Everything But the Table: Silk Road Cuisine (丝路饭-西安), Xi’an Posted by Stephen on Aug 29, 2010 in Culture, food, The Silk Road
After braving the mountains, plains and deserts of Xinjiang and Gansu province, we find ourselves in relatively modernized Shanxi province 山西 (shān xī) where Han Chinese culture dominates. This is the land of dumplings, where pork is king. Casting aside our staples of lamb, yak and naan bread, we’re now in the “real” China, which means “real” Chinese food. Good thing too, because after weeks along the Silk Road, I needed some old-fashioned 中国饭.
The Land of Pork and Dumplings (猪肉跟饺子)
After pulling into Xi’an, I’d had enough lamb–period. The first thing I wanted was a dish with beef or pork. Luckily Xi’an is home to my favorite Chinese dish: dumplings or 饺子 (jiǎo zi) and does dumplings like nowhere else in the world. Finding the nearest 饺子馆 (dumpling house), I order up a half kilo of 猪肉白菜 (pork and cabbage) dumplings and reintroduced my stomach to pork and all its glory.
Xi’an is famous for its dumplings–not one particular kind–but all of them. This is because Xi’an is home to the “dumpling banquet”, a veritable feast of every imaginable mixture of meats, veggies, spices and sauces, all laid out for one very hungry customer. The sheer volume of dumplings, coupled with the rainbow-like array of colors, makes sitting down to a dumpling banquet one unforgettable experience. Just make sure you don’t absolutely stuff yourself to the point of immobility (been there, done that).
You know you’ve completed your trip along the Silk Road, when you find yourself amidst a pile-up of steaming plates crowding your elbow room. Everywhere you look it’s dumplings, dumplings, dumplings. A standing army of ready to please your palate. That’s just China’s way of saying “中国欢迎你” or ”Welcome to China”. It feels good to be back.
Not enough pork? Well just look around you and you’ll find it everywhere, be it in 猪肉拉面 (pork with pulled noodles), on sticks of 串, or in sandwich form as 肉家馍 (ròujiámó) sandwiches. Think of them as China’s Philly-Cheesesteak, just without the cheese or steak. It’s a mix of marinated and chopped up pork with onions and peppers, wedged between a flattened bun (包面). Watch 肉家馍 being prepared:
It’s making me salivate just watching her chop all that pork up… But getting back into traditional Chinese dishes would require a little bit of adjustment as my stomach was quick to point out. “What’s the deal with all this oil, MSG and pork that you’ve been stuffing me with,” it seemed to be saying amidst trips to the bathroom. My stomach hadn’t made the transition back and was paying the price for it. Luckily I could ease my queasiness with simple, plain-old white rice.
A Million Grains of Rice
While in Xinjiang and Gansu, 米饭 (mǐ fàn) or white rice, was not served with every meal, as it is in the rest of China. Noodles and bread replaced rice as a means of starch in these areas, due mainly to ethnic and cultural preferences. This means for about two weeks, I didn’t have a single bowl of rice and felt as though I was going into withdrawal.
That all changed when we pulled into Xi’an. Accompanying every meal there was huge pot of steamed rice, not to mention various congees (rice soup porridge) for breakfast. It felt good to be eating rice again, and clearly was appreciate by my stomach, which had grown accustomed to having rice with every meal.
By the end of our stay in Xi’an I felt as though I’d eaten a million grains of rice, effectively acclimating myself back to Han Chinese food. My stomach had logged a lot of travel hours and digested a lot of strange things. The best way to cope: comfort food. Homecoming never tasted so good!