Monday, April 1, 2013

A proper Xi'an biscuit with my tea...

It’s been said that this dish has been around for over a thousand years and was a staple on the arid plains of North China along the Silk Road, which makes a whole lot of sense, for sheep and goats are the few types of domestic animals that can live up there and thrive.

Shaanxi has traditionally been a relatively poor part of China, but rich in history and culture, for this once was the seat of empire for around ten dynasties. The royal families settled here where it was the most dangerous, their troops massed around them to fend off attack by ancient enemies to the north and west. And that is one of the many reasons why the food here is so wonderful, especially around Xi’an in spite of it being almost unknown outside of the country. 

One dish that showcases the ability of these hearty northerners to combine practicality with an intense enjoyment in good, honest food is this rich lamb soup.  But what makes it unique is not the soup itself – it’s the chewy bits of biscuit that bob around the top in place of the more common noodle.
English... er, Chinese biscuits

Since this comes from a high desert area where water is precious, noodles would have been a luxury, so something else had to take their place. And some brilliant cook whose name has been lost in the dust of time came up with the brilliant idea of these biscuits which taste like the best English muffins ever when they are fresh off the grill and then dry into leathery hardtack after a couple of days.

Some friends from Xi’an told us that decades ago, the men who pulled the huge drayage carts in Shaanxi were so poor that they could only afford one meal a day. So, at 10:00 in the morning, they’d down a huge bowl of this nutritious and filling soup before going out to work as hard as any man ever could work.

We too used to enjoy enormous washbasin-sized bowls of this soup in winter at a small stand on Yanping North Road in Taipei, the stand run by old soldiers from this area. Their food wasn't fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but it was always good. We would always peruse their menu and consider all the options before ordering, as usual, some of their lamb soup with biscuits. 

The soup would arrive in a cloud of steam along with one biscuit per person, and we’d crumble bits of it into our soup (using a knife to wiggle free the really hard parts) as we worked our way to the bottom of the bowl so that each bite would be chewy from the bread, and then we’d be so warm and full that we could walk miles afterwards. 

Rested dough
The traditional hardtack has been improved upon here; what we used to have with our soup was almost impossible to tear, especially if the biscuits weren't that fresh. 

These, though, are light as feather in comparison, at least when eaten fresh. Hot and sweetly toasty, they complement the filling soup perfectly, and are equally marvelous with some butter and honey for afternoon tea.

Lamb soup with biscuits 
Yángròu pàomó  羊肉泡饃
Serves 4 to 6 as a main dish

1½ pounds boneless lamb stew meat (or, if you’re feeling either adventurous or traditional, try mutton or goat), or beef stew meat
Filtered water as needed
10 cups lamb or beef stock, preferably unsalted
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 whole star anise
1 small stick cinnamon
2 or 3 dried Thai chilies, optional
2 inches fresh ginger, smashed with the side of a cleaver
5 green onions, smashed with the side of a cleaver
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

2 cups Chinese flour (or 2 parts American all-purpose mixed with 1 part pastry flour), plus extra as needed
⅔ cup cool filtered water
1 teaspoon yeast

2 bundles cellophane noodles soaked in cool water for at least 30 minutes
¼ cup dried wood ear mushrooms soaked in hot water for at least 1 hour
Handful of cilantro, chopped
Sweet Pickled Garlic,  plus some of the sauce, or balsamic vinegar
Chili sauce or Chili Oil as desired

1. Start this at least 2 hours before serving if using a pressure cooker, or at least 5 hours with a regular pan. To make the soup, cut the meat into pieces no larger than an inch square. Place them in a pressure cooker or pan, cover with filtered water, and bring the water to a boil. Simmer the meat for around 10 minutes, then dump out the water and the scum, rinse the meat in a colander, wash out the pressure cooker or pan, return the meat to the pan, and cover it with the stock. (If your pressure cooker or pan is relatively small, use less stock and add the rest later when the soup is finished.) Place the fennel and Sichuan peppercorns in a tea ball or tie in a piece of cloth; add this to the stock, as well as the star anise, cinnamon, chilies, ginger, green onion, and salt. Cover the pressure cooker, bring it to a boil over high and then cook it for about 45 minutes, or until the meat is very tender; in a regular pan, bring the stock to a boil, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook the lamb until tender, adding more water as necessary to keep the meat submerged. Taste the lamb and soup and adjust the seasoning. (The soup can be prepared ahead of time and either refrigerated or frozen; as with most soups, it is better the next day, and the hard fat can be scraped off easily before the soup is reheated.)

2. While the lamb is cooking, start the biscuits: place ¼ cup of the flour in a medium work bowl and stir in both the water and the yeast; cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the yeast rise for about an hour; the batter should be bubbly. Stir in 1½ cups flour to form a stiff dough and then turn the dough out on a smooth surface. Knead in about 6 tablespoons dough; the dough will be ready when it is no longer tacky and is very firm. Cover the dough and let it rest for at least 20 minutes.

Soaked cellophane noodles
3. Lightly knead the dough and cut it into 6 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball and use a rolling pin to roll each ball into a circle about 3½ inches wide (see Tips); no extra flour should be necessary, but sprinkle on a bit if the dough sticks. Heat a large, nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium heat until drops of water hiss into steam when flicked onto the skillet. Place as many of the biscuits in the pan as will fit rather loosely; I usually do this in two batches. Cover the pan and let the cook over medium heat for 3 or so minutes, or until the bottoms are golden. Flip the biscuits over, cover, and cook until the other side is golden, too. Test one with a wooden skewer to ensure that it is cooked all the way through (the skewer should come out clean), remove the biscuits to a plate, and cover with a clean tea towel. Repeat with the rest of the biscuits until done.

4. Cut the soaked cellophane noodles in half and drain them. Cut the wood ear mushrooms into a thin julienne. Add these to the soup and simmer until the noodles are translucent, about 10 minutes.  Ladle the soup into large bowls, sprinkle on a bit of cilantro, and issue each diner a biscuit.  Serve while the soup is steaming hot, and have extra soup and biscuits ready for seconds.  Offer the garlic, vinegar, and chili sauce on the side for those who want to add a traditional Shaanxi style zip to their soup.
Dimpled surface


Make your own stock, if you like, by cooking 3 pounds bones in enough water to cover; either skim off the scum the forms or rinse the bones as you do the meat in Step 1. In a pressure cooker, the stock should take an hour or so; in a stockpot, figure on about 3 hours.

Notice the dimpled top of the uncooked biscuit on the right; I found that if I rolled the dough out another half or so inch wider and then used the palms of my hands to lightly roll the edges of the circle and gently make it smaller again, the biscuit wrinkled up a bit on top and had a nicer texture when it was cooked.

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