They say the first thing you should try when in Xian 西安 is Yang Rou Pao Mo 羊肉泡馍. It’s hard to find a succinct translation for “crumbled unleavened flatbread soaked in mutton stew” but it’s a local specialty, steeped in more than 1,000 years of history. It’s the original fusion food – Persian flatbread (once transported by ancient Silk Road travellers) blended with the subtleties of Chinese meat cooking. It has remained a specialty of Xian’s numerous Muslim restaurants to this day.
I have long ago realized that to judge a Chinese dish at first sight is to risk missing a new taste sensation. That of course, runs counter-intuitively to my own culinary philosophy that “we eat first with our eyes.” Yang Rou Pao Mo is a striking exception. To say this semi-congealed bread and lamb slop bears an uncanny resemblance to that other classic – a dog’s breakfast – is not without substance. It also explains why I’ve not been tempted thus far, despite my enduring curiosity about Chinese food. But when our charming, cherub-cheeked hostess invited us for a “special meal”, there was no escaping.
I hadn’t quite grasped that we would be dining ‘en plain air’ for what she had lauded as a “special event,” so gracefully scooped up my flowing silk tulle coat, when directed to a Lilliputian plastic stool on the sidewalk pavement.
To eat Yang Rou Pao Mo is a ritual in itself, and it’s very social. Our hostess could barely contain her excitement as she ordered everyone two hard, dry discs of par-baked unleavened bread along with a large empty bowl. Right! On getting down to business, we huddled low-to-the-ground around our tiny table and proceeded to mindlessly break the cakes into breadcrumbs “no larger than a grain of rice.” This tedious process took us the best part of an hour, making sense of why we set out for lunch at 10:30am.
I quickly refined my breadcrumbing technique, as we laughed and chatted while slurping cooling cups of hawthorn juice. My fingernails suffered irreparable damage, but we eventually handed our bowls of crumbs back to the waiter. It looked like chicken feed.
Five minutes later, on hearing him holler our numbers, the waiter returned to present us with…..err…. a dog’s breakfast – steaming hot bowls of soggy breaded lamb slop, mixed with an assortment of tofu, mushrooms and noodles.
I dutifully added a dollop of chili sauce and crunched on pickled garlic, before tucking into the hearty stew. Chopsticks only! And you know what? My eyes could hardly believe my senses. It was utterly delicious! Carb overload – yes – but it’s surely the ultimate winter warmer. Pity it was a 33 degrees out there on the pavement in the blazing sun.