Traditional comfort food takes sting out of winter
By Lu Feiran
WHEN the winter chill sets in, mutton is king of the menu. And when Shanghai area residents think mutton, they think of the high-quality meat served in Qibao Town.
But that isn’t the only place in the district specializing in the delicate meat, which is said to increase body heat and serve as a foil against winter cold. In Zhaojialou Ancient Town, about 30 kilometers from Qibao Town, there’s a popular mutton restaurant that has been in one family for three generations.
Hu’s Mutton is famous for serving soft, delicious and odorless mutton. Shanghai Daily found the restaurant a warming spot on a cold winter’s day to sit down and chat with owner Hu Yongxiang.
Hu, 66, is the third generation owner. Although he is semi-retired, he stills goes to the restaurant regularly to check that everything is running smoothly. He recounted the origins of the restaurant nearly a century ago.
“Back then the whole of Pujiang Town was all countryside,” said Hu. “Every family raised goats, and mutton shops purchased living goats from farmers.”
Hu said his grandfather began work as early as 5am, slaughtering goats. When that was completed, he boiled the goat meat, added a sauce and carried the food to the site of today’s Fuxing Bridge area to sell.
“Only about 55 percent of a goat could be used in the traditional dish,” said Hu. “The offal and fat were discarded.”
Hu said his grandfather never used scales to sell the mutton. He just sliced off a piece of meat that would suffice as a meal for a grown man and sold it for two silver dollars.
“Actually, not many people could afford that price,” said Hu. “So my grandfather often wrapped the unsold mutton up and kept it cold down in a well.”
When the business passed to Hu’s father in the 1980s, the shoulder pole was replaced by a booth at the entrance of the village.
Hu’s father was a butcher by trade and he often went to Zhoupu Town in today’s Pudong New Area to slaughter goats for people.
“Those days were really hard,” said Hu. “To earn as much money as possible, the family never got to eat the mutton. My father sometimes ate the tail, and we three children gnawed at small bones to satisfy hunger cravings. Despite the hardships, the family was close-knit and I remember a happy childhood.”
When the booth eventually passed to Hu, he moved it to Tanjiatang in the center of Pujiang Town. He learned to develop an eye for prime goats and he knew how to slaughter them efficiently.
A good goat, he said, has lean stomach, long body, thick neck and fat hind legs. Male goats are best castrated when young to avoid some of the strong smell that can permeate and stick to the meat.
“Every goat has a different taste,” said Hu. “Shaved goats, sweaty goats or goats exposed to long periods of sun all taste different.”
The family has another secret for making boiled mutton so delicious: well water.
“We use only well water to boil mutton because tap water imparts an unwanted flavor to the meat,” said Hu. “We have changed our location several times, but we have always stuck to well water.”
Hu’s Mutton eventually became a full-fledged restaurant. In 2009, when the Zhaojialou government embarked on an active campaign to develop tourism in the ancient water town, it asked snack shops and restaurants with good reputations to bid for sites. Hu’s Mutton won a spot, thanks to Yao Junhua, now chef of the restaurant.
In 2008, Hu met Yao in Tanjiagang. At the time, Yao was a young cook. Hu saw great potential.
“My son is a surgeon, so it’s almost impossible for him to give up his career to inherit the family business,” said Hu. “I don’t want to end Hu’s Mutton with my generation, so it was fortuitous that I met Yao.”
Hu said Yao is honest and diligent, and in him, he saw a successor at the restaurant. He taught Yao everything he knew about goats and cooking mutton. Yao was a fast and enthusiastic learner.
With Yao at the kitchen helm, Hu’s Mutton turned into a comprehensive restaurant serving authentic Shanghai cuisine, with boiled mutton in sauce as its specialty.
The restaurant has also become a supplier to big food stores and restaurants in the downtown area of Shanghai. Every week, the restaurant transports its sauced mutton to Canglangting, Laobanzhai and other time-honored names in the city.
Customers and clients sing the praises of Hu’s Mutton.
“The mutton is so soft that you don’t even have to chew, and it definitely doesn’t have that goat smell that I hate so much,” said Gan Ruyi, a resident in Minhang who ate at the restaurant when she visited Zhaojialou. “The sauce is very good, too. It mixes both soy sauce and sweet soy paste, which brings out the best flavor of the mutton.”
Gan said she also recommends the stew of meatballs, egg dumplings, pork skin and Chinese cabbage served in the restaurant.
“It is the best comfort food in winter,” she said.
Address: 26 Pingxi Street, Zhaojialou Ancient Town