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Lurou huoshao, or baked flour cake with donkey meat stuffing, is the most popular donkey meat snack. CFP
That sure-footed animal of treacherous mountain trails is also a delectable source of meat and aphrodisiacs. Ye Jun reports
While the donkey is known as a hardworking animal with a formidable stamina, few know that it is also a delicious source of meat.
Although not as common as beef or lamb, most Chinese who have tried donkey meat would agree that it is very tasty. In fact, an old Chinese saying goes: "Dragon meat in the sky, and donkey meat on earth".
The donkey is consumed widely in the northern Chinese provinces of Shandong, Anhui, Hebei, Shanxi and Shaanxi, especially in Hebei. Beijing is greatly influenced by this donkey-eating culture. There are many small restaurants offering the famous lurou huoshao, or baked flour cake with donkey meat stuffing, besides quite a few speciality donkey-meat restaurants serving dishes made from different body parts of the donkey.
The freshly baked cakes with donkey stuffing are often a surefire winner. Costing 4-8 yuan (59 cents to $1.17) each, they are crispy on the outside and soft within. The braised donkey stuffing is chopped fine, and mixed with refreshing coriander or green pepper. That, paired with a bowl of millet congee, is a favorite Chinese breakfast combination.
At speciality restaurants, the menu can often seem like a donkey-meat cookbook. Some of the eateries serve a hotpot, with the braised meat and vegetables. Sometimes this comes with the animal's skin for an even better taste.
Donkey skin is also made into a cold appetizer and is gelatin rich. Ejiao, a popular traditional Chinese medicine, is actually made from donkey skin. It is believed to replenish energy and improve blood circulation. This beautifying effect is much sought after by women.
A popular way to cook donkey meat is to slow-cook and stew it with soy sauce, until it turns reddish brown. It can then be sliced and served as a cold appetizer, or minced to stuff the flour cakes.
In Hebei's Xushui county, where the tradition of cooking donkey meat goes back some 300 years, the meat is first boiled for 3-4 hours, then stewed with a variety of seasoning ingredients such as Sichuan pepper, fennel, cinnamon, ginger and salt for 6 hours, before being simmered for another 10 hours. The whole process takes as long as 22 hours. Cured donkey meat from the county, sealed in vacuum bags, can now be found on supermarket shelves throughout the country.
Another popular dish is quick-fried donkey meat with spring onion, just like lamb. Donkey tendon is stewed, or boiled and fried. The meat can be minced to use in boiled dumpling. Like for beef and pork, the intestines and stomach are boiled or fried. The kidneys are quick fried.
Chinese men believe in animal aphrodisiacs and donkey private parts are a particular favorite.
Many dishes using these parts can be found in the dedicated donkey-meat restaurants. They may look no different from tendon, or other meats, and sometimes the restaurant or your host may be too polite to spell out what exactly they are and resort to euphemisms.
"Donkey three treasures" (or three items), for example, refers to a mixture of slices from the penis, testicles, and kidney. "Donkey coin-money" is usually the round, coin-shaped slices of the donkey penis.
Many believe donkey meat first appeared in Xushui county of Baoding in Hebei. There are different versions of the story, but one says Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) prince Zhu Li (1360-1424) rebelled against the emperor, his nephew. He lost his first war and was so short of food that his soldiers started to serve him horsemeat stuffed in baked flour cakes. When he later became the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the popularity of these flour cakes spread. But horses were valuable in war, and the meat got replaced by donkey meat.
Since then people have taken to donkey meat in a big way, favoring it for its better taste, finer fiber, and less fat than horse meat. Fans of donkey meat also say it is high in protein, and contains more minerals such as calcium, iron and phosphorus, compared to pork, beef and lamb. Unlike pork and chicken, donkeys feed mostly on grass or crop stems and rarely catch a disease.
The popularity of donkey meat is pushing up prices. Currently, the price of raw donkey meat in the Beijing market is more than 40 yuan per 500 g, which is much more than that of beef or lamb.
While donkey meat is indeed delectable, most donkey meat restaurants are small to mid-range that are short on dcor and presentation. The meat is still not available in big, formal restaurants.
The most expensive donkey meat dish I have had was in a fancy courtyard restaurant. The meat was cooked in an exquisite bronze hotpot with soft-shelled turtle. While it tasted great, it set me back 388 yuan for a small helping for 2-3 people. I prefer to stay with the 4-yuan donkey cake.