Sunday, October 12, 2014

Heaven on Earth

In certain parts of China, they have a saying: 天上龙肉, 地上驴肉. Roughly translated, this means “In heaven there is dragon meat; on earth, there is donkey meat.” That’s right—the donkey, perhaps the humblest of all equines, is apparently the closest we have on earth to the ambrosia of the gods. If this seems unlikely to you, then you obviously haven’t eaten lú ròu huŏ shāo, a sandwich that makes a compelling argument in favor of donkeys as food.

Historical records suggest that the regional tradition of eating donkey meat goes back to the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). During the reign of the Yongle Emperor at the beginning of the 15th century, some starving military men in dire straits resorted to slaughtering their horses and eating the meat with bread. They were surprised to find that this was an excellent combination, and the custom soon spread to local peasants. Of course horses are not cheap, and the 15th century Chinese peasants could not afford to keep up this practice for very long. In an effort to cut costs, they switched to the more economical donkey meat with bread and found, amazingly, that it was even more delicious than the horse meat. The rest, as they say, is history.

To this day, donkey meat sandwiches are a popular repast in Baoding (as well as Hebei at large). Lú ròu huŏ shāo begins with shredded donkey meat stewed with secret, vendor-specific blends of spices and sauces, which is generously scooped onto a golden, flaky bun. The bread of the sandwich is thick and just a little bit greasy—a perfect complement to the lean, flavorful donkey meat. Sandwiches are a rare find in traditional Chinese food; after eating lú ròu huŏ shāo, you might wish that weren’t so. In no uncertain terms, I can tell you that lú ròu huŏ shāo is fantastic: buttery, juicy, carefully spiced, savory, and lots more. Donkey meat may not be dragon meat, but perhaps it’s the closest we’ve got.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Baoding version (circular bun, warm meat) is actually very hard to find outside of that city, whereas the Hejian version (rectangular bun, cold meat) is far more often found in most Chinese cities.

Frank Kasell said...

Yes, thank you for pointing that out. I've had the other version as well. Although both are tasty, the Baoding version is the superior sandwich as far as I'm concerned. (And, of course, I like that it's hyper-local and difficult to find outside of Baoding!)

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