Northwestern Chinese cuisine carved out its tasty realm in the country’s food map for its inexpensive dishes with rich, heavy flavors and often served in large portions.
The culinary traditions of the region are woven from a rich tapestry nurtured by the cultures of the many minorities who live there, such as the Hui minority (Chinese Muslims) in Xi’an of Shaanxi Province and Gansu Province, the Uygur in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the Mongolians in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Their cuisines are greatly influenced by history, the character of the land and local delicacies.
Xi’an, capital city of Shaanxi, is renowned for its ancient customs, unique culture, long history and archeological wonders like the terra-cotta army and the tomb of Emperor Qinshihuang (260–210 BC), the first emperor of a united China.
During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), ancestors of many Hui people migrated eastward along the Silk Road, along which silks, tea, spices, culture, religion and food styles were among the things interchanged. Some opened Islamic eateries, which had an enormous influence on the development of local food.
Many Hui people settled in what has become the Muslim Quarter, and Huimin Street (回民街) in the area is a famous street lined with many Islamic-specialty restaurants and stalls that offer delicacies and snacks with strong ethnic characteristics.
Since Muslims are prohibited from eating pork, the menus rely heavily on lamb, beef and noodles.
“I think the most typical feature of Xi’an food is its richness and variety. Smart diners should learn the best combination of flavors,” says Shanghai college student Villa Ma, 22.
Far to the west, food in Xinjiang is similar to that of Turkic and Central Asian cultures, but it has its own charm in flavors and trends. The large region is home to more than 10 million Uygurs, according to National Census Bureau figures from 2012.
The most two famed Xinjiang dishes are big plate of chicken (da pan ji 新疆大盘鸡) and roasted whole lamb (kao quan yang 烤全羊), which have become musts for visitors.
Gansu Province, which is between Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, is famous for its spicy seasonings, heavy flavor and rich tastes. Gansu food is greatly influenced by the Hui people and has strong ethnic characteristics.
Perhaps the first Gansu food people think of is Lanzhou la mian (stretched noodles 兰州拉面). In recent years, Lanzhou beef noodle eateries have swept across China, including Shanghai, but locals say they are the only ones who can cook the most authentic noodles because they use water from the Yellow River, a crucial part of making a bowl of real Lanzhou noodles.
Food in Shaanxi
Pita bread soaked in lamb/beef soup (pao mo 泡馍)
Pao mo is one of the most famous local dishes in Xi’an. Almost every tourist tries it.
Generally, when you order pao mo at a restaurant, you’ll be served a bowl of soup with vegetables and a lot of flatbread separately. People should tear the bread into small pieces and add them to the lamb or beef soup. Those who like spicy food can also eat pao mo with pickled garlic and chili sauce.
Lamb/beef burgers (rou jia mo 肉夹馍)
Rou jia mo, also called Chinese hamburger, is sometimes seasoned with cumin or chili pepper. It is a traditional local snack made from meat which resembles kebab meat wrapped in flatbread.
The filling varies from place to place. In Muslim areas it is lamb or beef filling and in other places often pork. Most local people prefer to have their rou jia mo with other food including noodles, making a meal that is both nutritious and inexpensive.
Cold rice noodles (liang pi 凉皮)
It’s widely believed that people in south China prefer rice while those in the north prefer noodles. Among all types of noodles, liang pi — chewy hand-pulled rice noodles served cold and tossed with a mix of vegetables and condiments — is considered one of the classic.
Since liang pi literally means cold skin, many foreigners at first think it is made of animal skin, but it actually is made from rice flour.
Ingredients mixed with liang pi include cucumbers and peanuts. Diners can choose their own sauce, from la jiang (chili sauce 辣酱) to milder ma jiang (sesame sauce 麻酱).
Minced meat noodles (saozi mian 臊子面)
The noodles are another favorite, made of minced pork and vegetables, including carrots, potatoes, fungus and others. It is a dish appealing to the eye as well as the taste buds.
According to legend, this time-honored noodle originated in the Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256 BC). At the time, there was an evil dragon that used black magic to cause drought. It had not rained for three years, and the soil was parched and people were dying from the harsh conditions.
Driven beyond endurance, people battled the dragon for seven days and finally killed it. Out of anger and hunger, they diced the dragon meat and ate it with noodles to celebrate their victory.
Saozi Noodles play an important role in locals’ daily lives, especially for those in rural areas.
It is an essential dish for ceremonies and holidays because it is thought to bring good fortune and eliminate evil spirits.
Steamed beef/lamb with rice crumbs (fen zhen rou 粉蒸肉)
In China, many areas have fen zhen rou, but they cook with pork. In Xi’an, a city with many Muslims, there are different types of fen zhen rou, which is diverse in ingredients and recipes.
They first coat the meat in seasoned rice flour, then dip it in a liquid like cooking wine and fry it until golden. People love this crispy and flavorful dish, and eat it with flatbread.
Mirror-shaped cakes (jing gao 镜糕)
Jing gao is a round rice cake. In Chinese, jing (镜) means mirror. It got its name because people think this round rice cake resembles a mirror in shape.
Hawkers put glutinous rice pounded into a paste in a small wooden container and heat it to make the cakes. It is customary to choose a sweet sauce to pour over the rice cake including those with such flavors as red bean, rose, blueberry and sweet osmanthus, as well as some toppings like nuts.
Jing gao has exploded in popularity as a low-calorie, low-fat snack, and it is popular among children.
Durian pastry (liulian gao 榴莲糕)
When many people first see this pastry, they think it pretty much like cream puffs that have durian filling inside. But hand-made durian pastry is made of durian-flavored dough with the distinctive fragrance of durian cream inside. Durian is mixed with flour, which makes the dough an attractive yellow color. Durian cream oozes out with every bite.
This kind of pastry is rare in restaurants, but hawkers make it at home and sell it on Huimin Street.
Orange-flavored soda (bing feng 冰峰)
Bing feng, literally meaning ice peak, is a kind of locally produced orange soda similar to Mirinda, a globally distributed orange drink originally from Spain. Bing feng is only available in Xi’an, where it is very popular. No matter what dish they order, it’s a fair bet that they also will order a bottle of bing feng.
This beverage dates back to 1953, and has persisted as a local favorite despite more competition in recent years from imported soft drinks.
Food in Xinjiang
Big plate of chicken (Xinjiang da pan ji 新疆大盘鸡)
When it comes to Xinjiang delicacies, the first dish in mind must be da pan ji, which means “a big plate of chicken.” It’s said that da pan ji originated in Shawan, a northern city in Xinjiang that has many migrants from Sichuan, and it quickly became popular around the country.
Due to their preference for spicy foods, the Sichuan migrants invented new recipes. For this poultry dish, they stewed a whole chicken with chunks of potatoes, peppers, garlic and onions, seasoned with such ingredients as hot chili sauces, cinnamon, cassia, star anise and cumin.
If you order da pan ji in a local restaurant in Xinjiang, you can choose the side dishes and the type of chicken, ranging from tender chicken (san huang ji 三黄鸡) to black-bone chicken (wu gu ji 乌骨鸡). You can soak up the sauce with Xinjiang flatbread (nang 囊), handmade belt noodles or steamed twisted rolls (hua juan 花卷). This special mash up of culinary traditions is called “two ways to eat one chicken” (yi ji liang chi 一鸡两吃).
Land-air-sea barbecue (hai lu kong shaokao 海陆空烧烤)
The funny name means a kind of barbecue with three types meats — mutton, chicken and fish — which signify land, air and sea. This grilled dish comes on a meter-long iron plate full of potatoes and meats.
Diners can add spices and seasoning to their taste. Due to the large potion, this dish should be shared by at least four people.
Roast whole lamb (kao quan yang 烤全羊)
Mutton, one of the most popular meats in Xinjiang, can be cooked in many ways, such as barbecued, spit-roasted or grilled. Roast whole lamb was originally a dish from Inner Mongolia, where it is used to honor guests.
Over time, local Uygurs learned from Mongolians and developed some innovations in roasting the lamb. They choose a tender lamb and use spices like fennel and ginger to reduce the gamey smell of the lamb. After preparation, they cook the lamb on an iron plate, coating it with sauces and pepper.
Note that in recent years, the cost of lamb and mutton has risen. A whole lamb costs at least 1,500 yuan (US$247), excluding the processing fee.
Kvass (ka wa si 卡瓦斯)
It is a fermented drink made from bread that is sometimes flavored with such ingredients as fruit or honey.
It often is classified as non-alcoholic, though it does contain a small amount of alcohol, less than 1.2 percent. It came from Russia and Ukraine and was introduced into Xinjiang by Turks.
Kvass, like other fermented food, has a slight sourness, but flavorings like honey can change the taste. Many consider Kvass to be a healthy beverage that promotes good digestion and wellness. Locals like to drink it with grilled foods.
Food in Gansu
Lanzhou stretched beef noodles (Lanzhou la mian 兰州拉面)
Lanzhou noodles, the most famous dish in Gansu, is now very popular around China. It is distinctive for the way it is prepared and served and for its delicious beef stock.
Despite the name, the taste of the soup plays an important role in judging the flavor. Just like a perfect Lanzhou noodle soup, it should have five attributes: clear, white, green, red and yellow. The soup should be clear with white onions, green caraway, a few red peppers and heaps of yellow noodles and some paper-thin beef slices.
Lanzhou stretched noodles are also characterized by the width of noodles, ranging from very thin (mao xi 毛细), thin, normal (er xi 二细), a little bit wider (san xi 三细) and wide. Diners can specify which kind of noodles they like before they order.
Buckwheat noodles (qiao mian 荞面)
Many people know buckwheat noodles from Japanese soba, but in Gansu there are also some local flavored buckwheat noodles full of nutrition.
Local Gansu people first grind buckwheat into flour, and then fold in baking powder, using their hands to knead and form the dough. Good buckwheat noodles must contain 100-percent buckwheat and be stretched by hand, which makes it both chewy and glutinous.
Buckwheat noodles also vary depending on the season. Most people prefer cold buckwheat noodles in summer with cold soup and hot ones in winter with hot soup.
Fried ones are eaten all year. No matter which one they choose, they usually will add some chili sauce and vegetables to go with the noodles.
• Xibei Northwest Cuisine Restaurant (西贝莜面村)
It has around 50 branches all over the country and is now the leading chain of northwest cuisine in China. It is renowned for authentic northwestern-style delicacies, good service and exotic environment. Their specialities include roasted lamb, you mian (莜面) and handmade yogurt.
Cost: 85 yuan per person
Address: • 9/F, 800 Nanjing Rd E.
Transportation: Metro Line 2 People’s Square Station
• 5/F, 189 Zhengtong Rd, Yangpu District
Transportation: Metro Line 10 Wujiaochang Station
• 6/F, 1018 Changning Rd
Transportation: Metro Line 2, 3 or 4 Zhongshan Park Station
• Xibei Northwest Cuisine Restaurant provides English menus.
• Besides cash, they also accept Chinese bank cards, visa and MasterCard, but not American Express.
• Due to its popularity, the restaurant usually is quite full, including the waiting area. Reservation is highly recommended.
• Tala Mongolian Restaurant 家在塔拉蒙古特色餐厅
Cost: 75 yuan per person
Address: • 4/F, 214 Tianyaoqiao Rd (6417-7277)
• 2/F, 37 Guilin Rd (3469-2137)
• Tang Yun Qin Feng 唐韵秦风
Cost: 50 yuan per person
Address: • 4/F, 580 Tianyaoqiao Rd (6161-9788)
• No. 115-116, 300 Longhui Rd (5891-6202)
• 2/F, 138 Ruihui Rd, Hongkou District (5513-3968)