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[Eat It]: Donkey Burgers

Looking at chopped donkey, seeing common ground. An attempt to unite Hebei and Montreal with the help of a sandwich.
2015-05-12 10:06:16

It’s a stretch to call Northern Courtyard’s chief donkey cook a chef. But, hey, disposable chef’s toques are cheap and what he’s doing is special for Shanghai: a donkey “sandwich” that is made like corned beef, ordered and served like tacos, and held together with a warm, flaky flatbread. The donkey huoshao.

I didn’t get his name. In fact, I didn’t get much out of him except a generally suspicious glare, and this bemused smile.

I was hoping for a walk-through of the process, from donkey in the field to donkey in the sandwich, and what I got is this: various donkey parts, which have been pre-processed, are shipped from Hebei province, the donkey’s domain, in vacuum packaging, to this little shop in the southern bit of Putuo district, known in Chinese as Beifang Xiaoyuan Lurou Huoshao. (Lots of other parts, including kidney, liver and a sandwich filled with donkey skin jelly, are on the menu. So is the penis, which seems expensive at 360rmb per jin, unless you are the poor donkey supplying this part.) Eventually, I got enough grunts out of the cook to work out the following:

1. The cured donkey parts (everything but the shanks; male donkeys are better; don’t ask why) are simmered in a spiced broth and cooled

2. Donkey skin is boiled to make pidong, the same “jelly” that goes into xiaolong bao and shengjian bao to give them juice

3. A flaky flatbread, made with donkey lard, is rolled out, slowly griddled and then held in a low-temperature oven until you order

4. You come in

5. One of the Gang -- a crew of young guys, all from Baoding -- chop the meat, dice a raw green pepper and cube the pidong

What is left unsaid -- in fact, what is explicitly denied -- is what I find the most interesting. This is a Chinese corned beef sandwich. The process for making corned beef, or any corned meat, hinges on the addition of curing salts. A hunk of meat is soaked in a liquid of dissolved curing salts and flavorings, which does its chemical magic. In the process, it kills bacteria and fixes the tell-tale pink color of the meat. It also adds flavor. Hot dogs, hams, bacon, pastrami -- they all use similar curing salts, and in that respect, you could call them cousins.

In the foreground, the toffee looking stuff, that’s the pidong. It’s supple. To put it in corned beef terms, it’s like the fat -- you can have your huoshao with varying degrees of pidong (5rmb, all pidong; 7rmb, a bit of pidong, more meat; 10rmb, all meat, no pidong). It serves the same purpose: adding a bit of suppleness and a shot of flavor.

Have a look at the sandwich:

Cooked meat, like this, doesn’t naturally arrive at such a pink color, hence the curing salt deduction. Northern Courtyard won’t tell you that. In China, we’re all paranoid about food safety, and it’s much easier to deny that “chemicals” are present than to explain that even table salt is a chemical, and can be deadly in large enough doses. It’s not about “chemicals”; it’s about the amount. But let’s not dwell. What’s interesting is that halfway around the world from the West’s corned beef, China has been quietly doing the same thing, but with donkey.

As I was thinking about all of this the other week, a bright idea popped into my mind. Tock’s! Tock’s does cured, smoked meat, and pastrami and corned beef are practically cousins. (Corned beef = cured but not smoked. Pastrami = corned beef + smoke + more cooking.) I’ll introduce the Chinese corned beef guys to the pastrami-in-China guy, Brian Tock!, I thought. It will be a natural bridge, putting these two far-apart cultures, the Hebei Donkeyboys and the Montreal Smokers, together. They’ll eye each other suspiciously, then bond over their similar work, and, ultimately, have a heartwarming moment where we laugh about how humanity is just one big brotherhood and aren’t the bonds just so reaffirming and basically don’t we just all want the same thing in life. I mean, how different can man be if, no matter where he is, you give him meat and he comes out with the corned beef sandwich?

But it turns out that Brian Tock is guarded like an NFL quarterback. My calls to Tock’s were blocked by the offensive (as in they play offense, not that they were odious) waitress line, then caught in a manager’s net (we laughed about the similarity, and she made promises to “pass the info on to Brian”) but ultimately came up empty-handed. Finally, I ambushed him, just showing up at the restaurant in the middle of a busy weekday lunch service. As I waited, a bit surprised I might finally be allowed into the inner circle, my idea started to seem less bright. I watched plates of thick, sliced smoked meat go by, fat juicy slices with obvious marbling and a dark black edge around them, and looked down at the wimpy donkey sandwiches I brought in a cheap plastic bag. Suddenly, I felt like a kid who brought a dirty tissue to show-and-tell. The differences between the huoshao and a smoked meat platter on rye bread seemed silly and obvious. The disinterest on the Donkeyboys’ faces when I explained Jewish cured meats to them should have been a warning.

And then, just as I was considering running away, Brian Tock himself, in the flesh, unsmoked, unguarded, busy from setting up a new shop in Shanghai Centre and wary from self-important business people who call and demand that he -- and only he -- take their order, eventually emerged. He listened to my little pitter-patter about parallel cultures and the way huoshao uses donkey fat as shortening in the bread, and took a bite. He was quiet for a second and my stomach tightened. “I thought donkey would be stronger,” he said, and then, kindly, “good, though.”

Yes, and yes. And therein is why it’s worth a trip to a generic-looking shop in Putuo. Put a donkey through the corned beef process (or a cow through the corned donkey process) and what you come out with is remarkably similar.

The other fun bit is the flatbread, the “huoshao” from which the whole sandwich takes its name. It’s warm, it’s flaky and it’s small enough that you need to order two or three huoshao -- if you have an appetite -- which then come leaning up against each other for support. Not unlike proper tacos and not too far off in size.

By the time the entire sandwich has been assembled, it doesn’t matter at all that it’s donkey. Flavor-wise, the animal is irrelevant. In New York, there might be mustard. In Hebei, certainly not. And in the end, it may not be enough for me to pin my message of peace, understanding and corned unity on -- but at least it’s delicious.


Beifang Xiaoyuan Lurou Huoshao, a.k.a. The Donkey Burgers Spot, is located at 107 Xingshan Lu, near Meiling Nan Lu in Putuo Qu. Full listing.