Luckily my good friend Dr S. likes Chinese food, and bonus, she likes homestyle Chinese food, street food and dumplings just as much as restaurant food. Having flatted together as Uni students about a hundred years ago, and eaten everywhere from Michelin-starred restaurants in France through to street barbecues I can vouch for the fact that although we’re not sisters, we have pretty much identical-twin culinary DNA.
For this, my second visit to the Army of the Terracotta Warriors and Dr S.’s first, we have had the good fortune to find an extremely excellent and personable local guide, Melanie, to provide us with more in-depth background and history of the warriors and the Qin Emperor who commissioned them. Last time I visited I found the displays lacked much English translation and my thousand questions went unanswered because our ‘guide’ Andy spent the time gambling away the kickbacks he’d earned by taking us to the Offical Chinese Government Terracotta Warriors Factory Shop. (‘You go in by yourselves!’ he said at the entrance to the Terracotta Warriors. ‘They have many informations in English!’…..this turned out to be partly true. The sign saying ‘Toilets’ and ‘Coffee Shop’ certainly were bilingual).
Aside from being a more committed guide than Andy, Melanie also proved to be something of a major foodie, having previously run a restaurant with her husband before going into the touring business. It’s a long drive from Xi’an to the warriors, so we got to talking about food and before long we were all pretty famished.
‘Where do you want to eat?’ she asked. ‘Usually I take my clients to a restaurant where they serve some Western dishes, because they don’t like Chinese food…but you guys like to eat Chinese right?’
Yeeesss we do! ‘Just take us where you would eat!’ said Dr S.. Brilliant idea.
And that was how we ended up at Wan Cheng Jiaozi. Jiaozi means dumplings, and Wan Cheng is just the restaurant’s name, but literally translated it means ‘Evening Accomplished’. Good. The restaurant is down a side-street in the small town of Ling Tong (famed for its red-orange Fire Crystal Persimmons), and through a pair of net curtains you enter into a small room with six orange formica tables and a dozen or so plastic stools. There are only three menu items – jiazi, cold dishes, and drinks.
Firstly, and most importantly, are the jiaozi – pork, lamb (given the region’s Islamic influence) or vegetable, all made fresh within the hour, and ordered by weight; secondly, cold dishes – liang cai – these made from a combination of cooked and uncooked ingredients, usually vegetables and tofu. You could call them salads but really they’re more complex and satisfying than a salad, and this restaurant had their four ‘liang cai of the day’ displayed in rectangular tin trays inside a glass cabinet. Lastly the drinks, and here the choices were very spare – warm beer, or warm Ice Mountain orangeade.
We began with the liang cai – this dish was as delectable as it looks, a spanking fresh combination of vibrant green black-bean sprouts, slivers of red pepper, slices of cucumber and shards of cabbage, flashed in a wok for about three seconds to slightly wilt and soften the vegetables, than cooled and dressed with a chili, soy and vinegar dressing. The vegetables and sprouts had crunch without tasting raw, and the black bean sprouts, many with their baby black-bean skins still attached, had the taste of freshly shelled peas.
The second was a hearty mixture of finely sliced tofu strips, celery, red peppers, zucchini and cucumber, again with a hot, sour dressing with a touch of sweetness and a lot of garlic.
The jiaozi, plump pillows stuffed full of filling, survived only long enough to be photographed dunked in black vinegar and chili, (top photo) the local way. We wolfed down a plate of lamb jiaozi, spiced lightly with cumin and garlic, and a plate of pork jiaozi with finely chopped lotus root, sweet and crunchy, then finished off with vegetable jiaozi made with leafy greens, garlic and a little egg. I was slightly shocked when Melanie told us we’d eaten one and a half kilograms of dumplings. Our driver, a tall skinny streak of a man, probably ate most of those. One and a half KILOS??
‘They were really very good’ said Dr S., as we waddled to the car. Of course they were good.
Xi’an Tour Guide (and foodie) Melanie
600 yuan per day (about $100 total price for 1-5 persons) for 8 hours, including minivan, driver and English-speaking guide. She can also book hotels, flights and train tickets, and has great historical knowledge.