34 Province Project: Shaanxi 陝西

Any post about Shaanxi, “West of the Shan Pass”, has to start with a disclaimer not to confuse it with its near-namesake Shanxi (山西), “West of the Mountains”. Even more confusingly, the two border each other, with single-a/high-tone “wrong” Shānxī just east of double-a/falling-rising-tone “right” Shǎnxī. But here’s an easy mnemonic: nobody ever talks about the other one, because double-a Shaanxi is where it’s at.

Indeed, Shaanxi is the province whose cuisine I fell in love with first. As a foodie, I’m always looking for tastes that are both new and delicious, and the Qin cuisine (秦菜) eaten there delivers in spades. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight though: my first encounter with lamb & bread soup yángròu pàomó in Box Hill, Melbourne left me distinctly nonplussed, and I didn’t quite grok my first biángbiáng noodles in Sydney’s Chinatown either. But at some point I stumbled through the dimensional portal at Murray Place Arcade in Burwood, and before I knew it my tastebuds were hooked.

In 2018, I had the chance to visit Shaanxi’s capital Xi’an for a single day, and I tried to make the most of it by eating everything in sight. With a history spanning some 3000 years, the city’s history defies zippy summaries, but under its old name Chang’an it was the capital of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and its megalomaniacal founder Qin Shi Huang, who was China’s very first emperor and whose famous Terracotta Soldiers guard his mausoleum to this day. (Fun fact: Japan’s old capital Kyoto, founded in 794, copied Chang’an’s layout.) Located at the eastern end of the Silk Road, Xi’an also hosts a significant Muslim community, who had a particularly big influence on the culinary scene. The photogenic Muslim Quarter serves up tons of tasty treats to this day, and a read through this droolsome blog merely scratches the surface.

In Singapore, Shaanxi restaurants are not exactly mainstream, but you can find about half a dozen if you look. I started off with fast food outlet Qin Ji Rougamo (秦记肉夹馍), lurking in the excitingly named Alexandra Retail Complex near Labrador Park MRT, where I sampled the classic Xi’an Triangle: a Chinese-style pulled pork burger (肉夹馍 ròujiāmó/ròugāmó), a bowl of cold liángpí (涼皮) noodles, and a can of Ice Peak (冰峰 Bīngfēng). The rougamo here are great, the mo flatbread a delicate spiral crispy at the edges but soft enough to eat, and the rich pulled pork doused in sauce melts in your mouth — and all over your pants if you don’t eat carefully enough. The liangpi noodles themselves were fine and toppings were positively fancy, with a spray of cucumber, beansprouts, little crunchy dough balls and spongy kǎofū gluten, but you can only get the “default” kind with chilli oil (I prefer the sesame variant) and it comes premixed and quite soggy (I prefer them drier, with DIY toppings). And the Ice Peak, well, it’s orange Fanta, no more, no less. At $11.90 nett, it’s a pretty good lunch, but I’ll get soy milk and try another side dish next time.

Next stop was Biang Biang Noodles Xi’an Famous Food (biángbiáng面西安名吃) in Toa Payoh, a lunchtime delivery saviour for me during Singapore’s “circuit breaker” lockdown. The noodles here are named after the sound they make when slapped against a board while made (biáng! biáng!), and in a clever bit of marketing that biáng has a literally unprintable character that claims to be the most complex in the Chinese language. If you want the original style, you need to order what they call “Shanxi signature noodles” (油泼面 yóupōmiàn, “oil-splashed noodles”), which gets you a bowl of wide, chewy, belt-sized wheat noodles, served “dry” with a splash of oil, a dash of chilli powder, a spray of leeks and a token vegetable: simple but delicious. If you order “biang biang”, you get the same noodles, but with tomatoes, eggs and stewed pork on top.

There’s a fair selection of other Shaanxi favorites here too, but the lumpy, dry rougamo here can’t hold a candle to Qin Ji and the liangpi is nothing special either. One dish did catch my eye, namely Qishan noodles (岐山臊子面 Qíshān sàozimiàn), where the middle word is omitted from the English name because it’s virtually untranslatable. If you look it up in a dictionary, 臊 sāo means “urine-scented”, leading to occasional hilarity, but pronounced with a falling tone (sào) it means “embarrass”. A convoluted legend says the name actually comes from near-homonym 嫂 sǎo meaning “sister-in-law”, and the character was swapped over time. At Biang Biang the menu even spells it wrong as 哨子面 shàozimiàn, which would be “whistle noodles”. Confused yet? After all this, the actual meaning of 臊子 is a tad anti-climactic: it’s… minced meat sauce. Canonical saozi has cubes made from red carrots, green garlic shoots, black wood ear fungus, yellow eggs and white beancurd, all topped with a soup that’s supposed to be hot & sour, but not pungent (urine or otherwise) and no mala either. Biang Biang’s version substitutes potato for eggs, but otherwise ticks all the boxes.

Third up, I paid a visit to Shaanxi Noodles (寻秦记 Xúnqínjì, “Seeking Qin Brand”) in hipster enclave Tiong Bahru for another shot at lamb paomo (羊肉泡馍 yángròu pàomó). This rather unusual soup consists of a thick lamb broth with slivers of meat, a few token veggies, and the same mo flatbread as used for rougamo, shredded by hand and sprinkled into the soup by the diner themselves. The lady taking my order quizzically asked me if I knew how to eat paomo, but apparently didn’t believe my claim that I did, since my mo had been neatly presliced into little cubes. Sigh. On the upside, the soup was rather tasty if salty, and came with the canonical sides of chilli paste and pickled garlic, which added a nice kick.

To wash it down, I tried Ice Peak’s attempt at sour plum drink (酸梅汤 suānméitāng). The can somewhat dubiously claims that “this taste is very Xi’an” (这味儿很西安 Zhèwèier hěn Xī’ān), although it’s ubiquitous in China and widely available in Singapore too. It was syrupy sweet and tasty enough, but rather inoffensive/bland and lacked the smokey notes from the better brands.

Total damage $15.50, which is kinda expensive for a bowl of (not-quite-)noodles, but you are paying a premium for the air con and hip surrounds. One thumb up.

Honorable mention: Xi’An Impression (西安印象) in People’s Park Complex, which serves up all your Shaanxi favorites and more, without unnecessary frills like an English menu, air-conditioning, or reliable opening hours. Onward!

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