Chinese, Part 3
Guangdong (Canton), Sichuan (Szechwan), Shanghai; these are provinces of China that most people can identify. But when you read Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, what springs to mind, if anything, is the image of vast expanses of desert, the Silk Road, and the desert scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which were, in fact, filmed on location in Xinjiang Province, China's westernmost province).
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The Chinese government recognizes 56 separate groups besides the ethnic Han majority. Most have their own languages, and they range from Mongolians to southern hill tribes to Tibetans. One of the 56 is a catch-all group for Muslims who don't fit into another of the groups. These people are called Hui, and their numbers are greatest in an autonomous region in northwestern China called Ningxia, tucked between Inner Mongolia (Nei Menggu in Mandarin) and Gansu province.
Hui cuisine is influenced by the foods of the provinces near the traditional Hui homeland in Ningxia: Gansu, Xinjiang, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia. In addition, the Hui have historically had a large community in Beijing, which means that the northern, wheat-based food of the capital also plays a role in Hui cooking.
The influence of Xinjiang and the import of central Asian food over the Silk Road is obvious. Chuan (whose character, 串, leaves no doubt as to what it is) are commonplace; the most common is lamb kabob (羊肉串, yang rou chuan). Chunks of lamb shoulder or a similar soft cut are rubbed with cumin and garlic, threaded onto skewers and grilled over open fire. Just as Levantine kabobs are eaten with flatbread, so too are Chinese yang rou chuan. The flatbread of the Xinjiang and Hui people, called nang (the Sinified version of "naan"), is an unleavened flatbread shaped like a large, flat-bottomed saucer; it is extremely hard to come by in these parts.
Beef is also much more common in qingzhen restaurants than in other Chinese restaurants. A common dish, called niu rou mian (牛肉麵), is a beef noodle soup that eats like a stew. It's chunks of halal beef, a few carrots or turnips, and chewy, wide, flat wheat-flour noodles in beef broth with salt, pepper and onions. Because beef noodle soup is a dish embraced by a number of groups, you may see the particularly Hui version (which is lighter in flavor and less salty) called qing dun niu rou mian (清燉牛肉麵), or "clear stewed beef noodles".
Another beef dish worth seeking out is five-spiced beef with Chinese leeks, which goes by several names on menus. This is very thinly-sliced beef that has been treated a bit like twice-cooked pork; dusted with star anise-heavy five spice powder, cooked, then returned to the pot with the flat Chinese leeks. The leeks themselves are not astringent at all; they provide a great foil for the heady punch of the beef.
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Hot pot (火鍋), which is immensely popular in Beijing, is a staple of qingzhen restaurants. This is not the roiling, chile-laden broth of the iron-stomached Sichuanese. Lamb and vegetables are usually the ingredients of choice, and they are cooked in broth, like Japanese shabu-shabu. As with beef noodle soup, you may be given a dish of suan cai to top your hot pot, or it may be tipped into the broth to cause the broth to turn a bit sour.
Where to get it?
Mas Islamic Chinese (601 E. Orangethorpe, Anaheim) is the reigning queen of this cuisine in Orange County. It's busy, it's popular, and there's a reason.
Jamillah Garden (2512 Walnut #1, Tustin) was the first qingzhen place in the county.
Lotus Chinese (16883 Beach, Huntington Beach), owned by the people who started Jamillah Garden, is a close second to Mas for the food.
Malan Noodle (2020 S. Hacienda, Hacienda Heights) isn't in OC, but it isn't far outside the county, and it's by far the best place for la mian; stand up front and watch the magic. You can choose from a variety of noodle shapes and thicknesses, too, and for $6 a bowl it's hard to beat.