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Mighty, meaty offerings from Shaanxi
By Chehui Peh

Shaanxi cuisine developed over 1,000 years in the cradle of civilization in the Middle Kingdom where chefs perfected meaty, savory and spicy dishes for 13 dynasties. Chehui Peh slurps the famous noodles.

Shaanxi cuisine is one of China's most ancient and splendid cooking traditions, originating in what is widely considered to be the cradle of Chinese civilization in the geographic middle of the country.

The cooking is noted for three reasons: The main dishes tend to be pork, beef and lamb. They are usually savory, spicy, sour or salty, and seasoned with many spices and condiments including dried chilies, Sichuan peppers and aged vinegar.

Shaanxi cuisine dates back to the Yangshao Culture Period, reaching a high point in the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang (960-1279) dynasties, and influencing local cuisines around China.

This is because Shaanxi Province used to be the capital of 13 dynasties over more than 1,100 years and because of its location in the center of the kingdom.

Shaanxi is also the easternmost part of the Silk Road route that linked Xi'an, the ancient capital, to Parthia in northeastern Iran and further west. Camels trod the route and camels' humps and hooves used to be delicacies.

Because of its ideal geography, Shaanxi has a variety of climates. Winter can vary from cold and dry to cool, and summer ranges from extremely hot to relatively cool.

Shaanxi people are known for being very open, outspoken and friendly. Their generosity is reflected in their cuisine, and portions are large and usually served family style.

Cooking styles differ greatly in the region. Northern Shaanxi food is mainly steamed; central Shaanxi's Guanzhong cooking is liberally spiced and seasoned; southern Shaanxi food is numbingly spicy, much like that in neighboring Sichuan Province.

Noodles are the staple more often than rice, and the epitome is considered to be the beef noodles from Lanzhou in neighboring Gansu Province.

Among the standouts of Shaanxi cuisine, snacks and street dishes are particularly famous. The cuisine has been described as well worth one's money, with a strong taste of simple, flavorful village life. From the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) onward, mutton feasts have been popular and are found on the menu in local Chinese restaurants today.

Must-try dishes include mutton and bread soup or yangrou pao mo (羊肉泡馍), in which wheat bread is broken into pieces and added to mutton soup; pork sandwiches or rou jia mo (肉夹馍), which is known as the Chinese hamburger with pork stuffed into a warm pocket of bread; Xi'an dumplings of all imaginable fillings and shapes; and Shaanxi cold rice noodles or liang pi (凉皮), which are thicker than Shanghai noodles, tossed in a spicy sauce and garnished with vegetables.

For classic spicy food and noodles, try the you po mian (油泼面), literally oil spilled noodles.

The wide noodles are served with meat, spring onions, vinegar and Sichuan peppers. The authentic noodles are literally red in color from the chilies. If that's not enough, a bowl of dried chili sauce is sometimes available on the side.

Shaanxi cuisine's spiciness is said to be perfect for all seasons (if you like spicy food).

In the hot summer, spicy food is supposed to tantalize the tastebuds and whet the appetite, despite the high temperature. In winter, a number of chilies are said to keep the body warm when it's cold outside.

With lots of street eats, delicious noodles and meats, Shaanxi dishes may appeal even in the burning Shanghai summer.

Cuisine from China's cradle: superb hamburgers, noodles

Lao Xi'an 老西安

Cuisine: Casual Xi'an food

Ambience: Not much atmosphere. Its low-key exterior suggests a fast-food place. But the eatery is clean and comfortable.

Who to invite: A large group of friends

Pros: The various artworks with a distinctive Shaanxi flavor (with big, bold reds) brighten the atmosphere. The casual vibe matches the menu, where the most popular dishes are snacks or simple noodle dishes.

Cons: The lunch crowd loves this place, and the eatery is small. The menu is meatier than most (particularly since the more famous Shaanxi dishes are all meat) and there is no English menu.

Recommended: The rou jia mo or pork sandwich is made with tender, just-right fatty pork and come in generous portions. The buns are less than crispy, however. The you po che mian (油泼扯面) is seasoned simply and served with boiled vegetables and lots of dried chili flakes.

The noodles are very thick and chewy. The thinner rice noodles or mi pi (米皮) served with cucumbers as garnish are excellent. Of course, there's classic mutton and bread soup or yangrou pao mo, which is sweet and fragrant, and the bread isn't mushy.

Don't order: Too much. Since most portions are large, it's suggested to order a variety to taste the classics. Go in a group. There's too much for one person.

Drinks: Soft drinks and beers

Cost: 30 yuan per person

Address: 192 Weifang Rd

Tel: 5058-7769

Dunhuang Xiao Ting 敦煌小亭

Cuisine: Shaanxi food in a simple setting

Ambience: The place is white and bright, with a get-it-yourself setting suggesting a casual diner. Along one side is a long row of tables where diners sit opposite each other.

Who to invite: Go alone or with friends.

Pros: There's an English menu and a large array of choices. The taste is authentic, prices are reasonable and portions are large.

Cons: The place is popular and crowded so at peak hours tables may have to be shared. Service is indifferent, as is the wait staff's attitude.

Recommended: The snack fern root noodles, or juegen fen (蕨根粉), are a must-order and the sour-spicy combination whets the appetite. The spiciness is bearable. The boiled mutton, or shou zhua yang rou (手抓羊肉), another Shaanxi delicacy, is tender and tastes delicious, especially if eaten with garlic and chilies.

The steamed beef bun, niurou cai bing jia (牛肉菜夹饼), is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and the fragrance of the beef, the bun and the sesame makes for a great Chinese hamburger.

Don't order: Lanzhou-style vermicelli soup, lanzhou niang pi (兰州酿皮), which had too much garlic and the noodles, though smooth, were not as bite-worthy as expected.

Drinks: Teas and soft drinks

Cost: Around 35 yuan per person

Address: 333 Changde Rd

Tel: 6218-2579

Tang Yun Qin Feng 唐韵秦风

Cuisine: Authentic Xi'an food

Ambience: The simple decor and bright lighting make this inviting. It's very clean. Two terra-cotta warriors stand guard at the entrance, a physical reminder of Xi'an, the ancient capital and site of the terra-cotta army.

Who to invite: Friends and family

Pros: The open kitchen shows chefs hard at work, and it's a good indication that hygiene standards are maintained. The place is also well maintained. Prices are reasonable, portions are large.

Cons: There is no English menu, but there are good photographs of dishes that are a useful guide in ordering.

Recommended: Liang pi or cold rice noodles. The chewy noodles and vinegar sauce are refreshing in summer. The pork sandwiches or rou jia mo are fragrant and the buns are baked to perfection. The best was perhaps the you po che mian or chewy, handmade noodles seasoned with incredibly spicy and appetizing sauce (literally "boiling oil sauce"). The level of spiciness can be chosen.

Don't order: Anything spicy, if you cannot take the heat. The Sichuan peppers can numb the taste buds and can be unbearable for those who seldom eat spicy food.

Drinks: Local wines are served, including osmanthus rice wine (桂花米酒) and huang gui chou jiu (黄桂稠酒), a milky wine from Xi'an, as well as soft drinks.

Cost: Around 50 yuan per person

Address: 4/F, 580 Tianyaoqiao Rd

Tel: 6161-9788

Suzakumon 朱雀门西安美食

Cuisine: Shaanxi casual food

Ambience: The exterior is rather grand, with a traditional-looking facade of dragons facing each other. A takeaway counter faces the street. Inside there are simple tables and stools. The walls are decorated with colorful paintings. The vibe is very relaxed. It's perfect for a quick meal.

Who to invite: Go by yourself or with friends for a quick, satisfying meal.

Pros: Food is served quickly, making it easy to pop in for a short while. The decor is inviting. The eatery has been introduced on television. The prices are cheap, ranging from 4 yuan (62.7 US cents) for porridge to 30 yuan for beef and mutton bread soup. Delivery is offered along certain metro lines.

Cons: Not as much variety compared with other Shaanxi restaurants. It most offers pork sandwiches, noodles, soups and cold rice noodles. There's no English menu.

Recommended: La zhi rou jia mo (拉直肉夹馍) or pork sandwich has juicy and tender meat, if a tad salty. The buns are freshly baked and not too salty. The shijin mi pi (什锦米皮) with cucumbers turned out to be surprisingly light despite the strong sour taste. To end the meal, try the sour plum soup or suan mei tang (酸梅汤), which offsets any meaty or spicy aftertaste and has a sweet yet sour flavor.

Don't order: Shao zi mian (臊子面) with a spicy and sour soup base. The noodles are supposed to be accompanied by a variety of ingredients like tofu, pork, eggs and bean sprouts. However, the noodles are not as springy and chewy as they should be. The meat was barely visible, making the dish rather disappointing.

Drinks: Sour plum juice and Shaanxi wines

Cost: 70 yuan for three, including a main noodle dish each and a few small dishes.

Address: 101A Zhenping Rd

Tel: 5291-2385

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164