The first time I had donkey meat was during my first week in China all the way back in the end of 2005. I stayed with a host family and they actually served it for breakfast. I am not used to start my day with meat but since my resolution was to be more open minded I went a head and gave it a try.
“What’s that?” I asked my host father with my very limited Chinese.
“lǘ ròu” he replied fully aware I would have no idea what it meant.
He waited a few seconds to see if I was getting my dictionary, but since it was 07:00 AM apart from slow munching I barely made any sign of movement at all and just stared blankly.
“Donkey!” He said with a proud smile and I couldn’t tell whether it was because it was a chance to demonstrate his fine English skills or because it was a treat held in high honors and serving it was a kind of special occasion.
Maybe it was because of the way my host mom made it, or because it was too early in the morning for my stomach, but it wasn’t love at first bite. In the seven years that followed it didn’t even occur to me to give it a second chance. But a couple of weeks ago my friend Gino came along and said I should write about this delicious snack most foreigners tend to stay away from. In fact he even agreed to recommend to FOODragon’s readers personally:
I now understand why the Chinese say 天上龙肉，地上驴肉 (in Heaven there is dragon meat, on Earth there is donkey meat). The next time you stumble behind a construction site to see the local 外地 migrants eating kebab looking sandwiches under the banner of a donkey head, please do not be afraid. Apart from these people being incredibly nice, the product they are peddling is always the most authentic. Donkey meat has a very strong taste akin to Lamb or even Deer so if you only like bland food, then I suggest you stay away. If you are afraid or have qualms about eating a member of the equine family, then please get off your high horse and remember that such food is considered a delicacy in leading cuisine nations France, Belgium and Hungary. That first bite will remind you of a Cornish pastie – but with flavour. Add a little vinegar, coriander and chili and you have yourself a gourmet meal for 7RMB. When you have had a few, or if you’re hoping to keep warm while u wait for yours, then load up on some donkey soup, equally tasty and equally good value.
Jino left China a couple of years ago so it was up to me to complete the research. I gladly renewed my 2005 resolutions and set upon the Quest for a Piece of Ass. I traveled around Beijing, checked out restaurants, took photos and learned everything you need to know about this gourmet snack.
驴肉火烧 (lǘ ròu huǒ shāo) is a popular snack from the area of Hebei Province. 驴肉 is donkey meat and 火烧 means burned down but it refers to the type of pastry the meat is served in, which made of unleavened dough. The meat is first boiled, then chilled, then chopped and mixed with green pepper.
The standard sandwich come with meat mixed with epidermal fat. It gives the filling a more greasy texture but many of you might find it a bit difficult to chew and swallow. Here enters the second type of sandwich which costs one or two kuais more, but contains no fat. I like the latter kind better and I second Jino’s recommendation to order a bowl of clear donkey soup with it, because it’s drier than the basic one. Here’s a photo of both sandwiches, you can see the fat in the top one:
While in the west we try very hard no to think about our meal’s previous life, in China it’s quite the opposite. Many donkey meat restaurant hang posters of donkeys living happily in green pastures with the caption 驴吃百草,浑身是宝;人吃驴肉,健康长寿 – ‘donkey eats rich grass and its entire body is a treasure; people eat donkey and live long and healthy’.
When they say the entire body they mean it, because nothing goes to waste. Soups and sandwiches of donkey’s heart, liver, stomach, kidney, intestines, tongue, tendons and even genitalia are also on the menu if you’re brave enough (I wasn’t). By the way, it’s not all soups and sandwiches. Many of these restaurants serve common dishes with a donkey twist like donkey meat dumplings, donkey meat noodles, cold meat slices in soy sauce and more.
The tradition of eating donkey meat is believed to have started in the city of Hejian (河间) in Hebei Province. Donkey meat restaurants are very common in Heibei region, Beijing, Tianjin and Shandong Province. Usually there are small and a bit hard to spot. They all have a big sign with four characther – 驴肉火烧, like so:
In Beijing I found 4 restaurants and personally tried three of them, all in different parts of the city.
North – Wudaokou Area
On the south side of Chengfu road, very close to Beijing University and Qinghua University there’s a very welcoming restaurant owned by a really nice guy. I found his place to be the best.
East – Chaoyang District
Right between Sanyuanqiao and Liangmaqiao subway stations on light 10, there’s a nice little restaurant run by cute married couple.
Center – Andingmen and Houhai Area
Very close to Andingmen subway station on line 2, where Wudaoying hutong end there’s a quite little restaurant which also sells classic Beijing yogurt. If it’s too hot for soup, the yogurt is an excellent alternative.
Other than these three restaurants which are small and serve only donkey meat, I spotted bigger one which also serves many common dishes, so if you’re looking to have a big Chinese meal and just try donkey meat on the side, this is the place to do it. It is beautifully located in Deshengmen right between Houhai and Xihai parks, so you can have a nice lakeside stroll after your meal. I have tried this place myself (yet) but you are welcome to do so and let me know how it was.
View Donkey Meat Restaurants in Beijing in a larger map
And just to prevent any unfortunate misunderstanding which might involve equine genitalia here’s a Chinese – English – Pinyin menu:
That’s it. Now go out there, try it and share your thoughts with the rest of us.
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