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.
RABBIT HEAD (兔子头, tùzǐ tóu)
Tasted at: Spicy House // Lane 5, 512 Jiashan Lu, near Zhaojiabang Lu (嘉善路512弄5号, 近肇嘉浜路). Tel: (0)21-6433-7217. Closest metro stop: Jiashan Road, line 9.
Easter is approaching fast, and we didn’t really feel like chowing on overpriced milk chocolate and gelatin and yellow 5 shaped like little birds, so we decided to eat the Easter Bunny instead. Specifically, the Sichuan delicacy of rabbit head shellacked with chili paste and sesame seeds.
Like with many modern delicacies from offal to lobster, eating rabbit head was likely borne out of necessity during lean times. The tradition, along with eating dog head and other forms of noggin noshing reportedly went on hiatus during the Mao years, before it allegedly became popularized in the 1990s by a Chengdu rabbit head maven named Ms Chen.
Today you can see fish, pig, duck, and rabbit heads ogling you from menus all over China. Shanghai doesn’t have a signature “hasenpfeffer head” (a widely-available one at least), but slightly south of here in Quzhou, you can get a delicacy of rabbit head, duck head and a fish head served on a plate with two goose feet, called “three heads, one foot.” Yeah, sounds like a bad porno. In Shanghai proper, it’s best to stick with spicy Sichuan rabbit head, which you can find at Chengu hotpot haven, Spicy House.
Spicy House’s version calls for cases of frozen heads bought at a local market. The noggins are thawed and leached of any musk smells, before being simmered in fragrant chili soup until topple-off-the-bone tender. They’re then split down the middle, stir-fried in spices and whacked with chili paste and sesame seeds. This is them……
We know, they don’t exactly conform to the vision of fuzzy velveteen heads with button noses. On the contrary, they’re a bit gaunt, leery, and anatomical. If you turn one of the halves over, you can see the brain, eye, and tongue in the same precise detail you’d find in one of those animal anatomy diagrams in a biology textbook. That parsley garnish doesn’t help much.
Fortunately, the wonderfully fragrant sesame seed-chili sauce does. It’s freaking delicious. Lather this stuff on an old wagon axel, and it’d make it taste good. Thankfully, the tender, dark meat doesn’t taste too shabby either, even if extracting it is a bit of a chore. After you’re done picking at the exterior, flip the noggin over, and go at the fleshy tongue, eye, and best of all, the brain. You’ll find it looks and tastes a bit like a walnut meets foie gras.
The head’s virtually impossible to scavenge totally clean, so don’t feel bad if you leave some strands attached. We’re mere novices ourselves. The grannies at the next table had scoured theirs so thoroughly it could’ve been featured in a Natural History display without being soaked in bleach.
One whole head (two halves) runs you 12RMB. Get at least two, the skull accounts for most of the weight.
A cheap, delicious snack that you can’t afford to miss. At least if you want to get aHEAD in life (zing).
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Crocodile
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].