An why texture wins
Rabbit heads have become the signature of ‘crazy’ adventurous eating in Chengdu, and feature as a sensational aspect in most media about the city, and in people’s visits here. In fact, if you normalize eating organs, there isn’t that much ‘weird’ food in Chengdu – it’s just a more whole approach to how to use all of an animal. But that being said, rabbit heads are definitely a very visual, visceral experience, and can catch some people off guard, or at least catch some headlines with snappy ‘skull slurping’ taglines. But there’s a lot more than sensationalism, and their role in eating here has nothing to do with the fear factor, or even the intensely visual image of the rabbit heads themselves.
So what is the deal with rabbit heads, and why do people go crazy for them here?
The first thing to consider when eating rabbit heads (or chicken’s feet, or duck necks etc.) is that it’s not really about the meat. In North America, we come from this ‘Where’s the beef?’ approach to our foods, where the meat is the whole goal and the flavor a secondary concern. This is to say, it is more about the flavor, and the interaction with that flavor created by engaging with the vessel (in this case, the rabbit skull). It is as much an activity, and a flavor game as it is eating – think the way we eat popcorn as sport during a movie, or even chewing gum. Gum is all about that time spent with the flavor and the interaction, not about what goes down the hatch.
But in Chengdu this idea is applied in a meaty, spicy, salty context that we can’t relate to with gum, or suckers or whatever you’re into. It’s about hanging out with that mala goodness for as long you can and learning about it as you explore the nooks and crannies of the head as it dances over your teeth, tongue and lips. It is a greater sense of engagement – not just a chomp and swallow. It is a true celebration of that flavor.
It’s context too. Rabbit heads are not a main (not that mains exist here in the same way but, yeah) they are a supplement, a snack, an activity, or an enabler of drinking. In Chengdu, meals play an important cultural and social role and slowing down, and taking your time to enjoy them and disconnect from your day is a crucial aspect. Meals are supposed to take time, to be slow and be celebrated. Active snacks like rabbit heads and duck necks allow people to extend meal time, and nibble, gnaw and chew their way through flavors as they chew the fat with their friends. Drinking, typically doesn’t (or didn’t until recently) take place without eating and these finger foods help transition a meal into a booze fest. They are the enabler of the people not looking to run away from the dinner table and move on to the next place. Why leave when the party is already in front of you?
While enjoying this type of snack is all about a different approach to texture and interaction and exploring flavor -not just THE MEAT – a rabbit head actually has a lot of good meat on it compared to, say, a chicken foot. And so it makes a good entry point into the world of eating for flavor and fun, and not sustenance. You have to get over the whole looking your food in face before you eat it thing, but honestly, if you’re a meat eater you should probably learn to deal with that at some point anyways. Your meat comes from an animal, and when eating a rabbit head there is no escaping this.
Stay tuned for more on the best way to tackle a rabbit head, or join us in Chengdu and we will show you how to get the most out of it.