From steamed dumplings to hot pot, traditional Chinese food has often proved hugely popular in the West. Now, Chinese restaurant owners are hoping they have found the next delicacy to crack the Western market — donkey burgers.
In Beijing, the unusual dish is undeniably popular. At lunch hour, diners pour into the brightly colored “Fat Wang’s Donkey Burger” restaurant in the busy Beijing central district of Xicheng.
Sitting at a counter with a group of friends, Beijing local Wang Li Min is tucking into the restaurant chain’s signature donkey burger, which comes in a long, thin bun with spring onions. “In China, we have a saying,” Wang says, between bites. “In heaven, there is dragon meat. On Earth, there is donkey meat.”
Originally a northern Chinese delicacy from Hebei province, the donkey-based snack has spread to major cities across the country. There are more than 20 Fat Wang’s branches in Beijing alone.
Just how popular donkey burgers are across the whole of China is debated. According to Sun Yu Jiang, a professor at the Qingdao Agricultural University, heavy demand is only really isolated to a few big provinces such as Hebei or Xinjiang.
“Donkey meat is not the mainstream product of meat consumption,” he says. “Most people in China are more likely to eat pigs, poultry, cattle and sheep.”
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But Zhang Haitao, the official Hebei government-sanctioned representative of the donkey burger and founder of the Kung Fu Donkey restaurant chain, says demand is growing faster than supply. He even thinks it could go global.
“When I was the president of the Hejian Donkey Burger Association (earlier this year), the market value of the donkey burger business was about 8 billion yuan per year,” he says. That’s around $1.1 billion. “But if the donkey meat market can improve, the industry’s market value could be at least 100 billion yuan in the future,” he adds.
Fast food sensation?
Originally from Hebei, Fat Wang’s is one of China’s largest donkey meat restaurant chains. Apart from their signature donkey burgers, they also are known for donkey meat hotpots.
Regional head Wang is very particular about how to handle donkey meat. “It has to be from donkeys that are older than three years. If they are too young, the meat will be too soft to eat. If the meat is frozen it won’t taste good,” he says.
Wang explains that it is their family’s recipe for donkey burgers they use to this day. And now they want to share it with the world.
Kung Fu Donkey’s Zhang says there are already several people looking into opening branches overseas.
“It has been called a model for ‘Chinese fast food’ … The cooking procedure of donkey burger can be standardized like the hamburgers of McDonald’s and KFC,” he says, adding that he’d like to emulate the success of hot pot sensation Haidilao, which has hundreds of branches around the world.
Whoever gets there first, Wang says he’s happy to wait as he’s not worried about his competition.
“Their burgers will never taste like ours,” he says.