To inform entertain and excite my kids, Jamie, Patrick, Aaron & Sarah Middleburgh, our family and friends.about me
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Went to Xian on a business trip last week... nothing exceptional about that you might think.... after all its not the first time..... how wrong could you be !!
Xian is steeped in history (3000 years +). It is the home of the Terracotta Army (is not a soccer team or their fans!!) and was the eastern end of the Silk Road. (old shop signs are in chinese and arabic) Arround the city are imperial palaces, pagoddas, temples, tombs and such like. We walked down to the clock tower and the surrounding streets (slide show at end of this post) in search of a particular restaurant. Well one of the guys was searching for a particular restaurant. The other, from Hong Kong, was behaving just like a tourist taking pictures with his HTC Desire (Me .. I just look like a tourist).
Panic started to set in when our leader realised he couldn't find the sought after restaurant and we had to double back. Thinking he had found it we dived into a smoky dive realizing immediately the error. The intent had been to find a restaurant doing local (Xian style ??) signature dishes. We could have walked out except that there would have been a loss of "face" so we stayed and ordered a variety of the house specialities - basically spicy meat threaded on skewers which was barbequed or cremated. (I was asked if I liked lamb) The first to arive was neither lamb nor beef. It looked like shaved pork or ham.None of us could identify the meat. Shellfish, chicken etc was ruled out - we were too afraid to ask - although we did debate whether it could be lizard or snake. Then the brown meats started to arrive . Uniformally tough - totally unidentifiable . The main differentiator were the skewers - Some meats came on thin flat skewers (1mm x 4mm x 30mm) and others on needle thin black (lacquered?) skewers that looked (to me) like sharpened bycyle spokes. Notably the skewers all looked as though they had not been cleaned in a month (if ever) Staff were walking around with fistfuls (literally) of used skewers collected from other tables.Hong Kong photo'd the dishes although I did point out that the path lab would prefer a sample over a picture.
There was also a young kid (daughter of one of the staff ?) wandering arround with a well worn wooden crossbow. (I thought this was home made but by the strangest coincidence last sunday I saw an identical one in a second hand charity shop in Ap Lei Chau (it was cleaner!!)). As we worked our way through the "kebabs" we watched various members of the staff borrow the weapon load it with a skewer,then shoot it into walls and such like. (introduces a new dimension to food safety when you could get shot by cross bow with your dinner implements)
The one redeeming feature of the meal was that our leader popped down the road and bought back some soft drinks including a sweet and sour red berry juice. Now whatever else may have been in it I recognised the taste: There is a strange seasonal fruit that you can get in China which has this really interesting sweet/sour taste which I quite like. (No one I have asked knows its English name) I have only seen it once in Hong Kong even though its available in season just across the border in Shenzhen.
having finished our kebabs and drinks it was suggested we moved on elsewhere; We ended up in a restaurant 5 shops down the road. Less smokey- equally "divey". In fact I was convinced the staff were the same. It had the standard white tiles - I did a double check to see how greasy they were and decided not to lean up against the wall during my visit. In addition to skewered things this particular establishment's signature disk was rice ; egg rice, chilli rice, fried rice etc of which we partook. After this we called it a day and went home taking note on route of the Starsucks and MacDonald's. At the time I was not sure which was the most unexpected, the skewered delights at our first stop , the eat on the move theme , (next dish - next door ) or the fact that next to "authentic" xian food could be found classic western soul food
We marched down a street I had previously visited and then following precedent marched back again stopping to consult a colleague from local office ; we then decended on a noodle shop - but not an ordinary noodle shop . Whilst we waited for the noodles our leader concerned that we faint of hunger slipped down the road returning with "chinese burgers" (believe it or not this was the first time I have had "chinese burgers" - McDonalds bought in china don't count) The bun was "flat" and reminded me of wholemeal scone (sort of). It certainly wasn't a copy of a soft McBun or even a French roll. The pattie (no onion, tomato,processed cheese, lettuce etc ) and larger (diameter) than a macdonalds burger actually tasted of tuna. The 3 guys from HK all told me that normally it's "real" meat and in fact before I left XIAN I found myself walking behind a girl eating a chinese burger which smelt and looked like coarse ground minced beef. She didn't know how close she came to a mugging.
The noodles when they arived were by contrast the real thing. You have to understand that chinese noodles can be haute cuisine. One bowl contained 4 cones of tagliateli like noodles. One bowl contained minced pork in a soy/chili stock; one bowl contained satay and chili stock in a yin/yan design, another bowl contained a clear soup (chicken or pork) with spring onions/chives. Basically you dip your noodles in the stocks/soup or in my case pick up a cone, drop in mix it up and eat. There was a spicy vegetable salad side dish: Now tourists are always warned of the dangers of eating salads ; Pity really because asian salads can be spectacularly excellent !! Just get your vacinations against Cholera and all the variants of Hepatitis before you travel - You know it makes sense!!!
That evening HK and I slipped out hotel to find somewhere to eat. We ended up 200m down road in a mock Thai Restaurant serving western (non chinese!) food. The general chinese perception of western food is rather like western perceptions of chinese food - incorrect!!. HK had steak and chips (rice) with salad and 1000 island dressing, chinese fortified fruit wine (pseudo sherry) and a roll.I had the Japanese set (miso soup.egg custard, pork chop with rice and curry sauce). We did a cross check on the menu first: there were two otherwise identical steak dishes listed at different prices (one with australian steak the other local) or in other words two identical local steak dishes with different prices and descriptions (you pay for branding!!).There were also 2 japanese sets with identical english desciptions but different chinese. The waitress couldn't explain the difference and in any case one was off so instead of having "the Japanese set" I had the "japanese set"
So there we are on a street corner, we step into a lift, ascend and step out into a "classy" restaurant.You know this by the number and variety of Brandy and Wiskey bottles on display (no Irish though). We are given a choice of table (this one or that) The place is full. I let my colleagues order:
The conversation of course touched on burgers and skewers and HK confessed tome that when he took westerners out for a meal they would order dishes and ommit to explain what was in them (on the basis of what you don't know won't hurt you) He was convinced that amongst the skewers we had had earlier in week there was probably some rat or maybe even "chien". It wouldn't suprise me. Personally I will try most things at least once although I am not particularly fond of chinese deserts (red bean; lotus paste etc) or of chicken feet (with or without claws) . He questioned whether I would eat offal and was surprised when I started to extoll the virtues of "kidneys in red wine", liver sauteed with onions, tripe and cabbage, oxtail stew, snake and pigmy pies, black and white puddings etc and the entire concept of the Fifth Quarter. He had a perception that westerners never eat offals. I am now committed to expand his culinary experience of western cuisine.
We were taken out for lunch, to a dumpling shop - Chicken and/or pork soup with dumplings (Think oversized ravioli). 4 varieties of dumpling were ordered (200g each order) for 3 of us. I am not sure if this was before or after cooking. They included lotus root (vegetarian); Pork and chives; egg and something and ???. We managed only about half and left not with a doggy bag of dumplings but a sack. (doggy bag simply does not capture it) As we left the waitress complained that we had whimpy appetitites and what was wrong with us? Our hostess concured pointing out that she would normally order a 250g portion just for herself so 4x200g should have been about right? We blamed it on the skewers...
Come evening, both of us skipped dinner. I even passed up the opportunity to try the room service special - a burger and wedgies. Both of us were looking forward to return home ... to home cooking .....