It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
Over the past year I’ve brought many fellow Americans along on my eating adventures around Shanghai, some more willing than others. What I’ve observed is that it’s not the Off the Beaten Palate foods like snake, scorpion, sea anemone etc., that put them off the most, but rather many foods I enjoy on a more normal basis such as pork dishes. They’ll gobble down sections of cobra like sausage links while exclaiming “it tastes just like chicken,” ravage a sea worm and note it’s clam-like flavor, and yet various pig parts and even my favorite food, fatty pork belly, get exiled to the side of their plates. When I ask them
how they could commit such culinary treason why, they reply “it’s just…just….strange.” After some thinking I finally realized what was turning them off about the pork. Unlike many of the more exotic foods, which my American friends can actually compare to flavors from their childhood, Chinese pork dishes are nothing like the pork they grew up with.
In 1987, around the time many of my friends were born, an agressive ad slogan entitled “Pork. The Other White Meat.” was targeted at American consumers. It pitched pork (not a white meat) as a healthy white meat substitute to chicken, and promoted lean cuts like tenderloin while rejecting belly and other succulent parts. The ad campaign was hugely successful, and led to new breeds of virtually fatless pigs. A USDA study conducted in 2006 revealed that six common cuts of fresh pork were around 15% leaner today than they were 15 years ago. My dad dubbed the movement “gastronomic genocide” and feared that at the rate we were going, the dinner of the future would just be a pill you took before bed.
Fortunately, that never happened and in today’s foodie-centric US, the fatty heirloom pigs from our grandfather’s generation such as Berkshire have made a comeback along with fattier cuts like belly and shoulder. They even took it a step further with “nose-to-tail” restaurants that specialize in offal and other formerly discarded pig parts, a movement that’s also become popular in the UK and Australia. Unfortunately, as I’ve observed, the movement still has a long way to go before converting all the “Other White Meat” stalwarts.
Thankfully in China, despite all the tainted pork scandals and whatnot, something like “Pork. The Other White Meat.” hasn’t occurred for as long as the Chinese have raised and eaten pigs. Eating various pig parts is not only economical, but each one has its own unique flavor, texture and medicinal properties. In the first of a two-part pig parts series we’ve compiled our experiences trying pork brain, feet, lung, and intestine, which will hopefully convince some of my friends to give them a second try.
PIG’S FEET (豬脚, zhū jiǎo)
Regions of use: Europe, South America, Asia
Tasted at: Di Shui Dong (滴水洞饭店) // 5 Dongping Lu, near Hengshan Lu (东平路5号, 近衡山路) // Closest Metro Stop: South Shanxi Road (陕西南路) Line 1
Prized for their collagen which benefits the skin and muscles, pig’s trotters are eaten throughout China, and are prepped in a variety of different ways, including fried, pickled, and braised. In Shanghai, many prefer the braised trotters of Qibao Old Town or Zhujiajiao, but we always go for the spicy Hunan pig’s feet (48RMB) at Di Shui Dong because we feel they best balance flavor and texture. These feet are chopped up so you can just pluck em up with your chopsticks and scrape around the bone with your teeth. Their texture’s what we’d describe as the unctuousness of pork belly married with the tensile nature of tendon with a slight gluey feel on the molars. When you’ve finished chiseling off the meat, suck the marrow out of the little bone tubes.
PIG’S LUNG (豬肺, zhū fèi)
Regions of use: China, Southeast Asia
Tasted at: Song Tao Family (松逃人家) // 27 Yunnan Lu, near Ninghai Dong Lu (云南路27号, 近宁海东路) // Closest Metro Stop: People’s Square (人民广场) Lines 1, 2, 8
Though you wouldn’t believe it listening to the daily chorus of phlegm-hocking in Shanghai, eating pig’s lungs is said to ease coughing and reduce mucus secretion. Lungs were a bastard to track down, but we finally found lung soup or zhu fei tang (48RMB) at a little hole-in-the wall called Song Tao Family. This cold-weather dish consists of burly hunks of lung swirling around in a bowl of rich, cloudy stock, which you ladle into smaller bowls. We’d characterize the texture as what you’d get if someone turned the tables on vegans and made mock tofu out of meat; mushy and wobbly and yet somehow also resilient like a pork-chop. The flavor, on the other hand, is unmistakably meaty with a slight hint of barnyard scent, but not enough to kill a fabulous dish.
PIG’S INTESTINES (豬肠, zhū cháng)
Regions of use: Asia
Tasted at: Chunfu Shui Jiao (春福水姣) // 275 Nandan Lu, near Caoxi Bei Lu (南丹路275号, 近曹西北路) // Closest Metro Stop: Xujiahui (徐家汇) Line 1/9
Pork intestines, unlike lungs, are not believed to benefit the corresponding human organ, and due to their high fat content, they could conversely make your intestines resemble fatty pork intestine if you ate too many. But they’re damn scrumptious, which is why Shanghai abounds with more intestines than a goresploitation flick. Though they’re most common fried at Sichuan hotpot places, our go-to gut is braised large intestine or liu fei chang (32RMB) at the neighborhood Dongbei joint, Chunfu Shujiao. Served diced into small inner-tube-like sections with onions and peppers, these guys are basically grouted with fat that gushes every time you bite down. What else can we say, but although pig colon may sound off-putting on paper, it’s one of our favorite foods in town.
PIG’S BRAIN (豬脑, zhū nǎo)
Regions of use: Worldwide
Tasted at: Hai Di Lao Huoguo (海底捞火锅店) // 468 Changshou Lu,
near Changde Lu (长寿路468号, 近常德路) // Closest Metro Stop: Changshou Road (长寿路) Line 7
Probably the most bizarre of the bunch, pork brain is a popular Sichuan delicacy that’s said to nourish your liver and kidneys, replenish blood, and relieve headaches. Our chosen brain eatery was Hai Di Lao Huoguo, a spiffy Sichuan hotpot chain, where brain is listed as one of the hotpot ingredients. Shortly after we “picked their brain” (36RMB for four), four glistening pink domes arrived wrapped in lettuce leaves. The waitress placed a raw brain on a spoon, submerged it in the bubbling hotpot, and after 8-10 minutes pulled out the white-gray result before poking the inside to make sure there were no pink patches left. With that scene from Hannibal on repeat in my head, I snatched a piece of lobe with my chopsticks and bit in. It was soft and mushy like tofu meeting bone marrow meeting liquefied pork loin, loaded with fat, and damn good. That was one pig that couldn’t keep me off its mind.
Hopefully, as the “nose-to-tail” and “pigs with actual flavor” movements spread throughout the US and other countries that aren’t as acclimated to offal and fatty pork, more expats in China will discover the magic of Chinese pig parts. Refusing to eat anything but pork tenderloin in China is like going to Jesse Restaurant , wiping your hands on the napkins, and leaving. We’ll be back next month with part two of this pig-part two-parter!
Author’s note: Due to other obligations and the fact that Shanghai does not have an unlimited supply of exotic foods, Off the Beaten Palate has changed from a biweekly to a monthly series.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Stinky tofu
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].