After spending four days in June in a little town in China that offers world-class cuisine and plenty of it, CHIN MUI YOON thought she would be able to handle all things gastronomic without batting an eyelash. Until the rabbit festival...
WARNING! If you think of happy little bunnies hopping about looking adorable when the word “rabbit” is mentioned, this article is not for you?.
I think of them as pets, myself, so I was not very enthusiastic about having to attend the Fourth Chinese Rabbit Meat Festival in Huangpu, China. But us Chinese are famous for eating practically everything, so I took a deep breath, girded my loins and walked into the town’s International Exhibition Centre.
Huangpu is a township in Zhongshan, which is a prefecture located in Guangdong province in fast-developing southern China. And people in China’s south, it seems, are not at all phased at tucking into rabbit – after all, gourmands in Guangdong province regularly indulge in dogs, cats, racoons, rats, lizards and snakes! So it’s not surprising that thousands of people walk with me into the centre, which is filled with the smoky aroma of grilled and barbecued bunnies as well as the sounds of a live concert.
Cages exhibiting the animals don’t help my queasy stomach, as they only exacerbate the contrast with the chunks of delicately charred meat being offered at the food stations. Fortunately, the rabbits aren’t slaughtered in front of us – and the white meat resembles chicken. Really!
Rabbit meat is popular in the West because of its heart-healthy leanness. The Romans are believed to have begun raising and eating rabbits in the third century. But, somehow, for all its appeal, rabbit meat never became haute cuisine and has remained “country-styled” food.
Europe is the centre of world rabbit production, accounting for 75%, the FAO (the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation) reports. Italy leads with over 300,000 tonnes of rabbit meat exported annually – a figure that China is keen to match or, better still, overtake.
“Meat is meat, it is meant to be eaten,” proclaims Chen Jin Biao, Zhongshan’s Agricultural Department Bio-Division director, who is a guest of honour at the preview of the festival.
“Rabbits can be enjoyed in limitless ways. They are healthy because they are herbivores, and they have a high protein content and little fat. Rabbit pelts are also handy, and can be fashioned into winter coats, bags, wallets and shoes. We only need to change our mind set and learn to look at rabbits as food, not pets.”
Going into the centre, I think about how in many Mediterranean countries, rabbit commonly features on dining tables stewed, braised, roasted or, popularly, sautéed in wine with mushrooms and fresh rosemary. It is time to see what the meat is like cooked Chinese style.
I’m with other journalists and some businessmen from Malaysia – invited to tour Huangpu by import-exporter Asiaport Trading (M) – and can’t refuse when we are all asked to troop over to Huangpu’s grandest hotel, the Huidong, for the rip-roaring rabbit feast. The staple fare of pork and chicken, central to Cantonese cuisine, has been creatively replaced with rabbit.
The meat is prepared in various ways – stewed, shredded, steamed, sliced, stir fried – to harness its taste, texture, colour, aroma and temperature. Even the yin and yang principles are duly observed with moist and soft dishes, cooked to create a cooling effect, balanced with fried, spicy and warm dishes.
I can barely fend off the chopsticks waiting to attack as I try to take a photograph of a steamed rabbit meat dish. Looking just like your typical Pak Cham Kai, or steamed chicken, the neatly sliced cold cuts are served with mayo, mustard and garlic. It actually does taste like chicken, especially the meaty hind legs, but is silky smooth, sweeter and tenderer. It is actually delicious enough to overcome, for a while, my resistance and that guilty feeling gnawing at me.
An appetizer of Dried Roasted Rabbit with Pungent Szechuan Pepper comes in place of the usual peanuts. The peppers numb the tongue, which makes for an interesting effect when contrasted with the hard and crispy meat. The meat’s similar to roast chicken though it’s a tad bony.
Shark’s Fin Soup is replaced with a serving of Double Boiled Rabbit with Chinese Herbs (which would make environmentalists cheer, surely, since rabbits are pests in most parts of the world while sharks are highly endangered), which turns out to be a clear, stomach-warming broth to prepare us for the heavier dishes ahead.
A helping of Clay Pot-Braised Rabbit with Water Chestnut and Carrots swimming in lots of dark gravy is the perfect accompaniment to steamed rice.
The bunny binge continues with Rabbit Satay – it is surprisingly tasty! Equally enjoyable is the Deep-Fried Rabbit Balls, each mixed with mashed pumpkin and coated with crunchy sesame seeds and served in dainty silver foil cups.
But, still, that queasy feeling of eating a pet will not dissipate?.
But then, the Szechuan peppers come to the rescue. They’re like a clap of Chinese firecrackers to the taste buds! The Szechuan Stir-Fried Rabbit Meat brings tears to our eyes, but we’re quickly soothed by a huge pot of Braised Rabbit with Winter Melon. The hefty chunks of meltingly soft melons have been stuffed with lotus paste to add a subtle sweetness that harmonises well with the finely sliced meat.
At last, dessert. Oh, please, let it be a nice Chinese Pancake with Lotus Paste or good old-fashioned Tong-Sui (literally, “sweet soup”), I beg silently.
But, no, it’s Baked Bunny Buns, as literally translated. Each little dough ball resembles a Seremban Siew Pau (a bread bun with a stewed pork filling) and is stuffed with sweet rabbit meat and crunchy Chinese cabbage; it has been baked till golden brown to offer a blend of crisp and juicy textures.
“Wah! It’s so tasty!” a chorus of approval resounds around the table.
Hmm, maybe the trick to enjoying rabbit meat is to not entertain thoughts of lovable Peter Rabbit before you tuck into it.