Memory is the third place I've visited on my self-guided tour de frog meat, and there are no legs—only fat stomachs and abdomen. This time, I suck on ribcages instead of toes.
My explorations of spicy bullfrog—a dish from China's central Sichuan province that's now popular across the country—have led me to Memory, a restaurant on the fourth floor of a Western-style, Bruno Mars-playing mall a couple blocks shy of Shanghai's bustling Nanjing Road. Here, the only thing longer than the line to get in is the menu, which boasts such gems of mistranslation as mom chicken legs, gold groping and a whole thing.
A whole thing turned out to be an accurate name, actually, as I wasn't quite able to discern what kind of thing I was eating. Tofu? Congealed bean paste? It was soft, sweet and vaguely fishy.
But that's beside the point. I'd read a good review of Memory's spicy bullfrog, and so I went.
When a Chinese friend first pointed out a spicy bullfrog joint on our street in Hangzhou, I thought she might have misspoken. I'd heard of fancy French restaurants selling frog legs, but never of mom-and-pop spots serving the same fat frogs I'd once run away from as a little girl.
She was right, though. People first began dropping bullfrogs into tubs of steamy broth in Sichuan, the Central Chinese province known for its blisteringly spicy food. Since, the dish has made its way to restaurants in just about every region of the country. Sichuan's sticky, marshy climate makes bullfrogs easy to find, and now people all over queue up for hot pots of spicy frogs and leave trails of tiny bones in their wakes.
When peppercorns were introduced from South America in the 18th century, the Sichuanese began using them as an antidote for their region's humidity. Ever since, the cuisine has been known for its intense spice, and its bullfrog dishes are no exception.
But Sichuan food history stretches farther back. A particular milestone for the province's dishes came during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279—we're talking almost 1,000 years ago) when the first Sichuan restaurant opened in then-capitol Hangzhou.
The same city where, come 2014, I lose my bullfrog virginity.
The spot was a hole-in-the-wall. There, the owner graciously stood over my table as I fumbled my way through the dish. I got step-by-step instruction on frog eating. I learned to suck the white meat off the frog legs until all that was left was a pile of tiny toe bones in my mouth. I learned to spit them out into the bowl provided.
Frog-eating goes like this: You sit on a big table with a stovetop in front of you, and servers place a pot of boiling spicy broth on top. You choose what meats and vegetables you want in the broth, as well as the level of spice. You wait as said meats and vegetables cook to completion, occasionally using your chopsticks to drag a frog body out by the (webbed) foot to check on its progress. You do not eat it before it's done.
The result? Soft white meat that without the spice would actually be quite mild. Think chicken, but whiter.
Still, it's not for the faint of heart. Even outside of Sichuan, the dish generally remains loyal to its spicy roots, and tiny peppercorns bob up and down in the fiery orange broth. The frog meat soaks it all up nicely, and what's more, many people choose to dip it in savory brown sauce after pulling it out of its stew.
At Memory, the spice was toned down– I presume for the international customers a central-Shanghai eatery must cater to. It was a more cosmopolitan bullfrog experience. I ate a tamer version of the dish in a trendier vintage-themed atmosphere. (And if you think "vintage" is a vague theme for a restaurant, you're correct—a gramophone sat displayed in the same corner as a 1990s Super Nintendo.)
Meanwhile in Beijing, long lines form outside joints on Ghost Street emblazoned with cute cartoon frogs. On balmy summer nights, would-be diners sit on tiny stools out front munching on crackers and nuts as they wait for tables.
The frog frenzy is real. But more importantly, it's warranted. In the West, we don't think of swampy bogs as ideal places to harvest meat.
But why not? Bullfrogs may not be, say, cute, but they are protein-packed. They are readily available in China and the U.S. Some of them also do cool things like eat foot-long garter snakes.
But most of all, they're delicious. Pile on the peppercorns.