Xi’an el­e­vates meal­time to fine art

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By MIKE PETERS michaelpeters@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

It’s easy to think of Xi’an cui­sine as sim­ply great noodles and street food. But visit the his­toric city and you’re in­stantly re­minded that Chang’an — as the city was known in its hey­day — was the cap­i­tal of the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618-907) and the start of the old Silk Road.

It­wasthe big­gest city inthe world at a time when an­cient Chi­nese cul­ture was at its peak, and the im­pe­rial court cel­e­brated that at the ta­ble.

That culi­nary spirit finds ex­pres­sion in the deft hands ofWay­lon Fu, Chi­nese ex­ec­u­tive chef at Dragon Palace, in the Kempin­ski ho­tel in Xi’an.

While Dragon Palace is the ho­tel chain’s brand for Chi­nese restau­rants across China, Fu makes the menu here dis­tinctly lo­cal, start­ing with Chang’an-style deep-fried chicken.

Tra­di­tion says this dish gre­wout of a cooking com­pe­ti­tion ar­ranged by a Tang em­peror, Fu says.

The win­ning ver­sion was first steamed in a bamboo bas­ket, then flash-fried — a com­bi­na­tion that de­liv­ered crispy skin out­side and juicy, ten­der meat within.

Fu’s ren­di­tion has the suc­cu­lence and grand pre­sen­ta­tion one ex­pects at an im­pe­rial ban­quet — served with gar­den greens, dried and grated red chilies, and a sweep of fried-dough peb­bles that were (and still are) given to chil­dren on the sec­ond day of the sec­ond lu­nar month.

The crunchy snack is a tal­is­man for pros­per­ityanda big har­vest in the com­ing year in China’s wheat coun­try.

Tang Dy­nasty po­etry is as famed as its horses and its tri­col­ored ce­ram­ics, and many dishes from that era beg to be ex­pressed in verse.

One of those is — which orig­i­nated as a des­per­ate meal in wartime.

The em­peror, as the story goes, was im­pressed by the way his fa­vorite gen­eral — in retreat at the time— madedo by col­lect­ing wa­ter and for­aged wild plants, and hav­ing it cooked in sol­dier’s hel­mets.

Im­pe­rial chefs were in­structed to con­coct an up­scale ver­sion of the dish in com­mem­o­ra­tion of that bat­tle­field savvy.

The le­gacy is a rich, col­or­ful stewwith minced Chi­nese pancakes with soft-shell tur­tles (a del­i­cacy the fa­mous gen­eral would hardly have had at his dis­posal).

I was a lit­tle non­plussed by the bony bits of tur­tle— han­dled so deftly by my Chi­nese friends at the ta­ble — but I loved the meaty rich­ness that it gave the broth.

Fu’s team has the same el­e­gant touch with bev­er­ages. A lo­cal fa­vorite, hot pump­kin juice, is a veg­gie puree taken to ec­stasy with fresh cream and a sweet­ener. The same tech­nique was also em­ployed with pur­ple sweet pota­toes.

The modestly named “dryfried beef” must have thrilled the im­pe­rial court as well.

It was pret­tily served in a cor­nu­copia with a mass of dried red chillies that gave the meat some spicy oomph with­out mak­ing it Sichuan­level in­cen­di­ary.

My chop­sticks kept sneak­ing back into those crispy beef nuggets even as other dishes ar­rived at the ta­ble.

A grilled lamb chop, fra­grant with cumin and other spices, was a fine salute to the meat and herb tra­di­tions of the re­gion.

But the show­stop­per of our meal may have shown the geo­graphic reach of the land and mar­itime silk routes of their day: salad mango with duck.

In this sur­pris­ing treat, strips of suc­cu­lent roast fowl with crispy skin were lay­ered with fresh cu­cum­ber, slices of mango from Thai­land and slightly sweet cream.

The next day, there was an­other gem to find on the menu with roots in the Silk Road: baby cab­bage beau­ti­fully poached in a thick saf­fron sauce that would have made Persian traders sing.

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