34 Province Project: Hebei 河北

Hebei, “North of the [Yellow] River” , is a C-shaped province in northern China wrapping around Beijing and Tianjin, not to be confused with its near-namesake Hubei down south. While it has a population of 75 million people, it lacks a clear identity; in most of China, the mountains are high and the Emperor is far away (山高皇帝远 shān gāo, huángdì yuǎn), but Hebei was always right next to the Dragon Throne and thus firmly under the thumb of whoever in charge of Beijing at the time.

In the narrowest possible sense, I technically have been to Hebei since I trundled through some 250 km of it on my way to Xi’an, but our train didn’t even bother stopping at its 10 million strong capital Shijiazhuang, and it was an overnight train to boot. Perhaps I also saw a few Hebei hilltops from atop the Mutianyu Great Wall, but even that seems unlikely since the border was a good 40 km away and it was so hazy I could barely see 2 km.

It is thus not surprising that “Hebei cuisine” (冀菜 Jì cài) does not really seem to exist as a separate entity, without so much as a Wikipedia article to its name. There’s a Hebei branch of Imperial cuisine known as Chengde Royal Cuisine, after a mountaintop summer palace that the Qing emperors used to frequent, but this is hardly the kind of thing I’m looking for in this blog. Yet there was one street food dish that every search for Hebei cuisine always put front and center: donkey burgers (驴肉火烧 lǘròu huǒshāo), immortalised in the catchy slogan “In Heaven there is dragon meat, on Earth there is donkey meat” (天上龙肉,地上驴肉 tiānshàng lóngròu, dìshàng lǘròu). Having already sampled a horse burger (below) in at famous Slovenian chain Hot Horse in Ljubljana, a donkey burger was clearly the next evolution. (Honorable mention goes to Bikkuri Donkey in Japan, whose disquieting name literally means “Donkey Surprise”, but the surprise, whatever it may be, does not seem to involve actual donkeys.)

In theory, this is a simple enough dish, just boil up some donkey, stick it in a huǒshāo bun, and Eeyore’s your uncle. Unfortunately, try as I might, I couldn’t find anybody actually selling donkey burgers in Singapore. Eventually it became clear that while the Singapore Food Agency has a long list of things you can import, including delicacies like MVF0WH WILD GUINEA FOWL FROZEN and MVC081VN VENISON TONGUE CHILLED, donkey in any form was not on the list, and in minutely regulated Singapore, if bureaucrats can’t conceive of it, you can’t have it.

So donkey was off the menu… or so I thought. Fortunately for me, a local retailer whose name, location and contact details I have sadly forgotten didn’t get the memo, and somehow a retort pouch of Donkey Prince Five Spice Donkey Meat (驴太子五香驴肉) may or may not have landed in my possession. The bag does sacrilegiously proclaim that this is a Shandong speciality, but fortunately we all know better.

To my surprise, the second challenge of finding those huǒshāo buns proved nearly as difficult. Fortunately Dough Magic from the Tianjin episode came through once again, with 10-packs of the Xian-style Thousand Layer Buns (千层饼) that you’d use in Shaanxi ròujiāmó “burger”; not quite the same as a huoshao, which is supposed to be more doughy and less flaky, but close enough for me. They come frozen, looking much like miniature roti pratas to the Singaporean eye, and per the instructions, you first fry them in a frying pan to a golden-brown color (you can just about squeeze 3 per pan) and then pop them in a 200-degree oven for 5 minutes until they puff up nicely. As luck would have it, the gas cut out while I was frying batch 2, so no prizes for guessing which batch is which in the oven.

Then I reheated some meat that may or may not have been donkey, shredded it up with a fork, split open a mo and it was time to start singing the Don Don Donki song. And survey says…. yummo! Our mystery meat was mild with no gamey taste or smell, had a nice soft texture that wasn’t stringy at all, and all things considered reminded me quite a bit of slow-cooked shredded beef like you’d get in a good American BBQ place. The five spice was barely perceptible, but a few drops of Mexican habanero sauce livened it up nicely.

And hey, did you know that in Finnish, an awkward segue between two topics is called a “donkey bridge” (aasinsilta)? So now it’s time to pounce onto our next province like Tigger knocking over Winnie the Pooh.

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