Sunday, January 24, 2010
Shaanxi Soul Food
On my first trip to Xian, I tried yang rou pao mo (羊肉泡馍), which had bits of unleaven bread in a lamb-based soup with some vermicelli and a few bits of cabbage. I had put in too many bits of bread in it, making it more of a lumpy stew and so it was difficult to finish.
I wasn't too impressed with it but was willing to give it another chance.
This time around after work a few of my colleagues took me to Hui Min Jie, the Muslim quarter in the south side of the city. We entered the maze of alleys to get to the main street where there were street stalls selling all kinds of things from dried fruit to barbecue lamb skewers, walnuts and Chinese dates called zao, Chinese New Year ornaments celebrating the upcoming Year of the Tiger, Chinese snacks and touristy souvenirs.
We came to a supposedly Muslim restaurant -- I say supposedly because this one had no problem serving alcohol which is a no-no in authentic Muslim places. We didn't order beer, but each had a bowl of yang rou pao mo, this time with more broth which had a strong lamb flavour, the bread already chopped into bits in it. There were also tender slices of lamb, a few bits of vermicelli and chives. It also came with picked garlic and chilli sauce.
A few days earlier I had read about a foreigner living in Xian who equated yang rou pao mo with chicken noodle soup in terms of comfort food. And I could see her comparison right away when I ate this dish, practically draining the bowl towards the end.
The next night we went out on the hunt for noodles. Relatively close to our office is a chain restaurant called Tian Xia Di Yi Mian which is translated as "First Noodle Under the Sun" on its menu.
It is a split-level restaurant, and in it there are blown-up pictures of the owner with a number of celebrities or officials who have visited the eatery. I didn't get a good look at the pictures to recognized anyone though.
As the place specializes in noodles, we each ordered our own bowl. But as I was from out of town, I was steered towards the restaurant's signature dish for 10RMB ($1.46), a flat noodle that is 6cm wide, and 3.8m long. No joke. I had thought this was some kind of traditional dish dating back hundreds of years, but it turns out the history of this particular noodle dates back to March 8, 2000, thus the numbers "3" and "8".
Nevertheless, it was an intriguing challenge of finishing it. A giant bowl arrived with the aforementioned noodle with a few bits of Chinese vegetable in it. The server had to help me find one of the ends of the noodle and then she put that part of the noodle into one of two soupy sauces -- one slightly spicy with bamboo shoots and chives, the other relatively plain with dried tofu strips, mushrooms and chives.
After eating that section of the noodle, I continued on, alternating putting the noodle in the other sauce and cutting it with my chopsticks, but quickly preferred the spicy one as the noodle itself had not much taste.
I continued to eat it at a steady pace and managed to finish the entire thing. What a feat! Now I can boast eating a noodle 3.8m long.
Many restaurants also serve the water used to cook the noodle in -- called 面汤 mian tang -- as a kind of soup to wash the food down. While it's quite starchy and somewhat tasteless, it's a good practice not to waste it.