The first time I discovered authentic Chinese food was when a local Sichuan friend took me for my first mapo tofu. I fell in love with that dish and later had more Sichuan dishes, including frog, which is juicier than chicken but – Westerners beware – also has a lot of bones. I was hoping that one day I would discover another Chinese dish that I could fall in love with.
One day, a local in Hong Kong brought me to a very small restaurant in Central, near Lan Kwai Fong, called Yau Yuen Siu Tsui. The person was native from Xi’an and wanted me to experience Shaanxi cuisine, Xi’an being the capital of Shaanxi province in China. You may know it for the Terra-cotta warriors. (I note that Shaanxi is West of Shanxi, and that they are different provinces).
We were sat on a communal table, crammed in a corner next to a family with a baby and a couple. There are 26 seats crammed into a very small space and the restaurant could not be less pretentious. It had only one review on OpenRice. It felt very small, no-name, yet the menu was well translated and had nice pictures. I had a good feeling so we ordered as many dishes a possible, but I did not know that this is the second location of a restaurant with a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin guide.
The taste of Xi’an biang biang noodles and those spices gave me the same feeling as when I had mapo tofu for the first time. I thought: “What an incredible flavor, and the texture too!” The spices (油泼辣子 / yóu pō là zi) are quite addictive and different from what I had previously experienced. The other dishes you should try are the glutinous rice wine dumpling dessert, the pork pita bread, the buckwheat noodles (different than Japanese soba), and for appetizers perhaps the gluten, the cucumbers or the shaanxi thick rice noodles. Ice Peak is the usual orange soda drink in Xi'an (very sweet for my taste), but you should still order it as it sets the tone for an unpretentious cuisine.
It’s not that mapo tofu or biang biang noodles are the best dishes ever or deserve awards. Xi’an cuisine is seemingly simple and unpretentious. Locals would eat these dishes on the street. All I can say is that from my limited experience, Xi’an food is really enjoyable. I had dim sum at the usual suspects in Hong Kong, such as Lin Hueng Lau, but I was very disappointed. Sichuan and Shanghainese cuisine are good, but I became quite addicted to Xi’an cuisine after this meal. I think that you would like it too. The character for biang (which may refer to the noise the noodles make when hit on the table as they are stretched) is one of the most complex in Chinese, fitting for something simple yet special.
There is much for me to learn about Chinese food. I wish to have the opportunity to enjoy such a quality and authentic experience for each of the cuisines below (from Chinese food and foodways in Southeast Asia and beyond, NUS Press, 2011 at 2)
English writers usually classify Chinese regional cuisines into “northern” (Beijing, Shandong, Henan, Hebei, Shanxi and Shaanxi), “eastern” (Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Fujian), “western” (Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Hubei and Guizhou) and “southern” (Guangdong and Guangxi).
Another way to classify Chinese cuisines is the following. Chinese cookbook writers often classify Chinese regional food into 8 main types (ba da caixi), namely, Lucai (Shandong cuisine), Sucai (Suzhou cuisine), Chuancai (Sichuan cuisine), Yuecai (Guangdong cuisine), Zhecai (Zhejiang cuisine), Mincai (Fujian cuisine), Xiangcai (Hunan cuisine) and Huicai/Wancai (Anhui cuisine).
In addition, there are 8 well-known cuisines, namely Jingcai (Beijing cuisine), Hucai (Shanghai cuisine), Qincai (Shaanxi cuisine), Ecai (Hubei cuisine), Yucai (Henan cuisine), Jincai (Tianjing cuisine), Dongbeicai (Northeast cuisine) and Diancai (Yunnan cuisine). Of these Beijing, Shanghai, and increasingly Yunnan cuisines are known to most Chinese.
Xi’an means “western peace” and I have the feeling that it may become for Westerners one of the most beloved and popular regional Chinese cuisine.
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The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Den, Kichisen, Kurogi, Dozono, Manger, Tagetsu, Goryukubo, Saiho-ji, Ogata, Ren, Kohaku, Ajiro, Saito, Tai-an, Kasumicho Suetomi, Suetomo, Sasada, Ichita.