Shǎnxī 陕西*, beginning of the Silk Road and the endpoint of the Long March, beginning of the China's real West, the edge of the Empire for most of Chinese history. Shǎnxī's folk cuisine represents something almost unique in the history of Chinese cuisine. Its popularity is a result of the cultural and ideological change after the beginnings of the Civil War in the '30s... after the creation of the People's Republic in '49... and after the collectivization of the late-1950s... and after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward... after the excesses of the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution.... Food and eating are crucial to any society but there'd been a certain history of cuisine in China, a history of a few thousand years.

So, when it came time to dismantle things, when the private chefs of the Republican generals had been swept off to Táiběi 台北 to cook homesick banquets, when the vibrant restaurant and cuisine culture of the South had been swept away, when the work unit canteen or the people's commune hall replaced the family kitchen-- what new thing replaces the ancient? What was the revolutionary food of the people?

The Communists had their Echo Base in Shǎnxī: Yán'ān 延安, the final destination of the Long March. At Yán'ān, with the Chairman firmly in control, the Party set about figuring out a replacement for the feudal, reactionary culture of the Old Society and the decadent, capitalist culture of the Republicans. When the Party cast about for revolutionary models to fill the cultural vacuum created by the aggressive revolutionary tidying up, the mínjiān wénhuà 民间文化 ("folk culture") of China's West looked like a decent placeholder. The mínjiān wénhuà of Shǎnxī in particular became a cultural force in revolutionary China, starting in the late-'30s.

Look: the most important song of the era, "The East is Red," borrowed its tune from a Shǎnxī folk song. Yán'ān, and greater Shǎnxī by association, were the birthplace of the revolution. They became the revolutionary hinterland, the source of a pure, red working class culture, untainted by bourgeois capitalism or foreign influences. The food of the Shǎnxī working class became the diet of the Yán'ān Long Marchers-- it became revolutionary.

A similar thing happened with Húnán food. The cuisine of Húnán, despite having a history of a few thousand years prior to his birth, is now forever tied to Máojiācài 毛家菜, cooking straight from the Chairman's home hearth. The earthy fare of rough cornbread biscuits and braised pork that represents Máojiācài 毛家菜 has a basis in the rural food of the province of Húnán, but it was also a neat revolutionary tool to highlight the working class, rural tastes of the Chairman. Húnán restaurants are popular in Mainland China and usually feature a rustic or straight up Maoist revolutionary theme.

In a similar way, the food culture of Shǎnxī, as it spread outside the province, was also tied to a certain cultural creation, a time and place which probably never existed: Shǎnxī in the minds of Party cultural workers. Neither cuisine, tough, rural Húnán dishes and Shǎnxī folk cuisine, was something anyone had bothered paying much attention to, before the cultural shift following the Chinese Civil War and Liberation.

In a country with a history of elite literati writing on the delicate flavors of river crab and appreciation of rare tea, there was definitely something revolutionary about praising a simple cuisine of potatoes, wheat, lamb.

No poets had ever written odes to Shǎnxī's noodles. The food being eaten in the homes of the province, served in streetside stalls, wasn't the food of the Táng court (618-907)-- after the glory days of Cháng'ān 长安, which was once a cultural fountainhead for greater East Asia, the province became another dusty, poor place on the fringes of increasingly fragmented empires.

Despite the lack of poetic praise, the cuisine of the province has a long history, equal to most other regional culinary traditions in the country-- there was less written about it, because it was a poor, remote place by the time the of the Míng (1368-1644) and the Qīng (1644-1911) and was barely under the control of the Republicans (you'll remember that Chiang Kai-shek once got kidnapped on a trip to Xī'ān)....

Jiǎ Píngwā 贾平凹, chronicler of Shǎnxī's urban and rural life for the past forty years (and one of the few serious writers to write about Shǎnxī folk culture-- and elevate the local food to something akin to a national treasure), sums up the province and its food like this:

They say Southerners are meticulous and Northerners are crude. If that's true, then Northwesterners are even more crude, even more rough. Their language is thick, rich with falling tones. The men are dark and the women are thick. The flavors of the local food are vibrant; light on the sugar but heavy on the salt. Ah, this blessed land. Shǎnxī! North: the yellow loess plateaus. In the middle: the Wèi River plains. Heading south, the Qínlǐng Mountains begin to rise. Looking over the vast banquet of Shǎnxī cuisine, a small amount can be traced to the palace kitchens of earlier ages or the estates of the Táng bureaucrats, but it's mostly from the tables of the commoners; the minority peoples of the province add a few dishes, and we get a few of the famous dishes from the city restaurants. It looks, superficially, like the food of the rest of Northern China, but, deep down, it is completely different.

The food of Shǎnxī (and now the rest of the Western China), cloaked in a revolutionary, wild west aura, has become a basic working class meal in China. But, in Vancouver, there is still only one true school shrine to Shǎnxī cuisine.

It's named generically: Xī'ān Xiǎochī 西安小吃-- Xī'ān, the capital of the province, and xiǎochī, the local "small eats." It's named generically because it has no competitors. There are a handful of places vaguely specializing in Northwestern Chinese food (like Peaceful Restaurant [和平饭店], to name the most obvious example), but nobody else, yet, has gone for pure Xī'ān, pure Shǎnxī.

Right in the Richmond Public Market: that nest of cement and iron, with its misplaced twee agricultural theme. The basement is taken up by butcher shops and vegetable markets, a fish monger, a DVD shop, a bookstore.

Unlike the Crystal Mall, which is populated by pretty kids in Marc Jacobs bags and trucker hats, the Richmond Public Market crowd is more likely to be playing checkers on the tables in the food court, sneaking out onto the balcony for a smoke, watching endless sports highlights or Canto soap operas.

Xī'ān Xiǎochī has been open for a seven years. It opened the week before SARS was reported, and Mr. Duan, from Xī'ān, who runs the place, with his wife, remembers coming to work for the first month with a surgical mask on, and the whole place being absolutely dead.

It has a following. There are newspaper clippings tacked up in the back or set underneath the glass counter. My favorite review is titled: 《吃了就不想西安了》, after eating here, you won't miss Xī'ān anymore. Another one of the few similar places outside China, Xi'an Famous Foods, in Flushing, New York, has been written about extensively (like in the New York Times... and Anthony Bourdain went there, man)... but Xī'ān Xiǎochī has kept a much lower profile, outside of the local Chinese media.

The menu is a wall of text, but most of the business is in a handful of specialties: ròujiāmó 肉夹馍, fěnzhēngròu 粉蒸肉, lāmiàn 拉面, and liángpí'r 凉皮儿, dāoxiāomiàn 刀削面.

How many times have I heard Duan call from the counter, in an accent miles away from Běijīng- or Táiběi-accented Mandarin, "肉夹馍好咧!" "Ròoooooooujiāaaaamó hǎolie!" That accent, like an Irish burr-- Mandarin with an Irish burr. Now, I know exactly how long it takes to make most of the dishes but I usually duck down the corridor, pretend to be looking the other way, so that I'll get to hear my dish being called.


...a classic Northern Chinese street food that emerged from the streets of Shǎnxī. It is two things: meat and bread. The bread is báijímó 白吉馍, a puffy flatbread that is usually baked in a steel drum, nowadays (forget importing Italian pizza ovens, somebody needs to hook up a decent steel drum oven). The meat is braised pork: làzhīròu 腊汁肉 (not to be confused with làròu 腊肉, cured pork). The pork is boiled until barely holding together, in a dark, rich broth-- restaurants in Xī'ān claim to have been using the same stock for decades. The broth is flavored with the usual: cassia, anise, ginger, cardamom.

It's simple. It has none of the condiments that you'd get outside of Xī'ān, no cilantro, no hot sauce. Pork. Bread. Fat and carbohydrates. Simple, rich. The textures are magnified by the flatness of the flavor: the crunch of the baked outer crust, the whitebread marshmallow fluff, each thread of lean pork being cut through with molars, the snotty balls of fat that leave greasy slugtrails as they melt across your tongue.

I've eaten hundreds. Paired with a styrofoam plate of pork ear, doused in vinegar and chili oil... a little dish of mustard leaf and pressed tofu... or a bowl of lāmiàn, pulled noodles, the best in the city.

I'd probably just order them plain (no leafy greens or anything else): crystal clear broth (briney lamb bone flavor), noodles (just a bit undercooked when they hit the bowl, but slowly softening and stretching out), a few slices of beef (like a cold slice of roast beef, chewy and good), a splash of black vinegar, a crunch of oily chili paste on top (red bubbles in every spoonful).

But the same noodles crop up in simpler preparations: in a soup of tomato and egg, or just stirfried with shredded pork and bean paste, or in the yóupōmiàn 油泼面, which is, honestly, nothing but those perfect pulled noodles drenched in slippery greasy yellow oil and a spoonful of vinegar and is secretly the best thing on the menu.

Another classic of Shǎnxī folk cuisine is yángròu pàomó 羊肉泡馍, a stew of lamb meat and flatbread.

It's a peasant dish. Simplicity: cloudy lamb bone soup with stale bread to soak it up, a bit of fěnsī 粉丝 (bean starch vermicelli).

Some items on the menu are never available: nobody ever orders them. They're snacks or dishes obscure to the rest of the world but incredibly common in Shǎnxī. Fěnzhēngròu 粉蒸肉, pork steamed with rice flour, used to be one of them... then it was only available on the weekends, but is now available most days of the week.

It's a fatty pork shoulder and some belly, double cleavered into a pork mush, then left on the steamer all day. It comes out soft, coated in starchy white rice mush, ready to be self-serve chopsticked into goose down pillow steamed buns. Some afternoons, I order and then dart down to the liquor store downstairs, eat it with whatever the cheapest beer is-- Holsten Premium, whatever-- tucked away under my windbreaker-- and savor every fatty starchy bite.

Liángpí'r 凉皮儿 is another favorite... and I think this is the only place (of few) in the city that does it absolutely right. It's a simple dish of sticky wheat noodles, dressed with chili oil, sesame sauce, and vinegar.

Jiǎ Píngwā describes it:

Usually eaten in summer, but it also appears in the depths of winter. It's mainly eaten by women: pretty twentysomething girls, and the middle aged, faded beauties.

Method: One jīn
[half kilogram] of wheat flour to every two jīn of water. Pour the water into the wheat flour in three pours. Mix it into a paste and continue adding water to thin it out. Add salt. Add baking soda. Mix it until it hangs off of the chopsticks when you mix them. Place cheesecloth in a steamer and pour the paste onto it. Steam for six or seven minutes on a high flame. Place the steamed liángpí on your countertop. Stack the pieces up and then slice them into thin strips.

Liángpí sellers never use a scale. They reach in, grab three pinches into the bowl. Each time they do it, the amount is exactly the same: never short and never over. Then, blanched bean sprouts are placed on top, along with salt, sesame sauce, and three more pinches of liángpí are placed on top, along with chili oil. The white contrasts with the red. Mouths begin watering.

You must always remember, when eating liángpí, to bring a handkerchief with you to wipe your lips clean while you eat.

Here, cucumbers and cilantro are added to the recipe, but simplicity is maintained. It's a simplicity that sums up Xī'ān Xiǎochī's menu and Shǎnxī folk cuisine.


Xi'an Cuisine
Richmond Public Market
Westminster Highway
Richmond, BC V6X 3Y2

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