Honestly, I love Xi'an. Unpretentious, beautiful, old fashioned, this former imperial capital that was once called Chang'an has become a bit of a cultural backwater, and few folks would notice it if it weren't for those soldiers from 2,000 years ago.
That's what brought me there, but it is not what captured my imagination. In fact, I became more than a bit grumpy during our stay, as tour groups are herded into what seem to be mandatory "dumpling feasts" that have pretty but tasteless food, and it truly bothered me that I was wasting valuable stomach space and time on this endeavor.
Take, for example, today's dish. Shaanxi (where Xi'an is located) has traditionally been a relatively impoverished area, and so the people there have learned to be frugal. However, they also love to eat, and this is the sort of meal that people on tight budgets could present to their guests with considerable pride. Everything works perfectly. Not a scrap of meat is in here, no fancy vegetables or sauces. The main ingredients are just flour and potatoes, which may sound like a carb meltdown, but it's a triumph of ingenuity over cash flow.
China's northern provinces are justly famous for their noodles and breads, but another item that doesn't get mentioned enough are its crêpes. Yes, crêpes.
You might have never tried stir-fried potatoes before, and this is a great place to start. China's north has taken to such native American foods as potatoes and chilies like a house on fire, and now they are as much a part of the local cuisine as anything else. But instead of baked or mashed or french fried potatoes, you will find stewed and braised and even stir-fried renderings of this lovely tuber.
|Onion & potato matchsticks|
Next, you'll need to cut these into thin matchsticks called julienne. Don't be tempted to grate the potatoes; you'll end up with mush rather than gently crunchy strips. See the directions below on how to do this right.
This makes a deliciously satisfying meal any time of the day. I especially enjoy this for breakfast with a bowl of hot soy milk.
Jianbing juan tudousi 煎餅捲土豆絲
Makes 6 filled crepes and serves about 2 people
1 cup Korean noodle flour (see Tips)
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm filtered water
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, or similar variety
2 green onions, trimmed
4 tablespoons (or so) peanut or vegetable oil
1 to 3 teaspoons dried powdered chili (see Tips)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Chili Sauce (see below)
1. Place the flour in a medium work bowl. Stir the salt into the warm water until it dissolves and then mix the salt water into the flour to form a thin batter with the consistency of cream; it's quite all right if there are some lumps in the batter. Let it sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
|Cut into slices, then julienne|
3. Heat the oil in a wok over medium high and add the chili powder to taste, as well as the salt. Let the chili heat up in the oil and slowly turn from red to brown. Turn the heat up to high and add the potatoes and green onions. Stir-fry quickly until the potatoes have lost their rawness but are still slightly crisp. Cover the wok, remove from the heat, and let it sit on the side while you cook the crêpes.
|Make the chili oil|
5. Make the Chili Sauce (below). Serve the crêpes and potatoes hot alongside the sauce, and have everyone fill and roll their own crêpes, dribbling a bit of the sauce inside the crêpe. Eat with chopsticks at the top of the roll and the fingers of the other hand steadying the bottom. Enjoy.
|Chili Garlic Sauce|
2 tablespoons Lee Kum Kee brand Chili Garlic Sauce (or your favorite)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
4 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
1. Heat the chili garlic sauce and soy sauce together in a pan until bubbly. Remove from the heat and pour in the sesame oil, taste, and adjust seasoning.
2. Scrape into a small bowl and serve.
|Korean noodle flours|
Use as much or little chili powder in the potatoes as you like. It's hard to give an exact amount, as chilies and palates differ so much. Besides, you can always add more zip with the sauce if the filling is not hot enough.