August in China: Xian the Grey

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

The overnight train journey to Xian was rather uneventful. I took a middle bunk in a hard sleeper carriage and went to sleep after slurping up the pot of instant noodles I bought at the train station. When I awoke, Xian greeted me in an embrace of grey smog.

I met up with my parents who’d flown in from Shanghai. We started out viewing the few sights in the drab city. The first was the Big Goose Pagoda, apparently built by Journey to the West’s Xuan Zhang for the precious sutras he brought back.

CIMG3040

Next, we cabbed it to the Small Goose Pagoda where we climbed up an endless flight of stairs to reach the top. The 15 storeys seemed like they would never end as we circled up and up. Unfortunately, the view was so awful and underwhelming that I didn’t even bother snapping a photo.

CIMG3139

The rest of the grounds made up for it. There was a lovely garden with ivy-covered archways and a rather impressive museum too. It made a pleasant diversion for the parents in the afternoon and a good break from my usual frenetic pace.

CIMG3142

One thing that perked up the greyness of Xian was how domestic tourists loved to play dress up in the squares. At first I thought there was lots of bridal photography happening that day, but it turned out to be Victorian damsels and Tang dynasty maidens on a fun day out in Xian.

CIMG3044

The main thing that made up for the drabness of the city was its food. Xian, being at the beginning of the ancient Silk Route, has lots of Muslim and Central Asian influence in its food. Here, the cuisine is dominated more by wheat and bread than rice and noodles. There is a large Muslim population and pork is far less common in this area.

I apologise for the poor quality pictures as I was too taken by the food to take any shots of the really good stuff. Below you’ll see the stall selling what looked like pulled pork burgers. The filling is made of waxed beef, wind-dried in lots of fat and similar to how Cantonese lup cheong (sausage) and lup ngap (waxed duck) are made. It’s then stewed and pulled, then slapped into white disks of dense wheat bread. It’s greasy and salty and I’m sure it’ll hit the spot just right as a late night snack.

CIMG3143

There were also some misses of course. Something I just couldn’t understand was the ma hua porridge locals seemed to love for breakfast. Now I really dig the ma hua in Tianjin and Chongqing: the curls of sweet deep-fried sesame dough are so addictive because they are so crunchy and moreish. When they soak it in water and boil it into a kind of salty porridge with starch, I really don’t understand. Note that the picture below shows me before I tried it.

CIMG3125

I just didn’t get the lumps of soggy greasy dough sitting in a starchy goo topped with crispy fried bits and lots of pepper. It seemed like an exercise in incorporating as many types of wheat as possible into the dish without resorting to bread or noodles. Bizarre. Even more bizarre is how they save on washing up by wrapping the bowls in plastic bags first, then slopping the brew into it.

CIMG3126

If you’re at the Muslim Quarter, do try out the fabulous barbecue restaurants. You can either order from the menu of pick from the spread outside. I loved the perfectly charred bits of anise-flavoured lamb skewers and the same done with whole fish.

CIMG3052

I loved the various types of rose-flavoured desserts. There was one called jing zi gao (mirror cake) made of steamed rice flour with rose and red bean filling. It’s a bit like kueh tutu, except miles better. Another one is like a cross between a tangyuan and a donut: glutinous rice dough filled with rose-flavoured red bean paste and then deep-fried. Amazing stuff. No pictures because I gobbled it all up before remembering I had a camera. Next trip maybe.

A Constellation of Prata

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

I don’t know what cunning folly took us when we decided to go to The Prata Place for Sunday lunch. My brother topped up the petrol specially for the long drive out to Upper Thomson. It was pretty crowded from the breakfasting masses when we arrived at about noon on Sunday. A pair of regulars were chased off to a smaller table to accommodate our party of five at the crowded cafe.

Even though each of us ordered something different, we hardly had a quarter of what was on the menu. We started off with crisp uppatham (pappadum) redolent with whole cumin. The paper thosai arrived next, a crisp cone accompanied by four types of curry and chutney.

dscf3748

Everyone enjoyed the paper thosai. Most of it was crispy and the thicker base veered towards soft and chewy. I enjoyed that part the best because the thicker parts showcased very well the characteristic fermented rice flavour.

dscf3751

The masala paper thosai was made of the same excellent stuff.

dscf3749

The difference was that it had a delicious masala filling of spiced potato and frozen mixed vegetable.

dscf3753

Now the curry chicken was top notch. It was thick with spices and was incredibly rich and, well, chickeny. The plus point was that it had a different spice mix from the other curries, so we didn’t feel like we were eating the same side curry for the thosai and prata. I alternately dipped  my thosai with that and the other curries.

dscf3755

I haven’t had murtabak for a while and was quite surprised to see this thin crispy version instead of the traditional thick and soft one. The change made it a far more manageable portion, though I suspect the calories were about the same from the extra oil. There was plenty of well-marinated chicken from good parts, unlike other places that serve you dried up leftover chicken.

dscf3757

It was good quality and I enjoyed it, though deep down I still prefer the traditional thick version.

dscf3764

We also had paper prata and mushroom egg prata. Both were good with crisp outer layers and soft chewy inner layers. My brother liked the mushroom one because it had lots of large size mushroom slices. I wonder where they sourced their jumbo canned mushrooms.

For dessert we had the banana prata. It worked so well because of the cooked banana pulp inside. They used local bananas so it had a slight sour tang which really hit the spot. I can imagine it working well with chocolate sauce or condensed milk too.

dscf3761

We couldn’t resist the chocolate prata. It was a special paper prata with chocolate sauce and chocolate rice on top.  It tasted like a local and extra unhealthy version of chocolate crepe. (What’s the difference between paper prata and special paper prata? They fold the special prata into the roof shape and charge you 20 cents more.)

dscf3769

To wash all the oily, artery-clogging goodness down, we had teh bing and teh halia. The teh bing was the best I’ve had in a long while. I had to stop myself from drinking the smooth, fragrant brew at one go. It was just the right sweetness too. Those who had teh halia said theirs was good too. Plenty of ginger fragrance but not too biting on the tongue.

Five drinks, two packs of uppatham, two thosais, one murtabak, four pratas and one chicken curry cost us $33. Excellent value.

The Prata Place
1 Thong Soon Ave
Springleaf Estate