Strange noodles, salaciously named chicken dishes, steamed corn bread and cinnamon buns? It's all here at Xibei Oat Noodle Village...
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.
For most of us, our encounters with the cuisine of China’s northwest are probably limited to one of the thousands of Lanzhou Lamian
stalls that dot the city. This is a shame. The simplicity of the menu, not to mention the generally questionable sanitation standards you see in such places, belies a food culture that is far more complex and interesting.
The swath of land that spans from Gansu to Shanxi Province, has long been a cultural crossroads. It is, of course, home to much of the Silk Road. Not only is it the heartland of China’s Muslim Hui population, the region has also spent centuries of its history under the control of northern nomadic peoples like the Mongols and the Manchus. All of these influences have served to make the cuisine here quite unique. For a taste, look no further than Xibei Youmian Cun
If the Huai River is the geographical boundary between China's north and south, then cereals are its culinary counterpart. Rice, of course, dominates the cuisine of the south, while up north, they seem to eat pretty much everything but. And, particularly in Shanxi, they like oats. That’s the namesake ingredient at this restaurant. Oat flour comprises most of the starch servings here. It comes in the form of dumpling skin, they roll into sheets and wrap it up with minced vegetables, they stretch it into noodles, they even make steamed brown sugar and cinnamon rolls out of it....
But this is their best-known use of the grain…
It looks like some strange kind of organ meat, doesn't it? Or, maybe some odd filter feeder scraped up from the bottom of the ocean? Relax, it's not that exotic. This is called youmian wo wo, which more or less translates as "oat noodle honeycomb" -- an appropriate description if you ask me. Traditionally, it's a rather slow and painstaking dish to make. Mothers and grandmothers sit around a table creating each cell by rolling lumps of dough into sheets, shaping them around their forefingers and standing them up in a bamboo steamer. Xibei Youmian Cun traded love for a little mechanical advantage; they extrude their youmian wo wo with a machine. Still, it's good eating. Think of it as vertical canneloni without any stuffing. Traditionally, youmian wo wo is served with a rich, hearty mutton soup. They've got it here. They’ve got a mushroom soup, too. Order both. They're delicious and cost only six and five kuai, respectively.
Corn is another popular staple in these parts. Here it usually comes in the form of little cakes like in this dish, which they’ve translated on the menu as “braised mushroom with delicious cock chicken.”
It’s more or less self-explanatory – a savory stew of tender chicken, meaty mushrooms, and corn cakes. It’s pretty tasty -- somewhat akin to Grandma’s chicken n’ dumplings. But to be completely frank, I’m not entirely sold on the corn. They're pretty flavorless. I probably only mentioned this dish because its English name tickles my latent juvenile sensibilities. The corn cakes are better when they’re steamed, rather than braised, like in this dish where they’re served over a mix of preserved pork and glass noodles. Again, there’s something very Southern US about this, they remind me of corn muffins made from Jiffy mix. Not as sweet, mind you, but they soak up the sauce pretty effectively.
You see a lot more dairy in this kind of cuisine, too. Xibei Youmian Cun make their own yoghurt, they serve Mongolian style milk tea, and there is ba si nai pi. If you’ve spent any time in China you’ve likely had something similar to this dish. Usually it consists of deep-fried chunks of sweet potato, apple, or banana covered in caramelized sugar. As you pull it from the plate it creates a stringy mess that when submerged in water makes a hard candy shell. This one is made with a food that is literally translated as “milk skin.” Basically, they heat up a pot of milk and as it simmers, the fats and proteins collect at the top. They skim this off, mix it with a little sugar, dry it, and then fry it. It tastes a bit like you’d expect, a bit cheesy, or maybe like dried sweetened yogurt.
Finally, one more recommendation: their homemade tofu…
It’s delicious, firm with an almost paneer cheese-like texture. It’s presented in a box and sliced up like a cake at your table. Alongside it, black vinegar with a few chopped chilies as a dipping sauce.
Definitely check it out.