Donkey meat in a bowl of noodles? In Europe they would call it a "scandal". Here in China, we like to use a different word: "lunch".
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.
Zhengyuan Hui Mian
follows the standard super cheap noodle shop template. It's a grotty, grubby little hovel that may or may not adhere to the minimum municipal sanitation standards. The floor is littered with discarded napkins and disposable chopstick wrappers. Seating is communal, and, more often than not, you'll wind up sitting down to remnants of the previous diner's meal. The best you can hope for is a cursory swipe with a wet rag that has been God knows where else. Still, the place draws a crowd. In a city where that green happy face is probably very easily bought, the best litmus test for cleanliness is a full restaurant. What's more, the kitchen is almost fully visible from the dining room. Sunshine, as they say, is the best disinfectant.
The specialty here is hui mian
. It's comfort food from Henan, a province that usually gets short shrift when we talk about China's diverse culinary landscape. Literally translated as "braised noodles," hui mian
is a wheat noodle that's cut thick and stretched flat by hand. At Zhengyuan, you'll see the the cooks pulling the stuff into shape with one hand and spooling it loosely on the other. The noodles are then boiled in a rich, hearty broth made from simmered mutton or goat bones. It's a versatile platform that's suitable for any number of ingredients. The Henanese like to add to it meats like mutton and beef, seafoods like sea cucumber and squid as well as other odds and ends like boiled quail eggs and wood ear mushrooms. They've been known to throw some donkey meat in there as well. That's what I came for.
This is what donkey meat looks like...
I know. I was expecting something a little more foreboding and exotic too. This stuff, however, doesn't look much different from the corned beef you'd get at a New York deli. It doesn't even smell funny. Mutton, a meat most of you have probably eaten, has a characteristic funk about it -- that unmistakable blend of armpit and barbecue. Donkey, at least as prepared by Zhengyuan, has none of that. And how does it taste? Well, donkey is probably the only foodstuff on the planet that you can describe as tasting like ass and it won't be a value judgement. In this case, ass tastes quite good. There is absolutely nothing objectionable about it; it's as mild as veal. In fact, with this particular dish at least, the flavor comes more from the five spices seasoning than the meat itself. It's obviously been braised for several hours, so it's as tender as pot roast. I imagine this is the only way to make most cuts from sinewy draft animals remotely edible. All told, there is nothing to be afraid of. I mean, some of you have probably already eaten donkey before without even realizing it
It's worth noting that the dish in the picture is not Zhengyuan's namesake hui mian
. Rather, it's their ban mian
, which basically means "noodles not served in soup." Instead, the noodles are tossed in a simple mix of chili oil and fermented black beans with a few sprigs of coriander on top. You still get the mutton broth; it's served on the side. It looks like this...
To go with all this is a simple selection of condiments. Every table has a small tin of chili oil studded with sesame seeds as well as bowl of chopped dried chilies.
Use this stuff sparingly, they cut it with quite a lot of MSG. You can feel the granules crunch between your teeth as you bite into the noodles.
Not a lick of English is spoken in Zhengyuan, and the menu is hanzi only. So if you are Chinese-impaired, here is an ordering guide for a few key menu items:
Donkey Hui Mian: 驴肉烩面 (Lü Rou Hui Mian)
Beef Hui Mian: 牛肉烩面 (Niu Rou Hui Mian)
Mutton Hui Mian: 优质烩面 (You Zhi Hui Mian)
Five Spices Donkey Ban Mian: 五香驴肉拌面 (Wu Xiang Lü Rou Mian)
Red Braised Beef Ban Mian: 红烧牛肉拌面 (Hong Shao Niu Rou Ban Mian)
Red Braised Lamb Ban Mian: 红烧羊肉拌面 (Hong Shao Yang Rou Ban Mian)
All hui mian
dishes are 12rmb for a small bowl, 14 for large. Ban mian
goes for 13 and 15rmb respectively.
Finally, not to put too fine a point on things, take special care with your pronounciation of the Chinese word for donkey, “驴” (lü). I put that umlaut over the "u" for a reason. Pronounce it as such, and be sure to use the second (rising) tone. Otherwise, the lady at the cash register may think you're talking about stewed pork or venison. Both are homophones; neither are on the menu.
For a listing of Zhengyuan Huimian, click here.