Dear Steemit friends :
In the words of the late James Beard, "Food is our common ground, a universal experience."
Today, Miss. Delicious takes a trip back in time, to a time where Xi'an was better known as Chang'an, and for 10 dynasties, served as the capital city of all of China. Today's restaurant of choice is more than a place for gourmand's, it is also a place for gathering and entertainment. Indeed, this style of open air restaurant would have been a common place in old Chang'an.
Today, restaurants like this are few and far between, mostly surviving as novelties, reminding us of the historic food culture and restaurant customs.
The restaurant we're visiting today is called Chang'an Da Pai Dang, which translated means Chang'an food stall. In-case you were wondering, Chang'an, means "Perpetual Peace" and is named as such because of it's preference by Emperors to be the capital of China for 10 dynasties. Curiously, the restaurant has a quite different English name - The food gallery Xi'an, certainly placing more emphasis on the food whilst perhaps missing out on the equally important setting.
Let's begin our journey!
The restaurant is located inside a shopping district to the north of the central walled city of Xi'an. It is becoming a lot more common in China for restaurants to be located in large shopping centres and not operating on independent premises. This is mainly due to the inner city redevelopment, knocking down low rise buildings, and replacing with tall high rise tower blocks.
The Food Gallery Xi'an, is actually a restaurant chain specialising in recreating not only historical foods, but also historical atmospheres based on their location. In Xi'an, the obvious is the great Chang'an capital, but elsewhere, there would be distinctively different styles depicting different local customs.
Walking past the IMAX also inside the shopping centre, we finally arrive at the main entrance of the Food Gallery. Perhaps by chance, the giant cat figure stood beside the restaurant acting as the Chinese / Japanese lucky cat, bringing good custom.
Outside, the restaurant had a long queue of hungry people waiting for their number to be called out. No doubt, this restaurant has become a major drawing factor for the shopping centre because it is by far the most popular restaurant and also the only one with queues.
The entrance was a magnificent sight, it was filled with all the relics of a traditional Chang'an restaurant, from the traditional clay roof tiles, to the large overhanging restaurant plaque and auspicious lanterns hanging either side. Historically, this kind of restaurant would be multi floored with a courtyard centre. The floors above would have tables overlooking the centre making the whole restaurant hollow from bottom to the top.
Snacks were offered to people as they waited. This practice is becoming a norm in China as the food service industry becomes more and more competitive. Consumer driven growth has helped the restaurant service industry thrive and every little bit extra restaurants can offer will build long term customer relationships and that means long term business. Good for everybody right?
Historically speaking, there would be many stalls outside the buildings on the streets, with many crafts(wo)men, who would sell their creations. This kind of market bartering persisted right up to the last dynasty. In line with this tradition, there was a girl who was selling her handmade play dough figures. I thought they were made with icing and were edible!
Historically, restaurants served as both a place to dine, but also a place to drink. Kind of like the modern day pub. In those day's, people use to drink fruit wines fermented in these large pots, though not as strong as modern day alcohol, they would drink these kinds of wines throughout the day like a soft drink.
The ones placed on the table are for sale to take home.
In the background, we can see the hero and the demon on the large knocking doors. They are the antagonist and protagonist for many Chinese fairy tales as well as the main characters in the live puppet shows later on.
Like most Chinese restaurants, there are private dining rooms for larger parties of people.
This is where the "snack" foods are prepared. It is common for restaurants to work with vendors on the street each selling different kinds of small snack foods. Contrary to what a lot of Chinese restaurants in the west suggest, people in Chang'an like to eat many varieties of food instead of dishes each with large portions. Thus, this "street" is called the 100 Taste Street, a street where you can expect to taste at least 100 different kinds of snacks.
Restaurants like this one would simultaneously function as a place of gathering and socialising as well as a place to dine. The function of this little stall may come as a surprise to some people. It is the equivalent of a cash counter at the casino. The wooden tallies were used as "chips" when entering the casino, and then cashed out when leaving.
Nowadays, gambling with real money is illegal. But it doesn't prevent people from playing popular games like Mah-jong, a game equally popular in those days and frequently played after eating, over drinks.
This part of the restaurant resembles a garden. Surrounding the raised platform are small ponds with real goldfish. And in the background, you can see the little houses which are used as the private dining rooms.
These are traditional Chinese silk paintings. Although these are modern replicas, silk paintings have an extensive history in China of over 2000 years. Much like the frenzied art collecting world of today, people in the ancient times like to collect works of art from famous painters as a sign of wealth and power. Each painting would be instantly recognisable and stand out to other collectors.
As I mentioned earlier, the restaurants of old would have several floors, all surrounding a main court yard. To get a table on the upper floor, you have to state your intention before you queue. I think it is definitely worth getting a seat on the upper level with a view of the stage.
My view of the garden courtyard.
And the view of the main court yard.
The Food Gallery
What would a restaurant be without it's food? The restaurant is appropriately named The Food Gallery for a reason, and below, you shall see exactly why!
First up, we have the fried calligraphy brush with berry dip. This is a wonderful piece of art. The deep fried dough and meat form the tip of the brush and is dipped into the berry sauce much like the process of ink brush calligraphy or ink-brush painting. In terms of the taste, it is crispy, slightly sweet, and very addictive!
Growing up in China, we are all required to learn ink-brush calligraphy. It is considered a form of art. The talented ones can go on to make a career out of calligraphy as beautiful characters express more than just the meaning of the words, but also the character of the painter.
This ice cream is served not as a dessert, but rather as a starter. The base is a fermented rice alcohol porridge, which dilutes the sweetness of the ice cream some what. It is a curious combination but a very sweet one!
The Sour Vegetable Fish broth noodles. The strange name comes from the fact that the noodles are shaped a bit like fish. It is a strange mixture of sweet chilli sauce and sour vegetables, on top of that, it is served cold. Another starter to get the appetite going!
Garlic fried Choi Sum. A staple dish in many parts of China. This is a dish frequently seen in Hong Kong but is actually quite standard across all styles of Chinese food. I always make sure to have atleast one serving of green vegetables, and this is it!
The key to telling the difference between a good fried vegetable dish and not, is the oil. This one was cooked by flash boiling and then quickly stir fried with a hint of oyster sauce, soy sauce and garlic. Most of the nutritional value is retained because of the method of cooking and thus, it tastes a whole lot fresher!
Earlier, we had a glance at one of the tally stalls where people could cash in and out of their gambling money. Here we have a set of Mah-jong jelly pieces complete with a dice and edible 100 CNY paper note!
Though I'm sure in the past people did not make mah-jong jelly, this sweet dish adds so much to the atmosphere. We can no longer gamble in China, but there is nothing stopping us from playing mah-jong with food right??
Chang'an Barbecued Pork Meat with Wrap.
Much like the Peking Duck you will find in Beijing, the Chang'an version uses Pork neck meat instead of duck, and omits the usual hoisin sauce in favour of pre-marinated pork. Dressed with spring onion and cucumber, you wrap the meat the same way you would Peking duck. It's not as sweet as the Peking duck, but where it lacks in sweetness, it makes up for in with a flavourful piquant blend.
Six mouthfuls of flavour.
Literally translating from the Chinese name of this dish. The Shaann'xi people love noodles, and this comes from a long tradition and habit of eating noodles as the main dish in place of rice. The standard amount to eat is 6 bowls of noodles per person. It may seem like a lot, but the sweet and sour taste along with the single mouthful of noodles in each bowl make it much more palatable than it looks.
Sweet and Sour Prawns.
One of my favourite dishes cooked in the traditional Chang'an way. You'll notice the prawns still have their shell. For westerners, the shell is considered a nuisance as it requires your hands getting dirty. However, Chinese people like to eat things that present a challenge. Somehow, the meat just tastes much better when considerable effort is made to get it. Alternatively, some people eat the prawn whole with the shell. It's sufficiently soft and has no real harm.
Sweet Vinegar Cabbage
Another staple dish in the Chinese repertoire, the starchy texture of the sauce is made with cornstarch flour. The effective of the sweet vinegar combined with the cornstarch is a thick sauce which is viscous. Again, it is best eaten as an appetizer.
Beef Brisket Hot Pot
This strange kiln oven looking contraption is the Chang'an instrument used to eat hot pot. The funnel at the top is to allow the smoke from the burning wood/coal at the bottom escape upwards. Nowadays, a combustible solid fuel lighter, likely methanol is burned instead. Once sufficient heat is reached, you can open up the lid and enjoy the soft beef brisket and white cabbage.
In the winter, this is a particularly common dish because of the warmth the hot pot provides. It is a surprisingly light dish with very plain taste. You'll find the usual vermicelli, mushrooms, fish balls and bean curd in the soup too. The serving size is perfect as a complementary dish to others. This is in contrast to other places which feature hot pot as the main dish.
Tofu Brain is the literal translation for this dish and I suspect it is named as such because of how similar it looks to the brain. Sometimes it is called bean curd flower which I think is a more appropriate name. Sometimes people get too concerned with the names of Chinese foods and are put off by that.
This almost tastes a bit like a porridge with the tofu cooked till it's soft enough to "chew" with your tongue. That is probably the point as the majority of the taste will come from the rich spices added into the mix. The only part of the concoction with some solid texture are the bits of fried bread and dough.
Beef Tripe and twisted dough stick skewers
We've seen Hui Min Night Market in Xi'an and it's famous barbecued meat skewers. This is a different style of of skewer which is also very popular. Many people might be put off by the Beef Tripe, it is after-all the lining of the stomach, but in traditional Chinese gourmet, it is considered a very nutritious dish.
In the old times, food was not very plentiful and the Chinese found ways to eat nearly every part of the animal, leaving very little to waste.
Long mouth copper pot
A unique piece of copper ware to China, this Long Mouth Copper Pot is used to serve tea. It has an excessively long "mouth" which requires the waitress to hold the pot really high to pour the tea.
You might be wondering what is the purpose of having such a extreme design for a tea pot? It is to allow the water to cool as it travels from the pot all the way down the mouth and out. The large surface area from covering such a distance allows considerable heat dissipation to take place.
Regardless of whether this actually makes much of a difference, isn't it interesting to see it in action?
Chang'an six ingredient tea.
Six seems to be a common number with Chang'an food. Before, we had the six mouthful of flavour noodles. And here, we have the six ingredient tea consisting of : Jujube, Chrysanthemum, Goji berry, Longan Fruit, Ginger and lastly Tea leaves.
This combination sounds like something a practitioner of Chinese medicine would use, and indeed it is supposed to be effective for restoring health and vitality. The correct way to drink it is to use the lid to block the berries, fruits and leaves whilst sipping the tea. I also show this in the video.
Fruit Juice Cocktail and Whole grain porridge.
Spit roasted Bird in a Cage.
This is a Cantonese inspired dish as the Chicken is prepared in a spit roasted style which is familiar to people who eat Cantonese siu mei food. The chicken is organic and raised in the Qinling mountains.
One of the highlights of the restaurant are the traditional Chinese performances on stage. Here, you can expect to see shadow play puppetry and Chinese folk theatre music. Both adding to the already brimming Chinese atmosphere of the restaurant.
Make sure you check out the video!
And that wraps up our visit to The Food Gallery Xi'an. It is perhaps one of the most complete Chinese dining experience you can find in Shaan'xi, though there are plenty of restaurants featuring the classic Chang'an food palette, few offer the genuine Chang'an atmosphere in terms of the interior design, entertainment and even food presentation.
Listening to the folk music and watching the puppet shows whilst eating is exactly how the people of Chang'an went about their food gatherings, and now we have the opportunity to relive that exact experience. It is rare for a restaurant to tick all the boxes, but this is certainly one that does so for me.
I would highly recommend this restaurant if you intend to visit Xi'an, it is by far the most authentic Chang'an experience you will find. Visiting the restaurant is truly like taking a walk into a chapter of history.
As always, please upvote the post if you liked it, make sure you follow for more food and travel logs, and leave a comment to let me know what you think!