China Turns to France to Satisfy Food Craze

Long lines form outside restaurant for rabbit heads specialty.

BEIJING — -- The latest food craze sweeping China is flamingly spicy rabbit heads, a dish that was once associated with China's days of poverty but has now become so popular that the country has to import rabbits to keep up with demand.

Rabbit heads are a much-loved street food from Sichuan province, an area known for its spicy foods. But they started showing up on menus across the country after Sichuan chef Su Yong introduced rabbit heads to Beijing in 2009. Since then his customers have proliferated like the proverbial bunny.

His restaurant, Old Street Rabbit, is a three-floor eatery located in central Beijing. It is often marked by two long lines, one for takeout and another of customers waiting for tables.

The restaurant serves about 3,000 rabbit heads every day, including take-outs. They come in two flavors: numbingly hot or seasoned with a five-spice powders.

“Each year, China consumes about 500 million rabbit heads, one-fifth of which are imported from overseas,” said Luo Dong, director of the Chinese Rabbit Industry Association.

Hage Group, a Sichuan-based company that wholesales rabbit meat, has imported more than 2,000 rabbits from France, Lei Jiayou, the Hage Group's marketing head, told ABC News.

"We are planning to bring the French rabbit breed to China,” Lei said. “French rabbits are widely recognized as having the best quality in the world. They are bigger in size and meatier than the local breeds. The meat is more tender, just like frog legs. Most importantly, French rabbits reproduce much faster.”

There is a method to eating rabbit heads, much as there is to eating lobsters or crabs. In the main dining room of the Old Street Rabbit, there is a video of Su demonstrating to customers the finer points of devouring the dish.