A Quick Meal of Xi’an-Inspired Lamb

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I was dreaming of Xi’an lamb skewers but didn’t have the time to find a better alternative to the version at Yang Gui Fei. My take is very much a fusion version of this and is far from the original. Plus, it being nigh impossible to buy good-tasting, deep-flavoured lamb here, I had to stick with the usual supermarket New Zealand lamb. It was passable but not the same. Make sure that you buy a fattier piece of lamb, the fat here is essential, otherwise you won’t get succulent yet charred bits. While this is hardly gourmet food, the beauty of it is that it’s incredibly fast. If you time it right, you could get dinner in 15 minutes.

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Ingredients:
200g lamb leg
1 tbsp cumin powder
1 chilli, chopped
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp sichuan peppercorns
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
4 mushrooms, sliced

¼ cup couscous
¼ cup water
1 tsp vegetable stock powder

Method:

  1. Preheat the grill to the highest setting.
  2. Slice the lamb thinly, being careful that each slice gets a fair share of fat.
  3. Mix the lamb and spices together, toss carefully and grill together with the mushrooms (or whatever other vegetable you like) till just about charred on each side, about 5 minutes each.
  4. In the mean time, measure out the couscous, pour in the water and mix in the stock powder. Microwave for 3 minutes and cover for another 3 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
  5. To serve, pour the lamb and juices over the couscous and serve with side vegetables.

Serves 1, with leftover meat.

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August in China: The Mountain of Swordfighting Fame

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It’s Father’s Day today and I’m going to tell you how Dad and I climbed Huashan. Enjoy!

No trip to Xian is complete without an excursion to Huashan. We signed up for a local day tour and ended up packed on a tour bus with lots of domestic tourists. We had a mandatory rest stop where we endured a lecture extolling the virtues of traditional Chinese medicine. I couldn’t help being an utter tourist by taking pictures of the lecturer telling us that we absolutely had to buy their herbs grown in the foothills of Huashan.

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Thankfully, the tour bus deposited us at the cable car station and our guide told us to return at the alloted time. The view had already started to be amazing before we got on the cable car. I’d never seen such sheer, stark rock formations  before.

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Looking down from the cable car, we were incredibly glad that we didn’t do the mad Western backpacker thing of legging it up ourselves. The stairs seemed not just steep…

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… but also never-ending!

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There was a lot more climbing to be done after we got off the cable car. True to Chinese form, mountain climbing was as usual stair-climbing. Here we clambered up behind ancient porters carrying up supplies the age-old way. Everything at the top was very expensive simply because it was pure human power that brought them up the last leg. I was put to shame how fast these porters overtook me on the way up.

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There were lots of routes up to the various peaks, some shorter but steeper than others. This one was so steep it was almost vertical!

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The main route up was yet another incredibly steep and unbelievably unending stairway. There were signs all along the way exhorting people to either stop and take pictures or concentrate on moving up, not both. A lot of people gave up around this area. Mum got up that flight of stairs, became really tired and then headed back down to wait for us.

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Dad and I soldiered on. I ran on ahead and waited for him just at the peak because I wanted a bit of a workout. Dad had to take it easy because of his heart. It’s just as well that we warmed up from the exercise as the temperature dropped quite drastically as we reached the top. I had to put on the spare top I had in my bag.

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Towards the top, the mist started rolling in and the stairs stopped. It felt a lot more like I was climbing the mountain rather than stairs at this point.

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Dad was really sporting as he posed at the last push to the top. Look, no hands!

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And here we are at the West Peak, we made it!

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We enjoyed the view on the much easier way down and took many photos of each other.

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After a while I got a little grumpy at having to smile and pose for the photos, my bad. Dad was very happy to take loads of them though! Here’s me looking slightly more cheerful.

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We then headed to the much easier North Peak before calling it a day. This was a cake walk and we covered it in 45 minutes compared to about three hours or so for the West Peak.

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This peak was also the one that shot to fa me in Louis Cha’s swordfighting novels. There were too many people waiting their turn to take a piece with this contrived piece of rock so I didn’t do the classic swordfighting pose. Such a pity!

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After that we headed back down and collected Mum before heading back to the cable cars. Here they are, Dad’s doing his victory hands and Mum’s amused as usual.

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Happy Father’s Day all!

August in China: Terracotta Warriors Overexposed

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We’d come this far just to see the terracotta warriors, just as people go all the way to the Louvre just for the Mona Lisa. We started off in the Xian Museum where there was a pretty comprehensive exhibit full of the warriors and their paraphernalia: horses, carriages, sedans. Outside of their burial pits, these sculptures somehow seemed slightly out of context and while I understood in my brain how awe-inspiring this was, I just didn’t feel any of it.

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We soldiered on the next day to the actual site some distance out of Xian. The burial complex consisted of  hangar-like shelters covering each of the three pits. Inside the biggest one was a museum section similar to the one in Xian. Here was the most famous warrior: the kneeling general.

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We then proceeded on to the huge pits where many statues were left standing as is. I tried hard to peer at the faces, trying to see if it was true: that each face was unique and no two were alike. It was pretty cool trying to imagine how they’d look like to the first grave robbers and to the excavators who first dug through.

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It was also pretty amazing the amount of work that went into creating all this before the time of mass production. Each one appeared to be painstakingly handmade.

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I wondered if the horses were also based on real beasts of war. Peering as close as I could get, their faces seemed all the same to me. They were still cute nonetheless!

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While still fairly impressive, I felt that the terracotta warriors were simply overexposed. I fell a sense of anticlimax finally seeing them, somewhat like seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and realising how small and difficult to view she was under all that glass. It didn’t help that the museum had all sorts of touristy gimmicks, from taking a picture standing with some replicas to having your face reproduced on a mini-terracotta warrior statue to having it etched in laser in a glass cube. Sigh.

August in China: Xian the Grey

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.