Paul's Travel Pics

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gourmet Guide to Xi'an - Part 1


This series of articles is dedicated to the amazing varieties of mouthwatering cuisine of Xi'an, the home of China's Terracotta Warriors.

Xi'an's Muslim Quarter is widely known among Chinese travelers as a foodie mecca, where 1,500 years of cultural fusion with the Middle East has produced some of China's greatest peasant dishes and street snacks. The problem for Westerners though is that eateries in the Muslim Quarter typically have no English menus and signages. To help readers navigate the area, I've created the map below to indicate the location of the eateries in my review.



Navigating the Muslim Quarter should be easy -- go to the Drum Tower with this map and follow the crowds north on Bei Yuan Men, the main entrance into the Muslim Quarter. Many of Xi'an's best local dishes can be found within a 3-block radius.

MAP LEGEND:
1.LAO MI JIA (stir-fried unleavened bread in mutton broth)
2.HONG HONG (Halal lamb skewers and fried rice)
3.BIANG BIANG MIAN (sheet noodles in specialty 3-in-1 sauce)
4.SUN JIA (meatballs and vegetables in spicy soup)
5.JIA SAN (soup dumplings and best plum juice ever)
6.SHENG ZHI WANG (cold noodles in sesame paste)
7.ZHAO JIA BAO (rose-honey flavored glutinous rice cakes)
8.QING ZHEN SHAO JI (Halal roasted free-range chicken)



For the past 1,000 years the mecca of Xi'an's culinary tradition has always situated here in the Hui Min Jie, or Muslim Quarter. Here you'll find the authentic flavors that every Xi'an schoolboy has grown up loving. Nowadays fancy restaurants attempt, often unsuccessfully, to replicate these peasant dishes and over-charge tourists in the process. But in the Muslim Quarter you can still find Xi'an's best, filling meals at bargain bottom prices, mostly below RMB 20 (CAD$3) per person.


1. 100-YEAR-OLD MUTTON BROTH AT LAO MI JIA

Food Review: LAO MI JIA (Muslim Quarter, Xi'an)
Address: Xiyangshi 127, Beilinqu, Xi'an
Hours: 8am until Sold Out (~11am)
Website/Map: From Dianping.com (in Chinese)
Directions: #1 on my Xi'an Gourmet Map. There are two Lao Mi Jia side by side -- choose the one on the right hand side (east side).


The Yang Rou Pao Mo is an enormously filling meal in the form of a soup bowl, one (or two or three, if you insist) piece of hand-crumbled unleavened bread is happily bathed in a flavorful clear mutton broth. From its humble origins, this Xi'an specialty has been elevated to star status by two of the city's most venerable restaurants, Tong Sheng Xiang and Lao Sun Jia. But if you ask the locals (refer to www.dianping.com), nobody does it better than the 100-plus-year-old Lao Mi Jia, deep within the Muslim Quarter.



One problem for visitors ... there are two different Lao Mi Jia located right next to each other, and many unsuspecting tourists get it all wrong. Local gourmands opt for the one on the RIGHT side, named Lao Mi Jia Da Yu Pao Mo in Chinese. This is what the store front looks like -- take this picture with you if nobody in your group can read Chinese.

Before anyone gets turned off by the “gamey” taste of lamb/mutton, let me tell you that my wife does NOT even eat lamb, let alone mutton, in Canada. But there is something special about how the Chinese-Muslims prepare their goats that entirely softens the taste and still retains the full flavor and the tenderness. This dish is a MUST try, for anyone who visits Xi'an for the first time.



First you need to order, but there is no English menu in sight. No worries. Just walk up to the cashier and ask for a Yang Rou Pao Mo. They'll probably give you a You Zhi (premium) Yang Rou Pao Mo, with better meat and more ingredients in the soup. As of 2011, the premium cost us RMB 21 per bowl.



Next, take a free dish of Tang Suan (sweet pickled garlic) from below the cashier -- that's what the local lady sitting across from us at our table showed us. Peel the tough garlic skin off before you use it to cleanse your oily palate between scoops of Pao Mo.



After paying for your bowl of Pao Mo, you'll be given a bowl with a piece of flat, white unleavened bread (Mo). Sit down and crumble it, into pieces as small as you can manage, just like the locals do. The smaller the crumbs, the better they soak up the flavor of the clear broth. So get crumbly.



Bread all crumbled and fingers all hurting? Now take your bowl of crumbled bread into the kitchen, along with the little plastic tag with your order number on it.



Your crumbled bread will go into the old iron wok along with the shop's trademark slow-cooked bone-based soup stock for a quick stir fry. The mutton, which has been simmering in a separate pot for hours, should be eagerly waiting on the sideline. Your Yang Rou Pao Mo should be delivered to your table in about 10 minutes.



The end result is a steamy, mouth-watering concoction. The stir fried mixture of bread and bone soup stock goes into the bowl first, followed by glass noodles, Muer mushrooms, green onions and Jinzhen (golden needle) flowers. Then the slow simmered slices of tender, flavorful mutton go on top. Finally more soup stock is added to fully submerge all these magical ingredients.

The act of eating the Yang Rou Pao Mo is an interesting culinary experience in itself -- just watch how the locals do it. NOBODY stirs and mixes the soup, as that would turn the bowl of crumbled bread into a slimy porridge. The typical approach seems to involve chopsticks in one hand, a soup ladle in the other, chili paste in the ladle if desired, and the process of slowly working on the little mountain of crumbled bread and soup into the ladle with as little stirring as possible. When the tastebuds start to become saturated with the full flavor of mutton, the sweet pickled garlic from the earlier step would serve as a surprisingly refreshing palate cleanser.

Lao Mi Jia is one of those remarkable eateries that deliciously define Xi'an -- don't miss it if you're the type of traveler who enjoys good, authentic local food (which I expect you are if you're reading this far into this article). A wonderfully satisfying meal and a cultural experience at the heart of Xi'an's Muslim Quarters, all for a measly RMB 21 (CAD$3.2), may just be more interesting than the Terracotta Warriors. And while you're chowing down on the mutton, don't forget your free plate of Tang Suan.

Bill for Two Persons
Premium Yang Rou Pao MoRMB 21
Premium Yang Rou Pao MoRMB 21
TOTALRMB 42 (CAD$6.4)

2 comments:

YannyT said...

Hi Paul! You are my new best friend! When are you planning to go back to China???? Please take me with you if you are going back. I absolutely love the series you have on Beijing and Xi'an. Love to see the food pictures and the delicious meals. This is how I want to plan my trip, focusing on the cuisines. I think that's the best way to know the culture. I am planning a trip in September to October and definitely planning to try a lot of those places you suggested. Your blog is a big help! thanks! I never post on blogs but I'm definitely following yours! Keep up the good work!

Paul said...

Hi Yanny,

Great to meet another food enthusiast! You can't go wrong with food meccas like Beijing or Xi'an for their authentic local offerings, though I'd advise avoiding the Golden Week (i.e. National Day) if you can! With 1.3 billion people on vacation it's near impossible to get tickets to anywhere.

Paul