Dongshan Ridge 东山岭
I scrambled onto one of the many large boulders tucked on the jungle-overgrown slope to use it as a vantage point. While scoping the hills, I heard some bleats and saw movement in the bushes below me: silhouettes of a goat or two. I quickly turned on the camera and started filming. The “maa” continued, but I will not share the recording with you today: the goats are too far and it is too hard to distinguish their cries from the rich array of surrounding wilderness sounds. That day, I was not able get closer nor had I an opportunity to ask someone to arrange a true “photo shoot”. I have no footage to prove it but take my word: I have seen the Dongshan goats. As well as consumed their meat. This, on other hand, is properly attested.
Dongshan Ridge 东山岭 is a group of rocky hills in Wanning, a city on the eastern shore of the Hainan Island. Rich in flora and fauna and offering views over the countryside and the ocean, the place is of both foodie and nature-lover, but also of spiritual interest as it is home to a Buddhist temple complex.
The meat of the black goats that live here is one of the most famous foods of Hainan. It is respected since the Song Dynasty and was once listed as a tribute to the imperial court. The goats roam freely. Some say that the deliciousness of their meat is due to the unique vegetation of the area. They graze on wild plants, including the leaves of Mallotus peltatus, a tree native to (and found almost exclusively on) the Hainan Island. Humans make a tisane from it known as zhègū chá 鹧鸪茶, or „partridge tea”.
According to a legend, a bird catcher once come across a wounded young partridge while venturing to this area. It seemed that the bird is destined to die. The man left. But when he passed the same spot several days later, he saw the baby partridge again – healthier, and together with the mother, feeding it with some leaves. The man started to think that the plant must possess magical powers. He collected some and rushed home, to his seriously ill son. Thanks to the herb, his boy eventually recovered. The news soon got out and the leaves became known as “partridge tea”.
The health benefits are said to be numerous and include tonifying, detoxification, heat dispelling, improving digestion etc. Dried zhegu leaves are sold tied into strings of tangerine-sized balls, about 20 balls each. This gives them a look of large Buddhist prayer beads necklaces.
Giving my “tourist perfectionist” nature, I gave my legs a hard time that day. I din’t use the cable car, climbing all the steps to the top instead (and then down). I peeked into every possile cave and every possible room in each of the temple pavilions. I checked several of the restaurants before choosing where to eat. That included walking a fair amount of kilometers in different directions. There are several restaurants in the area but scattered away from each other and easier to be reached by car than on foot. Of course, my “value of thrift” is mostly to be blamed here – those are relatively expensive places so I paid a close attention to the prices. But hey, it’s mutton. And that “one of a kind” mutton. And I came here to eat it. Still, I’m a stubborn beast – I walked and walked until finding the best option.
The beautiful tropical garden setting of the restaurant compensated for all the sweat. I got my own room – a “hut” even – with a huge table. The menu offered the goat meat in several varieties, including 滋补羊肉汤 (nourishing goat soup), 五香扣羊腩 (five spice stew), 招牌羊肉串 (signature goat skewers), 蒜香炸羊排 (garlic fried lamb chops). I opted for the soup. I did not forget about a teapot of zhegucha to accompany it and I also ordered one more local specialty: Dongshan Laobing 东山烙饼. It is a part-crunchy-part-soft multi-layer dough pancake: slightly salty and very oily.
I must admit that the meat was indeed delicious and devoid of that strong mutton taste which so many people find off-putting.
As for the partridge tea, the infusion emits an aroma that can be described as herbal or vegetal. It tastes medicinal but refreshing, slightly fruity with a hint of saccharin-like sweetness. Zhegu cha is recommended on a hot day and after a heavy meal, so it fitted my visit pretty well.