Years ago, a Shaanxi friend of mine introduced me to a folksong from his home province. He jumped on top of his bed and stood up tall—it was meant to be shouted, not sung, he told me—and so he began to shout.
I was learning that the Shaanxi people have a particular way of doing things.
(tā dàjiù tā èrjiù dōushì tā jiù，gāo zhuōzi dī bǎndèng dōushì mùtou 。)
“Elder uncle and younger uncle are both uncles; Tall table and short bench are both made from wood.” Don’t be too proud, the song tells us, because no matter how rich, poor, tall or short we are, we’re all the same.
The Shaanxi people I’ve met are a little brash—sometimes they want to shout songs at you—but they’re down-to-earth, and once I’ve gotten to know them, great friends. I’ve had the same relationship with Shaanxi food; I’ve grown to love it.
Shaanxi food isn’t meant to be eaten easily—it’s sometimes difficult. When you’re eating Shaanxi food, forget table manners. Just enjoy the delicious food. The two most famous dishes are both made with mutton and mo, something like a Shaanxi pancake. They’re called Rou Jia Mo (肉夹馍 ròu jiá mó), “meat pressed with mo” and Yangrou Pao Mo (羊肉泡馍 yángròu pàomó), “mo soaked in lamb.”
Rou Jia Mo is a delicious, lamb-stuffed mo pancake. When you’re ordering, remember the Chinese phrase 肥瘦 (féishòu) which means “fat and lean meat.” Instead of eating “all fat” or “all lean,” the proper Shaanxi way to eat Rou Jia Mo is with the “fat and lean” meat together. When you’ve gotten your order, hold your Rou Jia Mo carefully with both hands; and be careful: the mutton oil might drip from the pancake. Don’t wear anything fancy to dinner, this could get messy.
Yangrou Pao Mo, meanwhile, is a mutton stew eaten with shredded mo pancake, sweet garlic preserved in vinegar, and chili jam on the side. This can also be tricky to eat. Though the dish is very soupy, it’s properly eaten using only chopsticks. The best way is to dip a little chili in, lower your head and put your lips right on the bowl, stir with your chopsticks, and then slurp. Definitely don’t put too much chili in—you’ll want to savor the Shaanxi flavors. After you finish the whole bowl, you’ll be given a smaller bowl of clear broth to clear the oily mutton taste out of your mouth. If you strictly follow these rules, congrats, you’re one step closer to being a real Shaanxi local!
At Beijing’s Tang Feng Yuan, an authentic Shaanxi restaurant, Manager Fu explained the origin of Yangrou Pao Mo in his thick Shaanxi accent. The Song emperor Zhao Kuangyin, he told me, was once very poor. One day he was wandering through the streets of Chang’an (now known as Xi’an), on the verge of starving to death. While he did have one mo pancake with him, it was too hard to even bite. He came across a restaurant on the roadside selling mutton soup, and the poor Zhao begged for one bowl of broth, in which he soaked his dried mo. He never forgot the taste of mutton-soaked mo, and, years later as a rich emperor, this remained his favorite dish.
So it’s a legendary dish—right for the rich and the poor alike. Whether you’re making Rou Jia Mo or Yangrou Pao Mo, you need to make the mo first.
- 200g warm water 温水 wēnshuǐ
- For Rou Jia Mo, 1.2g dry yeast 干酵母 gàn jiàomǔ
- For Yangrou Pao Mo, 0.6g dry yeast gàn jiàomǔ
- 500g all-purpose flour 高筋粉 gāojīn fěn
- Vegetable oil 植物油 zhíwù yóu
- Mix the yeast in the warm water. Slowly pour in the flour, stirring. It should become a smooth doughy consistency; add more flour if necessary. Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a wet cloth to keep from drying, and set aside for around half an hour. In that time it should about double in size.
- Scatter a little flour on the dough, and then roll it out into a long cylinder. Cut it into five sections. Flatten each little cylinder into a thin pancake, about 8 cm wide.
- Set aside the pancakes again for 10 minutes.
- Heat a tablespoon of oil in a skillet over low heat, then add the mo, one by one. Fry, turning occasionally to keep from burning. For Rou Jia Mo: Fry until the pancakes are completely cooked, and are a gorgeous golden brown on both sides. For Yangrou Pao Mo: Fry until the pancakes are only 80 percent cooked, not yet golden.
Now prepare the mutton.
- 500g lamb ribs or lamb chops 羊排 yángpái
- 5g Sichuan peppercorns, optional 花椒 huājiāo
- 2g ginger, chopped small 姜 jiāng
- 2g green onion, chopped small 大葱 dàcōng
- 1/2 tablespoon cooking wine 料酒 liàojiǔ
- 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce 酱油 jiàngyóu
- Salt, to taste 盐 yán
- Sugar, to taste 糖táng
- Cut the meat into small 10 cm pieces. Drop it carefully into a pot of boiling water, then reduce to a simmer and, as it cooks, skim the fat and foam off the top, and discard. Remove the meat, and wash in cold water.
- Add the meat to a clean pot, and add water to cover by 4 cm. Add the Sichuan pepper, ginger, green onion, wine and soy sauce, and bring to a boil. Turn flame to low, and simmer, partially covered, for about two hours, stirring occasionally. Add salt and sugar, to taste.
And here’s where the two recipes differ:
For Rou Jia Mo, you’ll need:
- 1 green bell pepper, minced 甜椒 tiánjiāo
- Handful of parsley, chopped 香菜 xiāngcài
- Roughly chop the stewed mutton, then slice a pocket into the side the mo. Stuff the mo with the meat, a little green pepper, and some parsley. Add a little of the soup broth for that flavor that Emperor Zhao loved so much, and don’t forget to use both hands!
For Yangrou Pao Mo, you’ll need:
- 10g wood ear mushrooms, soaked until they double in size 木耳 mùěr
- 450g rice noodles 粉丝 fěnsī
- Cut the stewed mutton into thin slices.
- Break up the mostly-cooked mo with your hands, into small pieces, and put them into the soup pot along with the wood ear mushrooms and rice noodles, continuing to simmer until they are cooked through. Now add some chili sauce, stir it with your chopsticks, and shout out loud before slurping it down, “高桌子低板凳都是木头!”
Special thanks to Shaanxi Auntie Li, Fu Qinzhou and Liu Lihui from Tang Feng Yuan Restaurant!