The chef at the Beixinqiao Luzhu reaches into a witch-sized cauldron with a pair of tongs and fishes out a pig lung and a string of pig intestines.
With a few strokes of his cleaver he chops the offal into pieces, slides them into a bowl of broth, throws in a pinch of cilantro, checks a pile of orders, and delves back into the cauldron again.
We have guts
Local Beijingers love this dish, and a small crowd gathers from the moment the restaurant opens at about 11 a.m.
"Most of the customers come here for our luzhu, it's our specialty," Ye Xiaohu, a 40-year-old worker at the restaurant, told Metro Beijing. "They are almost all Chinese. Westerners sometimes come in the store, but they order noodles instead."
This traditional bowl of luzhu soup is made with chopped millet flour cake, fried tofu, pig lungs, intestines and one slice of head meat. It stinks slightly, but the smell is soon covered when customers add vinegar, garlic and spices. The entrails are soft and juicy from hours of cooking and soaking.
Offal has always been part of the diet in China. Just like the old saying "one man's trash is another's treasure," what some Westerners might deem inedible animal parts are considered by the Chinese as delicacies.
Li Shi, a member of the Beijing Folk Culture Association, told Metro Beijing that there's a reason entrails stayed on the food table for years.
"In the past, the common people were poor and could not afford to buy meat," he said. "That's why they tried everything to make entrails delicious."
Offal dishes are enjoyed for their taste and health benefits, as animal insides are abundant in nutrition. But doctors caution moderation should be practiced when eating, and certain groups should stay away because of health concerns.
Dishes such as luzhu and chaoganr (made with pig liver and intestines) are Beijing specialties, but offal is used in dishes from all over China.
Wu Xuexin came to Beijing from Shanxi Province in 2001, bringing his noodles and sheep entrails soup. "There's no technique involved," Wu said, in the kitchen of his restaurant at Chaoyang road and Zhenzhi road in Chaoyang district. "You just stew a big pot of soup."
But there's more to it than that. The big pot of soup includes sliced sheep heart, liver, lung, stomach and head meat. All the ingredients are boiled with sheep bones every morning for two hours, giving the soup a thick and fragrant taste. Wu said the soup is always a big seller when the weather turns cold.
Offal is often used in snacks as well. Wuhan duck necks have become popular all over the nation, sold in stands, grocery stores and small shops. A few brands specialize in gizzards, livers and intestines, and have become hugely successful.
Not always well-received
Now people are able to afford meat, but entrails are still popular.
As a traditional Beijing snack, luzhu is popular among Beijingers. "Sometimes I miss luzhu so much, and I would come over to the restaurant to satisfy my appetite," 36-year-old Beijing resident Liu Yi told Metro Beijing. She said Westerners don't like it because they haven't had the chance to try.
An American couple from Ohio who wouldn't give their names passed by the Beixinqiao Luzhu restaurant on their way to the Lama Temple. They had no idea the restaurant is famous for its entrails treat and didn't want to try.
"We've been told watch what you eat when you are here because our stomachs aren't used to it," the woman told Metro Beijing. She said she would try it if her guide took them to a restaurant, but not just randomly walk into the store.
Budget your diet
There have been claims entrails are good for one's health and there's a traditional Chinese belief that you are what you eat. Can eating animals' internal organs contribute to being healthy?
Gu Zhongyi, a clinical nutritionist at the Beijing Friendship Hospital, told Metro Beijing while offal dishes are nutritious, they might be harmful in the long run. He says people with high cholesterol and seniors should avoid this food.
"Offal stews usually have lots of vitamins, iron…and are rich in protein," he said. "But there are disadvantages. They might carry remains of heavy metals and are high in fat."
Li explained that in the past people didn't have much access to meat and ate vegetables and coarse grains with the entrails. Fibers contained in the vegetables counterbalanced the animal oil in the entrails, so no health problems arose, he said.
Gu advises mixing offal dishes with vegetables in your diet and not eating organs all the time.
"If you eat a little bit of entrails that won't matter, the cholesterol won't build up," he said.