At first glance, nothing stands out about the Shennongge Medical Cuisine Hot Pot restaurant in Liuzhou, southern China, but you can get the meat of endangered animals here—if you know how to ask for it.
The restaurant provides an assortment of exotic dishes, among them stewed wattle-necked softshell turtle, chopped snake with spiced salt, the endangered giant salamander, and a strange but otherwise innocuous-sounding “sliced caterpillar fungus.”
The “fungus,” coming in at a whopping 1180 yuan (about $180) per order, is no fungus at all, but meat from the nearly-extinct Chinese pangolin.
Chinese pangolins are a relative of the anteater. The animal is about two feet long and is covered in armored scales. Only a few thousand are still alive in southern China and bordering states—a fraction of populations estimated in the 1970s. Pangolins are a prime target of poachers, who hunt the animals in their inaccessible and largely unregulated habitat.
By local belief, pangolin meat is good for blood circulation, depending on one’s body type.
The sale of pangolin meat is illegal in China. Offenders, if discovered, can be sentenced to over ten years in prison, be fined, and have their property confisticated.
The medical cuisine hot pot restaurant started using the system of passwords a few years ago when the authorities cracked down on its open sale of endangered meat, the Nanguo Morning News reported. According to one elderly local, to get pangolin meat one must either ask for “earthworm” in the local dialect, or inquire “if there has been any fresh caterpillar fungus imported recently.”
Insiders familiar with the poaching business told Nanguo Morning News that supply of pangolins in China is tight, so most of the animals must be smuggled from Southeast Asia. This has jacked up prices to 2,000 yuan (about $300) for a kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of pangolin meat.
Unfortunately, the increasing rarity of the meat seems to have simply made it a more popular item for customers with the cash to spare, according to one customer. Another told Nanguo that he was interested since he was feeling unwell and was looking into food therapy.
Shennongge is the only restaurant in Liuzhou that sells pangolin meat, and it has a good reputation among its customers, many of whom were government officials dining on taxpayers’ money.
“Several years ago, when eating on public funding was not as well-regulated, this restaurant was filled to capacity,” one customer said.
With various anti-corruption measures having been instituted in the last few years, demand has dipped, but it’s still necessary to make reservations to get a table in the evenings.
Restaurant staff revealed that they regularly cheat their customers. While a portion of pangolin meat is advertised as containing 500 grams (about a pound), the real weight is between 200 and 300 grams. But according to the staff member interviewed by Nanguo, the customers, who pride themselves on their manners, are unlikely to pursue the matter.
“How would such people be willing to weigh the meat on the spot?”