Friday, March 24, 2017

The best thing I ate in Xi'an was this bowl of noodles. I came to Xi'an because my favourite restaurant is Xi'an Famous Foods, the northern Chinese fast food chain with ten locations in New York. While I was subletting an apartment in East Williamsburg for a month in 2013, I ate at the Greenpoint XFF three or four times a week, which I regard as a roughly optimal frequency. Because I haven't been back to New York in a couple of years now, and I live a long way from Silk Road in Camberwell, XFF's closest equivalent in London, I have occasionally resorted to making hand-pulled cumin lamb noodles in my own kitchen, but that's a process so labour-intensive I can't do it very often. So I was wildly excited to visit Xi'an. I made sure to book a hotel room right next to the Muslim Quarter, and after dropping my bags off at the Ramada, I walked straight over, found a restaurant that looked promising, ordered noodles, and prepared for a revelatory experience comparable to the first time I ever ate Thai food in Thailand.

The noodles were... fine.

What I learned over the next four days is 1. the food at Xi'an Famous Foods in New York is better than most of the food in X'ian itself and 2. everyone tells you to eat in the Muslim Quarter but the best food in Xi'an is not in the Muslim Quarter. In fact, my favourite meal there was from a nameless shop recommended here. I know nobody wants to read another piece of food writing about simplicity and authenticity and letting the ingredients speak for themselves and feeling a real connection to somebody's heritage – but I'm afraid this was inescapably one of those.

When you order a bowl of oil splash noodles in this shop, the cook picks up a ball of dough and stretches your noodles by hand in front of you. After cooking them in a pot outside, he puts them in a bowl and adds a few toppings: I noticed chilli flakes, spring onion, sugar, salt and MSG, and the recipes I've found online reveal that garlic and soy sauce and black vinegar were most likely involved as well. To cook the sauce, he simply pours a spoonful of very hot oil over these toppings. No wok necessary.

Finally, while you're mixing the sauce into the noodles at your table, he brings over a soup bowl full of water from the pot, which is the same water he's been cooking noodles in all day, so it's essentially a kind of wheat broth. That's the whole meal, and it's satisfying beyond belief.

Now, I would never normally have gone into this shop, because it was cold and grubby and there was only one other customer. My first rule of eating in foreign countries is not "Head straight for restaurants that have a vaguely depressed quality." But all of my expertise disintegrated upon contact with China. Which is the only reason I was even willing to contemplate signing up for an organised street food tour after I arrived in Sichuan Province. I was glad I did, though, because the Chengdu Food Tour turned out to be a really good use of an evening, climaxing with the famous pig brain mapo tofu at Ming Ting.

No comments: