X is for Xi’an

The letter X may seem like one of the more difficult letters to use in our alphabetical trip around the world, but it we were able to fit it in quite nicely this week. We had not yet had the chance to explore China this year, and we recently had a family member return from a trip to China that included Xi’an, so it was quite easy to get the kids interested in X is for Xi’an.

Xi’an was one of my favourite stops in my own trip to China about ten years ago. I showed the kids my pictures from that trip and then we found some videos about the terracotta warriors, including an excellent one made by the Cincinnati Children’s Museum for a travelling exhibit of the warriors. We also looked at a few library books about China, including one about the terracotta warriors of Xi’an.

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Xi’an was once the terminus of the legendary silk road; the place where the Middle East met Asia. It has always had a large Muslim population and the food combines the cuisines of central Asia and China. One of my favourite memories of my trip to China was a meal I had in the old Muslim Quarter of Xi’an. It was after dark and I remember having to go through this sort of tunnel to get to the street where all the restaurants were located. It was a bit like going through a time tunnel; we emerged through a haze of smoke to this street with charcoal grills on each side with meat sizzling and food hawkers calling out to the people passing by. We had cold beers, a sort of spongy flatbread and plate after plate of kebabs, sitting at tables and benches tucked onto the sidewalk between the smoking grills and the traffic on the road.

For our Xi’an meal, I knew I would never be able to recreate that same atmosphere as that memorable meal in Xi’an, but I did want to try to make a meal that represented the foods of that particular region. Kebabs were the obvious choice and I found a recipe for the slightly spicy, flavourful marinade that they use in the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an. Lamb is the most popular meat in this part of China, with beef and donkey also being served. I skipped the donkey, but added some chicken kebabs since that is my favourite. I couldn’t find any vegetable recipes that seemed unique to Xi’an, so I just got some bok choy and sauteed that with a bit of sesame oil and it seemed to complement the meal quite well.

In searching for recipes from Xi’an I came across the website for a restaurant in New York called Xi’an Famous Foods, which focuses on food from this part of China. Their specialty is hand pulled noodles, made using traditional techniques and served with a variety of different meats and vegetables. I found their recipe and even found a couple of videos of television chefs going to this restaurant and learning the technique for making these special Xi’an noodles. I decided that this would be a fun project to do with the kids, so we watched the tutorials together, carefully mixed up the noodle dough, followed the instructions carefully and…….failed, completely and spectacularly. What we ended up with looked a lot more like random dough chunks than anything you could call noodles. In order to get something edible for supper I ended up rolling out half the dough with a rolling pin in an attempt to get something that vaguely resembled noodles to put in the soup. I guess that will teach me to trust a chef that says, “anyone can do it!” So we had beef and “sort of noodle” soup to go with the kebabs.

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To drink we had some pretty decent Chinese beer and the kids tried a carton of lychee juice. It was a bit sweeter than what they’re used to, but they seemed to like it. We also had some green tea to finish the meal.

And the verdict? Well, it definitely wasn’t as good as the meal I had back in the Muslim Quarter all those years back, but it wasn’t a bad recreation. The kids enjoyed the “noodles” once they cooled down enough to eat, although it was quite amusing to watch their fruitless attempts to eat the slippery noodles with chopsticks. They liked the chicken kebabs, but didn’t really want the beef or lamb and the bok choy was rejected completely. My husband and I were quite happy to finish off what they didn’t eat, though.

I didn’t really put much effort into dessert this week. I wasn’t able to find any recipes for desserts specific to this region and I’ve never really been able to warm up to most Asian desserts anyway. Instead we brought out a box of little cakes that my husband had been given a few weeks ago as a gift. I had thought they were Chinese, but on closer examination, the writing appears to be Korean. Oh well. The kids were quite intrigued by the fancy packaging, but they only had a nibble before asking for cookies instead. My husband and I both finished ours, however, and agreed that they were actually pretty good. Who knew?

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And that was X is for Xi’an. My son and I were going over the alphabet earlier today and when I told him that this week was “X” he suddenly got all worried and said, “but Mommy, that means we’re almost out of letters!” And I had to tell him that he was right, we were.But we’ll still have fun with the letters we have left. And next week we get even closer to the end with the letter Y!

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