"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Friday, August 20, 2010

Paomo in Xian (Part 1 of 2)

What is exactly paomo? Paomao is a popular, local specialty in Xian, China, and originally a Muslim dish. There are many specialized restaurants selling paomo, especially the yangrou paomo, the lamb paomo, in the Muslim Quarter. Lamb in China? You may think: Do not forget that the Muslims do not eat pork and Mongols also favor lamb. Xian has a longstanding Muslim community, and thus, the Muslim Quarter – it feels like Chinatown in New York, but the common tongue, the Mandarin, somehow gets you further than English in Chinatown: I suppose the Chinese tenacity will dominate the world eventually. I know I am dragging it and you just want to know what paomo is. However, an interesting dish deserves a bit of a lead-in, don’t you think? After all, a dish is a slice of living history – layered by the experience of the forbearers (“Experience is the name given to mistakes” – Oscar Wilde), the wisdom and the whim of the previous generations.

In order to explain what a paomo is, I should start from the beginning – the preparation – because this is a very involved action, as opposed to passively reacting to whatever is served in front of you. When you order a yangrou paomo, you usually get to pick a big or a small bowl – the small is usually enough even for a starving person because it is intensely filling, and I will explain why soon. At 老米家 (Lao Mi Jia), a small bowl would get you two white round disks – about 4-5 inch in diameter x 2/3 inch in thickness of bread, slightly brown in a pattern created from baking in the oven.

Now, this “bread” can be very big – there are special stores, which sell them, and they have some the sizes of miniature sun dials. I would hate to have to carry these miniature sun dials anywhere… This “bread” has gone through some seriously tough kneading, that is how to make good chewy manto (steamed bread), too, and then baked. These staples were meant to last in the old days prior to the refrigerator, OK? After all the abuse, the dough turns into a dense, a very dense, and yet somewhat moist white carbohydrate monster. Even imagining this “bread” has exhausted me momentarily.

What you must do with this bread is to crumble it: No, it is not simple at all – crumbling is a lot of real “work.” It is like Korean BBQ: Why am I cooking my own food in a restaurant? The crumbling is akin to grilling the meat: The restaurant has done the seasoning, but you are in charge of the ultimate texture of the dish, a final touch, which will decide your fate of whether your food will be a success or a total failure. It is a serious business, let me tell you, especially when the “bread” you are dealing with is this abused, hardened, meant-to-last thing. A very important tip: Do not slack and do not cheat – you must crumble them fine and well. Otherwise, the waitress may just not take your sorry mess and will tell you to redo it. You do not want such an ignominious treatment. I am not threatening you: It is true, I have seen it and been told it. There are a whole family chatting and scolding over the crumbling of breads, an old man seriously concentrating on it as if his remaining, dwindling years depended on it, and a couple romanticizing and joking over the crumbling… It makes an interesting people watch and it helps the process – you need the entertainment because crumbling takes time!

Now, once you have crumbled to your heart’s satisfaction, although your waitress would probably tell you to do it again, you call the waitress and she would carry the bowl of crumbled bread over to the kitchen. The kitchen people, in charge of a caldron of hot, bubbling, rich soup of lamb, would ladle out the soup over your crumbled bread along with some 粉糸 (fen si), clear noodles made from the starch of mung beans (see how useful I can be?).

At 老米家, your yangrou paomo will return to you accompanied by a small dish of hot pepper sauce and pickled garlic. Embrace the garlic and stop being a snob. The pickled garlic is a nice and necessary complement for the lamb. Finally, you are ready to dig in.

老米家’s soup has a couple of slices of tender lamb, and make sure you enjoy the paomo as it is first, then you do the chili and the garlic versions – a little variety is good, you know, don’t be such a bore. When you have tasted the pure version – the soup rich and opaque with the goodness of the lamb, you get a piece of the sweet pickled garlic to cleanse your palette, so to speak, but well, not much chance of that when you deal with garlic, I suppose. The cilantro sprinkled on top, not just sitting there looking pretty, also adds contrast to the soup and the lamb. Pay some attention to the 粉糸, the clear noodles you see – one dangling over that big piece of lamb – because it has soaked up the delicious lamb stock and is perfectly chewy, not soggy. A self-respecting restaurant will not serve it soggy; as pasta needs to be al dente.

Now the bread that you have worked on to crumble has been soaking up the beautiful soup all this time, right? This is exactly why crumbling is so critical: The smaller it is, the faster it soaks up. Therefore, if you have a chunk of bread – by the way, it won’t float, it sinks – it will just be like a rock in a pond. The locals will just look at you and shake their heads, “Foreigners…” You sip some of the soup and take in a few of the crumbs in at the same time and chew and enjoy. After this, you can just say, “ahhhh.” All your hard work has been rewarded: The crumbs still retain some chewiness – I told you, they are meant to last – but has now been softened and mellowed by the soup. Your heart also is softened: Warm and fuzzy feeling after several mouthfuls and a full-blown carbo food coma after the whole bowl.

Restaurant Info:

老米家 (Lao Mi Jia): 碑林区西羊市127号 ( Located in the Muslim Quarter on Xiyang Shi, No. 127.) I think, but just ask anyone. The people at the hotel told me only the name, and I just stumbled on it by myself: It must have been fate.

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