Frog legs jump to the front of Shanghai food trends

In 2010, Zhou Ronghua, founder of Shanghai noodle franchise Fu Gui, added bullfrog noodles to the menu.

Editor’s note:

Foodprints is a series profiling the smaller restaurants and unsung chefs working every day to provide Shanghai with food that is tasty, imaginative, wholesome and memorable.

Li Anlan / SHINE

Fu Gui was regarded as the pioneer of bullfrog noodle in Shanghai.

In 2010, Zhou Ronghua, founder of Shanghai noodle franchise Fu Gui, added bullfrog noodles to the menu.

The idea of combining bullfrog and noodles was slow to catch on, but Zhou persevered and today the noodles are a runaway success. Other eating establishments have latched onto the trend, adding frog legs to their menus.

Bullfrogs have a taste and texture similar to chicken or fish, so they meld well with a large variety of dishes.

Fu Gui’s main eatery on Anshun Road, where the bullfrog craze began, now sells about 400 bowls of bullfrog noodles every day. The franchise operates five noodle shops citywide, with two outlets specializing in bullfrog rice dishes.

Zhou was born in 1981 into a family that drew its wealth from a successful metalworks company.

His was a pampered upbringing with no money worries. In 2000, Zhou went to Germany to study electrical engineering at the University of Bremen.

While he was there, the golden goose died. Family problems led to the breakup of assets. In the end, Zhou was left without anything.

“I had some savings, but I had to come home and I couldn’t graduate,” Zhou said. “The family crisis wasn’t just about money. I was lost.”

In 2006, Zhou married his childhood sweetheart and began working as a real estate agent on a salary of 800 yuan (US$123) a month. A year later, the couple welcomed twins, which increased the family’s financial burden.

Zhou traveled around China trying to find the best-paying jobs to support his family.

In 2009, he decided to start his own business in Shanghai. With startup capital of only 10,000 yuan, he opened a small eatery selling Taiwanese beef noodles on Huaihai Road E.

As dawn broke every day, Zhou was at the wet market on Tongchuan Road to buy fresh meat and vegetables.

“Every afternoon, a cart would come by selling pork livers at a reasonable price,” he said. “I always had to be on my toes to take advantage of the times when fresh ingredients came to market.”

His eatery closed at 11pm and Zhou would get about three or four hours of sleep before he had to get up and go to the wet market.

Li Anlan / SHINE

Zhou Ronghua, founder of Shanghai noodle franchise Fu Gui.

With a bit of experience behind him, Zhou opened the first Fu Gui shop, selling bowls of noodles with freshly made toppings.

“I thought bullfrogs would be a nice ingredient when we added them to the menu,” he said. “But people didn’t take to it. Most customers found the combination of bullfrogs and noodles quite strange.”

At that time, bullfrogs were mostly eaten in the city of Chongqing and the neighboring Sichuan Province, where the spicy cuisine endowed the relatively bland bullfrog meat with bold flavors.

The Shanghai public didn’t develop a taste for bullfrog until late in 2014, Zhou said.

“I didn’t know how it happened or who popularized bullfrog in Shanghai, but suddenly it became the newest food trend,” he said.

Initially, bullfrogs were used in spicy “dry pot” cooking or fried in spiced salt. Now they are found in a variety of dishes, including those embracing kimchi flavors.

Each noodle bowl Fu Gui sells contains 350 grams of bullfrog meat with the bone in, alongside a generous portion of thick noodles and some green chilies.

As bullfrog meat became even more popular in Shanghai, supplies became scarcer and prices rose. Some noodle shops are forced to stop selling bullfrog noodles from time to time due to supply shortage.

In 2010, when Zhou first introduced bullfrog noodles, he charged 25 yuan a bowl. The price has risen by only 5 yuan since then, and the bowl portions remain as large as ever.

The cost of making a bowl of Fu Gui’s bullfrog noodles was 30 yuan back then. That meant Zhou was losing money on each of the 800 bowls sold every day.

“Fu Gui has always followed two precepts: never reduce portion sizes and always maintain the same level of saltiness and spiciness in all dishes,” Zhou said.

There seems to be no end to the frog meat craze. A bullfrog mooncake hit the market last year.

“If we do it right, bullfrog will be the next crayfish,” said Zhou.

Several of Fu Gui’s noodle shops are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, catering to people who work late and people who get a hankering for comfort food in the middle of the night.

“We found a lot of people actually need a 24-hour restaurant, especially during the Spring Festival holiday when most other businesses are closed,” he said.

Running a restaurant business means dealing with all kinds of personalities, and Zhou said he has had to put up with some ornery customers. He recalls some who came into the shop during the Chinese New Year, sat for three minutes and then started loudly complaining that their food hadn’t arrived.

Li Anlan / SHINE

Fu Gui noodle shop on Zhejiang Road M. in downtown Shanghai.

Years ago, when bullfrog meat had a very limited following, bullfrogs that couldn’t be sold fresh were frozen and sold off at very cheap prices. Today, with demand exceeding supply, frozen frog meat is a thing of the past.

The bullfrog at the heart of the food craze resides in freshwater marshes, ponds and farmlands.

They breed in spring and early summer and hibernate in winter. The males die soon after mating, which contributes to seasonal shortages.

Today, most of frog farms are concentrated in Guangdong and Fujian provinces.

In 2016, Zhou started building his own bullfrog farm on 5.3 hectares in Taicang, Jiangsu Province. Last year, he added 30 hectares. The farm has its own water circulation system and facilities to raise bullfrogs sustainably.

Zhou’s goal is to produce enough bullfrogs to supply his Fu Gui outlets and other restaurants.

“You have to expand and innovate, or your business goes downhill,” he said. “My greatest satisfaction is not about making lots of money, but to build a solid future for myself and my family.”

Li Anlan / SHINE

Zhou’s own bullfrog farm in Taicang, Jiangsu Province, which has its own water circulation system and facilities to raise bullfrogs sustainably.

Special Reports