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.
It’s hard to imagine that a hundred years ago Shanghai’s bustling Tongchuan Fish Market was a rural village where farmers rose at the crack of dawn to breakfast not on fish, but chilled lamb with rice wine. Today, old-timers still wake up at 6am to get their lamb-huangjiu (黄酒) fix. And when they do, they prefer Zhenru Yangrou Guan, a restaurant that’s been serving every part of the animal from tongue to testicles for over a century before the modern nose-to-tail movement in the West.
It hasn’t changed much. Zhengrou Yangrou Guan is a rustic-looking haunt straddling a dusky alleyway with not much else. You enter through a curtain of cigarette smoke, and notice that not one face that turns to stare is under 50. You order and pay at a butcher-style counter where cold, pale sheep parts from penises to eyeballs leer at you from metal trays like a sheep autopsy. Resist the urge to go for their hot dishes, there’s a reason cold offal adorns every table in the house. After you order, servers carve and array the offal on a plate with vinegar, chili dip sauce, green onions, and that’s all. Not all parts are in stock everyday, but we tried to sink our teeth into everything available.
Sheep tongue (羊舌頭, yáng shé tóu)
As we wanted our tongue whole for a picture, the presentation was a bit gruesome (as you can see); basically a tongue ripped out at the root and flopped on our plate with shards of jawbone still attached. But it was also rife with flavor, and very tender. Definitely one of the best bits. 65RMB per jin.
Sheep liver (羊肝, yáng gān)
Thin slices that taste chalky, slightly tough, and earthy, much like chilled pig’s liver. 38RMB per jin.
Sheep trotter (羊脚, yáng jiǎo)
Sheep trotter looks gaunter, paler, and all-around less meaty than a pig’s foot but it’s equally flavorful. The gelatinous skin and fatty knobs of tissue connecting the joints make for one of the better bone-gnawing experiences in Shanghai. 48RMB per jin.
Sheep stomach (羊胃, yáng wèi)
If you think haggis is too adulterated with other ingredients, and want stomach in its pure, uncut form, Zhenru Yangrou Guan’s sheep stomach is for you. Their version is a large velvety beast resembling a deflated bag pipe bag, whose texture evokes chomping on a rubber chicken. Not to mention that the pouch is permeated with a rank, barnyard aura. We personally like our stomach used sparingly in dishes like fu qi fei pian, where it adds a nice chewy dimension, and sponges up the sauce, without overwhelming the plate. We advise dousing this rendition in healthy amounts of vinegar and chili and chasing it with a long pull of rice wine. 78RMB per jin.
Sheep testicles (羊蛋, yáng dàn)
Prepared in many different ways around the world such as battered and fried in the US, at Zhenru sheep testicles are served cold and naked. The outside membrane is chewy, like a hard-boiled egg that lifted weights, while the insides have the pasty, slimy feel of hummus. Not bad, but a little bit goes a long way. “Ball”-ram-ewe. 76RMB per jin.
Sheep penis (羊鞭, yáng biàn)
The sheep is far less well-endowed than its yak compatriot. Its member is spaghetti-thin and pallid with a gummy and gristly texture and the tip is rubbery like a baby bottle nipple. I prefer the gelatinous chew of yak penis myself. Then again, the sheep penis reportedly increases virility, but what doesn’t right? 78RMB per jin.
If you’re hesitant about trying the really ‘offal’ bits, Zhenru has got you covered. A good beginner’s dish is the stir-fried sheep lung with green onion (葱羊肺片, cōng yáng fèi piàn, 20RMB) which tastes fatty and tender like lamb tongue crossed with tofu, and ranks up there with Song Tao Family’s pork lung soup. They’re also supposed to decrease congestion, according to my friend and guide to these out-of-the-way spots, Mr. Hu, who knows every trick to strengthening your respiratory system – except to stop smoking three packs of unfiltered Red Golden Dragons a day.
And if that’s still too nitty-gritty, there’s Zhenru Yangrou Guan’s staple, chilled lamb slices (白切羊肉, bai qie yangrou). Splash the slices in vinegar and down with rice wine.
While not every bit of offal is going to make it into our daily diet, we enjoyed more parts than we expected. Zhenru Yangrou Guan seems to be one of the few historic eating institutions left in Shanghai that hasn’t sanitized its fare for tourists or been overrun by “colored hat” tours and toy hawkers.
Zhenru Yangrou Guan – No 1 Siqian Street, near Beishi Road, Putuo District (上海市普陀区寺前街1号, 近北石路). Tel: (0)21-5266-5100. Hours: 6am-10pm. Closest metro stop: Zhenru (真如) Line 11.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Starfish
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].