In Heaven there is Dragon Meat, and
On Earth there is Donkey Meat
That is the saying in Northwest China, in Gansu province and the bordering areas of Xinjiang, Qinghai, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Donkey is revered as the earthly equivalent to dragon meat, and it is widely sought after and enjoyed by many.
Donkey meat is also available in Beijing, Shanghai and most big cities in between, but Gansu is the epicenter of donkey cuisine and where the most delicious dishes can be found. I sampled several donkey dishes, but by far the most delicious was the Donkey with Yellow Noodles (lurou huangmian) had in Dunhuang.
The meat is tender, sweet and delicious. It tastes nothing like pork or beef. For obvious reasons, it does taste a little like horse, only it is sweeter and more tender, and like horse and many hoofy game meats it is also low in fat and high in protein. In addition to tasting good and being a healthy meat, it is also, very inexpensive, which I am sure adds to its popularity. The strips of charchuterie donkey meat for dipping are a little plain, the sandwiches and burgers are too ‘bready’ and the starch interferes with the great flavor of the meat (I favor buffalo steaks over burgers any old day as well), but for this wandering girl, the donkey with yellow noodles was just right. Another thing I like about the dish, was that it was a very “Asian” way to enjoy the dish.
I haven’t fully reconstructed this recipe yet, but my notebook reads: “Lots of sliced garlic, a bit of chopped ginger, spring onions and chilies are stir fried in sesame oil for a few minutes. Mixed vegetables (carrots, sweet red pepper, tomato) and mushrooms are added and sautéed until tender. Toss and add light soy and rice wine (Shaoxing) with a bit of cane or brown sugar and stir. Add tofu (if desired). Some mustard greens are added into the fray and then the precooked donkey slices. Cover and cook to warm. Drain noodles, toss with a light coating of sesame oil if desired. When greens are tender but still bright green and meat warm, remove wok from the heat and serve.” In the restaurant, the noodles were tossed with the meat and vegetables before service and served with chilies marinated in oil and a strong, dark vinegar. Don’t be afraid – it’s delicious!
Another way that I tried and really liked donkey was as donkey kebabs on the street. These are tiny little rib kebabs. Little mouthfuls of meat that are more like Yakitori than like a large Turkic-derived kebab. And the ones I had had been marinating in chilies and sugar and soy and had a light chili paste coating on them. This offset the usually sweet taste of donkey and made it sweet and spicy at the same time. Sort of a teriyaki-like taste but hotter and richer – really good!
As evident in the opening saying, the donkey is revered in Chinese culture – and not only for their taste. The donkey is revered in poetry and painting as the animal that carries the wandering poet or artist on his journeys.
Caught in Drizzle at Sword Gate Pass
Lu You 1125-1210
Traveling clothes, dust caked, wine stained,
Journeying far, overwhelmed by grief.
In this life what am I?
only a poet
straddling a donkey
Entering Sword Gate in a drizzling rain.
These journeys are crucial to artist’s ability to create because they provide him the experience of the world from which his art flows. Sometimes they carry the artist away from his worldly disappointments in the city and into the more spiritual realm of nature and art. In other world views, the donkey is one of Kali’s mounts and in the Christian faith, guess who carried the holy family to Bethlehem and into Egypt? A beast of burden, yes. But also something much more. Something to think about if you venture east and try some donkey delicacies. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Donkey Meat with Yellow Noodles by Laura Kelley; Photo of Yakitori-like Donkey Kebabs by Oxeye @ Dreamstime.com).
Additional: The stories of donkey being butchered alive in China are fabrications. Preparing meat for eating is not pretty, and certainly is not what the animals would choose, but donkeys are treated no better or worse than other animals we consume.