends of mine from Chengdu, had been beside themselves with excitement when we stopped at a stall selling wild Scottish venison. “You have to tell the owner,” they told me in Chinese, “that if he can dry the stag penises and send them to China, he will make his fortune!” Stag pizzles of any sort, they said, were extremely valuable, but the Chinese would go nuts for the pizzles of stags that roamed the pristine Highlands of Scotland.
I don’t remember saying much more than that, but my sister’s friend Roxy, who lives in Scotland, clearly got the impression that I was burning with desire to cook them myself. A few months later, when I was traveling in China, I received one of the more surprising text messages of my life:
Hi Fuchsia it’s Roxy. I am just about to collect yr stag penises. There are 2 of them. I’m going to try to get one smoked but really need to get them to you quickly as they are fresh.
I phoned Roxy and discovered she had taken enormous trouble on my behalf, spreading the word among the deer stalkers of Scotland that a friend of hers was longing to cook stag penises. “It’s become a point of interest with everyone I’ve spoken to,” she said. “Even a guy called Johnny Stalker. He’s a stalker and smoker, like his father and grandfather, and he was tickled pink at the idea of smoking stag pizzles. He said he’s smoked everything else, but not these, so he’s trying out various different recipes. Everyone is dying to know what you are going to do with them.”
Roxy’s friends had risen to the challenge, and by the time we spoke she’d rounded up eight pizzles, some of them with balls still attached, and Johnny was smoking half of them. What could I say? I told her I was delighted and thanked her effusively for her efforts.
It was some months before I actually laid my hands on the pizzles. Because I was abroad when she obtained them, Roxy had them all frozen and arranged for the first batch to be transported from Scotland to the southern English city of Brighton, where another friend of my sister’s stashed them in her freezer. I called my sister to arrange a date to travel to Brighton to fetch them. “I’m so glad you’re coming,” Leonie said, “because every time I see Chloe, she asks me, ‘When’s your sister going to take those willies out of my freezer?’”
So late one night, after dinner at a famous vegetarian restaurant in Brighton, Leonie took me to Chloe’s flat to pick up the pizzles. We stayed and chatted for a while with Chloe and C.J., her boyfriend. C.J. said the idea of eating penis gave him the shivers. I snorted derisively and told him he was being irrational. “I mean, if you eat meat, why not eat everything?”
“Yes, but would you eat fanny?” he asked me.
I have to admit that his question threw me. I wanted to answer right back that I’d eat it immediately. After all, I pride myself on eating everything, and, in the course of my Chinese adventures, I’ve ingested the ovaries of crabs and frogs, and many other delicacies that most Westerners find repulsive. But fanny…? The thought of it made me cringe. Anyway, Chloe rummaged in her freezer and gave me an enormous package full of stiff, frozen things wrapped in plastic. I stuffed them into my freezer bag and made haste back to London.
The night before the cooking, I gingerly unwrapped the pizzles and cast my eyes on them for the first time. The raw, testicled penises, in particular, were a shocking sight. Because they were too big to fit in the fridge, and because I wanted to keep them out of the warmth of the kitchen, I laid them on trays in the living room to defrost. Their silent presence, huge, furry, and outrageous, cast a strange atmosphere over the apartment that night.
I have to admit I was full of trepidation. I felt slightly disturbed at the idea of taking a whetted knife to a male member, whomever it belonged to. And from a purely professional point of view, I knew I was dealing with a prized Chinese delicacy, and I didn’t want to screw it up. If my Chinese friends knew I’d ruined such a bounty of treasured tonic food, they’d never take me seriously again. So I did my research.
First, I scoured my library for Chinese penis recipes, of which there are many. According to one culinary encyclopedia, the members of oxen, stags, and goats are all considered fair game, although goat penises are only “as thick as a chopstick.” The penis of the macaque monkey, I found, is eaten only by the Cantonese, who are renowned across China for their far-out approach to ingredients. There were plenty of recipes to inspire me. Perhaps I could try a Yunnan dry-braised stag pizzle with Yunnan ham, chicken, pig’s tendons, and dried mushrooms. Or a Liaoning tonic soup with seahorses, lotus seeds, and dried shrimps. If I was really ambitious, I could try making the Chinese equivalent of silk purses out of sows’ ears: “Flowery silken balls out of whips” (bian da xiu qiu), a soup of intricately cut pizzles and testicles.
I called a couple of friends to ask their advice. The celebrated Chengdu chef Yu Bo told me that my first job would be to purify the pizzles, dispelling any gamey, feral stink by repeatedly blanching with ginger, spring onion, rice wine, tea leaves, and, if possible, fresh bamboo shoots. “Then simmer them with chicken and purifying seasonings. If you like, when they are cooked, you can give them a Sichuanese touch by cooking them like mapo tofu, with chili bean paste, minced meat, and a final scattering of roasted Sichuan pepper.”
Remembering that Hunanese ox-penis hotpot I’d seen years before, and knowing what masters the Hunanese are of smoked meats, I also called a Hunanese chef who has a restaurant nearby. He didn’t sound in the least surprised by my request. The following day I cycled down to his restaurant for a chat about pizzles over a cup of tea. When we’d finished, he said: “Most Westerners wouldn’t really eat this sort of thing, would they?”
The day of reckoning finally dawned. The slightly stiff, smoked pizzles, coiled like Polish sausages, were easy enough to handle. Following the instructions of my Hunanese friend, I rinsed them well and set them to simmer for half an hour in a pot of boiling water. Tackling the flaccid, unsmoked pizzles was something else. Trying not to breathe in their offensive vapors, I stripped off the fur and testicles, like an extreme bikini wax. Disentangled from these impediments and the pubic bone, the pizzles were shape-shifting things, squeezy and rubbery, and encased in slimy layers of membrane. Removing these skins was at times a two-man job, as the pizzles slithered and slipped out of my grasp.
Prepping stag penises is an extraordinary business. Double entendres are unnecessary; single entendres will do. My photographer and I could barely stop laughing; I’ll spare you the details. I don’t think I’ve giggled so much since I was at school. Adam, our friend and kitchen assistant, somehow put up with all this hysteria quite manfully, just stepping in from time to time to grasp a pizzle so I could slice away its foreskin with my cleaver.
The next step was the blanching, at which the pizzles abruptly stiffened. One of them lunged out of the saucepan when we weren’t looking, totally erect and rigid as a truncheon. (Gentlemen readers, please rest assured that if all else fails, a quick plunge into boiling water will instantaneously restore your manhood.)
There were three blanchings in all, each in fresh water, with Shaoxing wine, ginger, spring onions, and tea leaves. With the feral aroma of the pizzles magicked away by this Chinese ingenuity, I rinsed them in cold water. I lopped off the tip of one and rested it on the chopping board, where it oozed garnet-red juices, jewel-like. Sliced open lengthwise, the pizzles revealed tissue as intricately patterned as a ripe fig, with featherlike wisps of white against a dark-pink background. I cut them into rubbery sections, and when I sliced these in half, they suddenly coiled up like springs, irresistibly muscular. Truly, I thought, these were magnificent instruments.
I simmered the pizzles in a Chinese clay pot for five and a half hours, with a whole chicken, more wine, ginger, spring onions, Sichuan peppercorns, and a bunch of Chinese tonic herbs: licorice, milk vetch root, dried yam, and Chinese sage. The smoked ones I stir-fried with sliced pork belly, and then stewed for several hours in a sauce of chili bean paste, with Shaoxing wine, cassia bark, and star anise to subdue their gaminess. As I set them to simmer, it occurred to me that the use of Shaoxing wine meant I could call the dish a Chinese cock au vin.
Anyway, after a long, hard day’s work, what did we end up with? Basically a good chicken soup filled with curious gelatinous twirls, and a spicy stew of springy, snail-like objects with the consistency of squash balls. But I’d invited a few friends for a tasting, and I couldn’t disappoint them. I finished the soup by straining it through muslin to remove the chicken and herbs, returning the penis twirls to the broth with a handful of scarlet wolfberries. The Hunanese smoked-pizzle hotpot was served as it was, with a garnish of stir-fried chilies and garlic.
One of my guests was a veteran of the Guolizhuang penis restaurant in Beijing: she hadn’t been impressed by the pizzles there and didn’t like these either. “I like textural foods,” she insisted, “but these are just tasteless and gelatinous.” The other (male) guests all enjoyed the smoked pizzles, although one pointed out that it was like Russian roulette: some were tender and bouncy; others a “little more challenging” in their rubberiness. We all agreed that if no one told you what you were eating, you might suppose it was some kind of mollusk. I pointed out that, given the intended tonic effect, a certain rubberiness was probably desirable: tender, flaccid slices of pizzle might be a very bad omen.
I asked all the guests to fill in anonymous questionnaires, and they reported varying degrees of “gastronomic pleasure, erotic pleasure, textural pleasure, castration anxiety, revulsion, and immediately enhanced virility.” One remarked that “maybe thinner slices would have made it easier to chew.” I was too polite to follow up with a subsequent inquiry into any Viagra-like effects. Personally, I felt satisfied to have tamed the four pizzles into some kind of submission, although I have had a few disturbing flashbacks to the sensation of slicing through a penis with a razor-sharp cleaver.
The one person I had really hoped to impress was Zhang Xiaozhong, the head chef of Barshu. To my delight, he was thoroughly approving of my efforts. He lapped up the stag-penis soup, his first, and an extraordinary luxury in China: “Stag pizzle is such a fine thing, and you’ve cooked it well—you’ve completely removed the gaminess.” He did offer me one expert tip, however: “Fuxia, it will be even better if you cut the pieces into frilly flowers.” My heart sank slightly. I had tried to cut these pizzles into flowers, but had been defeated by their surprising slitheriness and their unforeseen impulse to spring inside-out at the touch of a knife. But now that I fully understand their strange mechanics, such dainty knifework is easily achievable. And so, although I really didn’t think I’d ever say this, I’m going to have to give it another go. I’ll be calling Roxy again sometime soon.