Even in China, Xi'an cuisine is not very well known, according to Jason Wang, whose father founded Xi'an Famous Foods restaurants in New York. In Xi'an, the ancient capital of China where the infamous Silk Road began, you will find intriguing dishes you can't taste anywhere else in China.
But if you are in the New York City area, you are in luck. You can stop by Xi'an Famous Foods and try one of the restaurant's signature dishes, including liangpi “cold skin” noodles, lamb pao mo soup and wide, hand-pulled biang biang noodles.
Jennifer 8. Lee: Americans know Chinese food in terms of Cantonese, Hunan or Sichuan. But Xi'an Chinese food is actually fairly unusual. What is it? How do you explain it to people?
Jason Wang: Right. Xi'an cuisine is actually not very well known, even in China. It's spicy, it's sour, it uses a lot of black vinegar. We call it suan la, which means sour and spicy in Chinese.
It's just simple fare that's usually sold on the streets. If you don't have time to eat, you're just going to grab a bowl of something or something on a skewer and just eat it on the run.
J8L: I actually first encountered Xi'an food when I was a student at Beijing University. One of the strangest dishes I saw was liangpi. It's an unusual dish because it's like a noodle but it's not. What is it?
JW: Liangpi is definitely one of our signature dishes. What I say to people is that it's the dish that really made us famous in the first place in New York. It's a vegetarian dish that's made from wheat flour.
It's a complicated process, but basically you're making chewy noodles out of the starchy part of the flour and the little cubes out of seitan, the gluten of the flour. You're pretty much just making these things separately from one block of dough. After steaming it and cutting it into noodles and cutting the seitan into pieces, you dress it with some sauces and some vegetables.
It's a really refreshing dish that's great for the summer. Again, it's one of those street dishes. Usually people sell it in carts in Xi'an. It's not a fancy dish, but it's definitely a signature dish of Xi'an.
J8L: I think a lot of Americans might not know where Xi'an is. It's the original capital city of China. It's famed for its terracotta warriors. Because it's also in the western part of China, it actually has a high Muslim influence -- not only in the city, but also in the food. Growing up in Xi'an did you feel that in the food and the city?
JW: Yes, definitely. Around the city Muslim Chinese are just like Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China which I'm part of, I guess. But there's really no difference between us, it's just what we eat. In Xi'an you would find halal places; they sell mostly lamb and a lot of dishes that are similar to what we saw in New York.
Wang's recipe: Lamb Dumplings (Photo: Xi'an Famous Foods)
J8L: Why did your family decide to open a Xi'an restaurant?
JW: Definitely it's just something that my father knew how to do. Personally, he missed the food. Based on his family recipes, he knows how to make these dishes. He decided to open it because he felt like there were people like him in the U.S. who missed this cuisine.
When he chose the menu, initially it was all his doing. We focused mainly on the noodles and the burgers. The noodles would be the "cold skin" noodles, liangpi noodles. The burgers would be the flatbread buns with the meat in it.
J8L: My mom always asks me to bring that home for her from Chinatown.
JW: The spicy cumin lamb burgers, the stewed pork burgers -- they're meat stuffed in a flatbread-type of bun. Those are definitely some of our signature dishes as well.
And of course the hand-ripped noodles, not to be confused with the hand-pulled noodles, which are thinner. Hand-ripped noodles are also called biang biang noodles. They're wider, they're more chewy because the noodles are thicker and they hold on to the flavors better. I'm getting hungry thinking about it. But those are some of our signature dishes.
It was great in the beginning. We saw this influx of people come from Manhattan, come from Brooklyn, basically everywhere where Chinese people are not. It was surprising in the beginning that, "Oh, everyone likes this type of food," not just the new immigrants who my father made the food for. But in the end, people are people, and people will enjoy good food.
J8L: There's a dish that you have called pao mo, which reminded me of something I've seen in Iraqi cuisine. It's very unusual. It's definitely not a normal Chinese dish that you would see at your corner takeout.
JW: Definitely. It's definitely a very famous dish, the lamb pao mo soup. Basically you take flatbread, that's stale bread basically, and you will break that into bits, boil it with some lamb broth, some thin glass noodles and lamb meat. You enjoy it with some pickled garlic and some chile paste, which is the traditional way that it's served in Xi'an.