So about a week ago, my friends and I went down to visit Xi’an, in the northwest part of China. Last week I wrote a bit about the underwhelming Terracotta Warriors, and today I thought I’d write a little about the food in Xi’an. Because, it seems, every different area in China is famous for its food, and Xi’an is no different.
But Xi’an’s food isn’t as distinct as, say, Sichuan’s. There aren’t a lot of loud spices or bold tastes. Xi’an cuisine seems to be more about well cooked meats and tends to center largely around street food. Everything is cheap. Really super cheap. Even the sit-down restaurants we went to were cheap, including a famous dumpling one that was jammed with people. Since we were only in Xi’an for two days, I didn’t have a ton of time to sample the different dishes, although I did my best, and here are the highlights:
1. Rou Jia Mo – Anyone coming to Xi’an needs to stuff one of these little Chinese hamburgers into his or her face as soon as possible. Because they’re absolutely delicious. There’s not much to it – just beef or pork in a sort of pita bread. But the meat is cooked so well and is so flavorful, it turns out to be a real treat. I only ate one because I wanted to eat the crab on a stick, and for this I might be forever filled with regret (see crab on a stick comments below).
2. Beef or Lamb Pao Mo – Pao Mo is a funny dish because it requires a little bit of work. Pao Mo is basically just a soup with meat in it, but the thing that sets it apart is the process. See, when you order Pao Mo, first you get an empty bowl with some bread in it. You must then spend the next 5-10 minutes shredding the bread with your fingers and filling the bowl with it. Here are my girlfriend Feng Deng’s fingers as she does this.
Then once the bread is all ripped up, you get your broth and noodles and choice of meat. The bread soaks up the broth but doesn’t get soggy and disgusting like Rice Krispies sometimes do. Instead the bread retains a nice taste and goes very well with the noodles and meat. Overall, I wasn’t blown away by Pao Mo, although I did enjoy it and I do believe it’s a must for anyone going to Xi’an.
3. Fried Soft Shell Crab on a Stick – This was the one thing that didn’t turn out so great. I was really excited to try this since it looked so intense. Three small soft shelled crabs, put onto a stick and friend in oil. How could it possibly be bad? Well, it was. The crab had virtually no taste and dripped with oil. It also stunk. Feng Deng and I made the mistake of taking these on the train to eat on the ride back, and we seriously stunk that place up. On the good side, I will say the texture was decent and it wasn’t difficult to eat. So if you want to eat bland crab off a stick, do it baby.
4. Ja San Soup Pau – So, here you have it. I saved the best for last. The soup dumplings at the famous Ja San Soup Pau were, for me, the absolute highlight of the foods I had in Xi’an. The restaurant is really popular and packed with soup dumpling lovers; Feng Deng and I had to share our table with another couple we’d never met before (and who, I must add, seemed to like each other far less than we like each other).
The restaurant is also extremely loud as the staff basically scream out orders across the place. All that said, once the food comes, you’re in for a treat. These were probably the most delicious dumplings I’ve ever had. They’re filled with soup and the soup makes the meat really tender and moist. We had the traditional standard dumplings and the chicken and shrimp dumplings too. Both were excellent, though the traditional ones truly brought joy to my Western mouth. I’m not sure why this hasn’t caught on and soup dumplings aren’t served everywhere. They’re fantastic, and the high point of a night strolling around Muslim Street.
Of course there are more famous foods on Muslim Street. Hand stretched noodles. Yellow fruit rice cake. Giant spicy chaunr on thick sticks. It’s a cool place to go. Sadly, now I’m back at my apartment, so I guess it’s back to soggy Rick Krispies.