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Notable Sandwiches #58: Donkey Burger
The beloved Chinese street food is one good ass sandwich
Welcome to the latest installment of Notable Sandwiches, where I, alongside my editor David Swanson, trip merrily through the bizarre document that is Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches in alphabetical order. This week: a northern Chinese delicacy—the donkey burger.
First things first: the donkey burger is not a creation of Guy Fieri, notable as he is for slathering everything with his signature donkey sauce. For what it’s worth, I’m fully on board with the Guy Fieri renaissance: initially reviled for his flame-festooned bowling shirts, spike-gelled frosted tips, and general un-ironic enthusiasm, he’s since been embraced by the very culturati that once scorned him, being seen as, all things considered, a generally decent guy in a bitter world. Also, as far as I know—and in accordance with American cultural norms—his patented sauce contains no donkey meat (just garlic, mayo and Worcestershire), unlike the Chinese delicacy we’ll be examining today.
I’ll admit to a smidgen of culturally-modulated distaste, here. I have a lot of childhood memories of hanging out with donkeys—an eccentric and beloved relative cultivated a stableful in Westchester County—and their liquid eyes, perky ears, eager lipping of carrots from my palm, and general vibe of shaggy-coated chill fills me with more nostalgia than hunger.
Still, donkeys were and are beasts of burden in a great many parts of the world, and one burden they bear, particularly in Hebei province in north-central China, is the hunger of men. On the streets of Baoding and Heijian, in Hebei, you can find street stalls and fancy restaurants alike serving up the donkey burger. Offered up in a pocket of flaky bread, it’s less a burger than a sandwich of shredded donkey meat, green chilis and cilantro. It’s also deeply beloved in Hebei, to the point where there’s a saying that “In heaven there is dragon meat, on earth there is donkey meat.”
Unattributed sayings, like anonymous-sandwich-creator anecdotes, are more or less anathema to me, but a quick search of the Chinese phrasing reveals that it adorns lots of blogs and cooking videos, like this one that shows donkeys hanging out idyllically in fields before talk-show hosts make an admittedly pretty fantastic-looking donkey burger on an in-studio stove:
The question of which charismatic megafauna we eat and don’t eat is subject to a lot of cross-cultural misunderstanding, but in the grand order of things, it’s a tyranny of small differences. We eat cows, whose eyes are as liquid and loving as any donkey’s (once I worked on a ranch for the summer which sold some meat, and I swear, after the rancher shot a cow point-blank, the bullock mourned for her for a day and a night, lowing plaintively at the fence near the slaughter site). We eat pigs, which are by any measure ferociously intelligent. We eat goats, which I can attest from a recent spell at a goat-and-lavender farm are stubborn and loving and adorable. They are also absolutely delicious in biryani.
In the US, the “otherness” of certain Asian foods has long been a locus of racist abuse—a grotesque behavior that roared back into life with the zoonotic origins of the Covid-19 pandemic—but it’s hard not to see that as anything but arbitrary cruelty. Eating donkey, or dog or cat for that matter, is more or less a matter of, well, taste, and little else. Unless you’re a vegan, you have little say in the matter; and if you are a vegan, you’ve probably already spread the gospel enough for today. Plus: add green chilis, cilantro, and whatever unctuous long-simmered sauce is depicted in the video above, and shredded me would probably taste absolutely delicious.
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Even if you want to get into some long-winded defense of the equine genus, Americans have neither four legs nor even one to stand on: the US has never successfully banned horse slaughter for human consumption, horses being the taller, even more charismatic cousin of the humble donkey. There’s a patchwork of prohibitions across the country, and Congress has introduced several bills banning horse slaughter for commercial (but not personal) consumption. But no full federal horse-meat ban has passed—and the issue has led to “decades of divisiveness,” according to Ag Daily. One lawsuit lodged last month in California against Amazon claims that a 1998 act prohibiting horse slaughter for human consumption in California covers all equines, including donkeys, at least in spirit. (Wired’s intrepid researchers found at least 15 edible products for sale on Amazon that claimed to include donkey, including the appetizingly named Ass Hide Glue Lumps.)
Of course, eating the equine has a long and storied past among settled and nomad populations alike, all over the world. Horse is still eaten in great quantity by everyone from the Kyrgyz to the Spanish—I had a horse steak once in Tatarstan that tasted a bit like gamey beef and was absolutely fine. (Also, at a Belarusian specialty market on the outskirts of Kyiv back in 2012, I asked if they had canned tuna, only to be told they definitely had canned horse meat, which I declined.) Donkey salami is a Sicilian specialty, and Donna Moderna magazine offers up a slick recipe for agnolotti d’asino.
(For what it’s worth, Fieri’s Food Network colleague Andrew Zimmern is an avowed donkey fan: “You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between it and veal, except that it’s better than veal. It is fantastic, absolutely delicious.”
Alongside fermented mare’s milk, the great horde of Genghis Khan supported their continental conquest by sipping horse blood from their mounts in a kind of proto-Camelbak situation. Closer at hand, hippophagy was all the rage during the rise of the automobile—and the concurrent decline of the horse: During World War I and the Great Depression, horse replaced beef on a great many American tables. So, once again, the notion of deriding another culture based on precisely which ruminant ungulate it chooses to eat seems quite silly.
Do I protest too much? Maybe. It’s hard to judge a sandwich I haven’t eaten and am not likely to eat—nor even taste, unless someone wants to pay for a free ticket to China for me. (I would write about whatever you wanted to, really, and it would be extremely cool to see the Great Wall.) So I’m left with my own vague feelings of distaste, and breaking them down, and analyzing them, sipping on that bitter brew like blood from a horse’s heaving back.
Would I eat it? I mean, probably; one of the lifelong hangovers of having left a faith with extremely strict dietary rules is that I’ve sought out strange tastes ever since. I would certainly like one of those mouthwatering flaky pancake-like buns (shao bing) the donkey burger’s served in; everything else is commentary. Should I ever find myself in Beijing, there’s a non-zero chance I’d make my way to the popular chain Fat Wang’s Donkey Burger. Donkey burgers are a billion-dollar business in China, after all.
Incidentally, of all the unattributed, unprovable and thoroughly suspect sandwich-origin stories introduced in this column so far, the donkey burger may have them all beat. Wang Haibao, an executive at Fat Wang’s Donkey Burger, claimed a heritage for the dish dating back four centuries, to the reign of the Qin Dynasty’s Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799).
“When the emperor was traveling south, he stopped at Hejian Fang in Hebei province,” Wang told CNN. “He felt hungry at night and asked a eunuch if there was anything he could eat. The woman at the house he stayed at made him a pancake. Coincidentally, they had just killed a donkey and stewed its meat, so she put them together and gave it to the emperor.”
The other widespread explanation is a bit more mundane, and eunuchless: the introduction of the railroad to northern China rendered the region’s many working donkeys obsolete, and therefore a tempting new culinary ingredient.
Because I lack the tools, time, language skills and contacts to verify either story, we’ll stick with the emperor, the eunuch and the pancake here at The Sword and the Sandwich HQ. Given the illustrious pedigree of the dish, it’s officially time for you, dear reader, to unwrinkle your nose—tastes change over time, and what was once an object of disgust can just as soon become an object of desire. Just ask donkey sauce guru Guy Fieri, once scorned and now adored. Faced with a hungry emperor, what would you do? Would you not put a donkey to the sword? Otherwise you might have to discover, in short order, whether there is indeed dragon meat in heaven. And whether it’s delicious.