I picked up the new “Metro Chinese Weekly” today while in Chinatown. For those who are unfamiliar, this is a thick (eat your heart out, Village Voice), free, and weekly Chinese language newspaper, printed for Chinese communities in the Philly region. Each issue has an assortment of stories based on local and national news, along with substantial pull-out sections devoted to real estate, finance, and culture–including entertainment and food. And of course half of the paper is taken by loads of advertisements for local Chinese businesses. Today I see that Xi’an Sizzling Woks (西安美食) has spawned a second location in Philly, Xi’an Cuisine & Bar.
The headline of this week’s cultural section is, “Seeking Ancient Delicacies of China Among Philadelphia’s Historical Sites.” Based on the article and accompanying advertisement, this new location for Philly’s mini-chain promises “Up Scale Bar & Food” in a new three-story establishment located at 120 Chestnut St in Old City. The first floor is the bar area, the second is the dining area, and the third floor has KTV rooms. This is meant to be a place to party. The menu builds off the basic successful foundations of the Arch Street location menu: “Chinese hamburger” (肉夹馍)–featured as “2014 Best of Philly Not-a-Burger Burger prize”, “Biangbiang noodles“, and the Xinjiang-inspired favorites “Sauteed Spicy Chicken and Noodles” (also known as “big plate chicken“), and cumin-spiced lamb kebobs.
This growing interest in Xi’an and Northwestern Chinese cooking is not unique to Philadelphia. Those of you who follow New York’s food scene will know about the mini-chain of restaurants there, Xi’an Famous Foods. Menu items are very similar to our beloved Xi’an Sizzling Woks. Beyond New York and Philly, even before I left Madison, Wisconsin, there was a new food cart that opened up, serving “Chinese hamburgers” (肉夹馍). Clearly this is a phenomenon. But who is it catering to?
If “Northwestern Chinese” food (西北菜) is something of a new concept for you, you are not alone. Even in China, famous regional cooking styles have long been focused on the “eight greats” (八大) of Cantonese, Fujianese, Hunanese, Sichuanese (Szechuan), and also foods of four regions lesser-discussed in the US: Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui (粤、闽、湘、川、鲁、淮扬(苏)、浙、徽). When people talk about the great Chinese culinary traditions (even in China), they are generally referring to these cuisines, largely based in the far east, far from the Chinese heartland of the Yellow River Valley and the ancient capital city of Xi’an.
China is, of course, huge. Far-western regions like Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, are logically not included into the “Great Chinese” culinary tradition, because they have only very recently become “Chinese” (politically anyway). When people in the US (or even in China) talk about Chinese food, the intention is not to refer to food of the minority-dominated autonomous regions of the Mongols, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hmong, etc. People are thinking of stir-fry dishes with rice, noodle dishes, steamed dim sum, (i.e. dishes of the “eight great” traditions).
Still, there is a sizable heartland of traditional China (i.e. the Central Chinese plain) that is also not represented among the “Eight Greats”. The Xi’an region falls into this area, where wheat–not rice–is the primary staple food. Foods of this region have a fascinating history and legacy in China, but they are not seen in China as haute cuisine. They are more “home-style”.
Foods from this region are, however, widely known in China, such as the “Lanzhou Lamian” restaurants popular in big cities all across China. Previously, I obsessed over this fascinating tradition of Lanzhou-style hand-pulled noodles. This is truly a great legacy of the Northwest, and restaurants are now popping up throughout major US cities. I now know of at least 4 restaurants in Philly that do “Lanzhou pulled noodles”, with one even in University City. If we include lamian restaurants, then the cuisine of the interior is popular to the point of hipster.
Who is Northwestern Cuisine catering to? These restaurants are catering to two primary audiences, both coming from Mainland China. One group will actually be Mainland Chinese who come from Western China, likely reminiscing about these notable foods. Others will be coming from other parts of China, where many of these food items have become well-known as night market street food specialties. Many of Philadelphia’s Chinatown restaurant offerings are starting to change to reflect these night market-style foods (I’m thinking of the shops that now specialize in roasting things on sticks). A third column may be curious Philadelphians and hipster foodies who read the New York Times.
When I moved to Philly, I was totally blown away with our Xi’an Sizzling Woks. There were so many unusual items on the menu, bringing back memories of travel in Shaanxi and Gansu. The staff, though, are from all over, with some even speaking Cantonese. At first I was taken aback by this. “What, is ‘Northwestern Chinese’ now some sort of gimmick?!” Perhaps it is. That said, the Chinese restaurant business is not like I fantasize it to have once been: a singular family from one region running the whole place. Nowadays it starts with an idea, and employees come second. High quality food should be the most important element, and these “Xi’an chains” have some some good things going on. At the very least we have some interesting new food diversity in our Chinatown line-up.
Separate but related story #2: review of “Northwestern Cooking” how-to DVD. Recently I visited Philadelphia Chinatown’s New China Bookstore (新华书店), the huge bookstore above the “Shanghai Bazaar” on Race Street with the incredibly random selection of books, music, and videos. I was surprised to come across this “how-to” cooking DVD:
Many of these dishes I have already had experience preparing, but I wanted to see if there were variations with how this TV chef prepared his dishes. Among the dishes included on the DVD were the aforementioned “Chinese hamburger”, as well as several Xinjiang favorites: “Xinjiang lamb kebobs”, “Big plate chicken”, “Rice to be eaten with hands” (手抓饭, i.e. rice pilaf, Central Asian style) and others.
I was immediately impressed with the production quality and soundtrack. Some nice funky lounge music was produced by studio musicians to accompany this chef from the Northwest, providing a proper food-porn ambiance. For me, the chef’s dialect was hard to follow, and fortunately there were Chinese subtitles. As you might imagine, many of the recipes were dumbed-down for the “Easterner” intended audience. The Xinjiang dishes only faintly resembled the originals. Kebobs were actually microwaved on skewers, the “Rice to be eaten with hands” was basically lamb stir-fried rice, and the big plate chicken was again, more of a stir-fried simplified dish, unlike the rich stew popular in Xinjiang.
Granted, these kinds of DVDs are meant for home cooks, without the luxuries of a wood fire grill, or whatever unusual kitchen implements or ingredients that are used for these specialty cuisines. I still found the DVD very enjoyable. There were a few dishes that looked really good that I might like to try: Lamb and winter melon soup, and Lamb pao mo (Lamb with bread dumplings).