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.
DONKEY MEAT (驴肉, lǘ ròu)
Regions of use: Worldwide
Tasted at: Zhengyuan Hui Mian // 247 Wulumuqi Zhong Lu, near Wuyuan Lu (乌鲁木齐中路247号, 近五原路). Tel: 159-0088-0345. Hours: 24 hours.
From turning up in South African burgers to getting sold (alongside horse) under the guise of beef in Europe, to its illegal slaughter in Shanghai restaurants, donkey has been the red-headed stepchild of the meat world lately. It’s gotten to the point where people forget that many cultures knowingly eat and enjoy donkey meat – no really, articles had to state that donkey meat isn’t harmful to humans. We assume most Chinese, who raise the most donkeys in the world, didn’t need that memo.
Health benefits/culinary history
An ancient Chinese adage says: “In heaven there is dragon meat, on earth there is donkey meat,” implying that donkey meat is unfortunately the best meat you’ll find on earth. On the flipside, it is “the best meat you’ll find on earth.” And it indeed boasts awesome nutritional perks – low fat, low cholesterol, high protein – and it’s skin gelatin, ejiao is said to beautify the skin, and treat dizziness, insomnia, and uterine bleeding during pregnancy.
Donkey also allegedly played a crucial historical role in Hebei Province, where it’s a staple. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Zhu Di, prince of the ancient state of Yan faced a food shortage after losing a battle with the emperor. To combat this, his soldiers gave him bread filled with horse meat. When Zhu became emperor, these Sea Biscuit sandwiches grew in popularity. Unfortunately horses were far too valuable war beasts to be chow, so they used donkey instead – yes, a time donkey was a legitimate substitute.
Donkey sandwich, 驴肉火烧 (lǘ ròu huǒ shāo)
Today, those sandwiches, called lǘ ròu huǒ shāo (驴肉火烧) consist of unleavened dough pastry stuffed with slow-cooked donkey slices and peppers, and are a popular snack in Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong, and Anhui provinces. There’s also “Donkey’s Three Treasures,” a dish of sliced meat from the donkey’s penis, testicles and kidneys, but the squeamish may want to stick with just the “ass.”
And for that, one of our favorite dishes in town is Henan donkey noodles at Zhengyuan Hui Mian. This grubby little street den serves up hui mian, or hand-pulled wheat noodles that are cut into wide ribbons, and you can see the expert noodlers twirling the dough in the back like gymnasts with streamers. The noods are then boiled in stock simmered down from mutton or goat bones, and tossed into a soup with various other ingredients. The donkey noodle soup (12RMB small, 14RMB large) is a veritable swamp of ingredients (we mean this in the best way possible) with a murky and rich broth, thick wheat noodles intertwined with tofu skin noodles, and crunchy tree-ear mushrooms jockeying for position with cilantro, quail eggs, and of course, crimson-brown hunks of donkey.
Unadventurous eaters might be relieved there’s plenty of other ingredients to disguise the donkey. But there’s nothing to disguise. The meat’s tender, salty, lean, absent of rankness, and there wasn’t nearly enough of it. We’d happily have it fill in for beef in many a Shanghai burger.
Note: Make sure to jot down the dish’s Chinese name, Lü Rou Hui Mian (驴肉烩面), as Hui Mian doesn’t carry English menus.
Though it’s not necessarily “the best meat you’ll find on earth,” donkey is a vastly underrated protein in Western dining circles. Everybody should strive to get a piece of “ass.”
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Beetle grubs, grasshoppers, and silk worm pupae
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].