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All photos by Elle Qu.

Chengdu Is Obsessed with Sucking Brains Out of Rabbit Skulls

ByJamie Fullertonphotos byElle Qu

The owner of a popular eatery specialising in spicy rabbit heads admits that eating bunny brains might not be for everyone, but the residents of Chengdu can't get enough.

All photos by Elle Qu.

The eyeball popped out easily—an assertive index finger thrust into the head cavity, a "come here" pull-back with the same finger, and it was out with little fuss.

The tongue was tougher to break from the face, being a bit too slippery to grip firmly. But after a bit of manoeuvring I performed a solid clasp; then, with a satisfying tug, it was free and down my throat. The tongue was pretty small, so only needed a few chews despite its toughness. The brain was far smoother. Pâté-esque, even.

Yang Li Gang, manager of the Rong Ji Lao Ma Tu Tou restaurant (the name translates to "Rong Ji Grandma Rabbit Head," with "Rong Ji" being the brand name), was giving me a master class in the art of eating spicy rabbit head in Chengdu, capital of China's southwestern Sichuan province. Chengdu is known for its hyper-spicy hot pot, but penchants for eating the heads of Flopsy and friends are almost as ubiquitous in the city.

It was 5 PM and the restaurant was already filling up with groups of customers ordering heads at nine yuan ($1.30) a pop. Yang explained that the dish, which is scarcely available outside Chengdu, first started getting popular there in the early 1990s. Back then it was largely sold as street food, usually to accompany beer-drinking sessions.

"No restaurants sold them then—just stalls on street corners," he said. "The price was friendly for locals and it fit perfectly into everyday life, with friends gathering for drinks. It went well with local food culture."

Chengdu, which has a population of 14.5 million, has a different pace of life than many other huge Chinese cities: relaxed, friendly, less work-orientated, and with a strong focus on leisure time and social life. It is regularly voted the "happiest city in China," with its healthy, spice-driven food culture playing a large part in maintaining the good vibes. "Most Chengdu people are foodies," said Yang.

The rabbit heads take a fair bit of effort to prise apart and eat, and they're messy—you need to wear plastic gloves to tackle them. However, Yang believes that this is one of the reasons that they've increased in popularity in Chengdu. "The way of eating them feels free and without restriction," he said. "It goes well with the mentality of Chengdu people. It's informal, for friends hanging out rather than business dinners."

The restaurant has strict rules with regard to its rabbit selection and cooking process. In 2014 there were reports that some Chengdu restaurants had been importing rabbit heads from France, but Rong Yi only uses Chinese rabbits. They need to be younger than six months old, and must weigh between 1.25 and 2 kilograms because, according to Yang, this ensures tenderness. "But if the heads are too small it's difficult to get the spice in," he added. "We're very picky about brain size."

The heads are soaked in water for ten hours to remove the blood and cooked in spice-infused broth. Rong Yi uses peppercorn from Sichuan's Hanyuan County, which Yang says is an expensive ingredient but is "aromatic, without too much bitterness."

Yang pulled on a pair of plastic gloves, invited me to do the same, and attacked a rabbit head, explaining the correct way to dismantle it. Firstly the upper and lower jaws are wrenched apart in a move straight from the Saw films torture manual. This allows you to pick off the tender cheek meat. Then the tongue is pulled off before the eyeballs are popped out by sticking one's fingers through the sockets.

Finally, the top of the head if pulled off and the brain is sucked out, direct from the skull. There's not much brain matter in a rabbit head, but it tastes slinky-smooth and a touch kidney-esque. The Sichuan spice gives the meat a pleasant, numbing tingle.

Rong Yi sells about 500 rabbit heads a day in the branch I visited; more in holiday times when Chengdu is swamped with tourists. Despite their immense popularity in the city, Yang understood why the trend is yet to catch on properly elsewhere.

"I know that in many places rabbits are considered cute animals and people wouldn't want to treat them as dishes," he said, pulling off his meat juice-sodden gloves. "Also, you need skill to eat them and there is not much meat in them. Maybe people from other places wouldn't want to bother. But for Chengdu people, the burden of eating them properly is much less significant than actually enjoying the food."

As Yang's demonstration ended, Rong Yi filled up with even more rabbit head-hungry customers. Every skull crack, brain suck and eyeball swallow was a testament to the unique culture of Chengdu: the only city in which as many teeth and tongues pass through rabbits' heads as do thoughts of nibbling grass and rampant procreation.


Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.