Xi'an is famous for its magnificent army of ancient terracotta warriors dating back from the 3rd century BC. Visitors go there to marvel at the incredibly realistic, life sized terracotta soldiers, generals, chariots and horses that were unearthed about 35 years ago and painstakingly restored.
Xi'an is also where you go to see the start of the famed Silk Road. Centuries ago caravans laden with spices, silk, tea and porcelain started their journey from here and wound their way across the plains of Central Asia to Persia and Arabia. The religions, cultures and cuisines that traveled back along the same routes left Xi'an with a large Muslim population and a unique cuisine that skilfully blends both Chinese and Middle-Eastern influences.
The great mosque of Xi'an, dating back to the 8th century, is one of the oldest in the world. The neighborhood around it is the heart of the Muslim community, the narrow lanes lined with numerous restaurants serving grilled kababs and flat-breads.
This is cuisine that you do not usually associate with Chinese food. We picked a typical Muslim-Chinese restaurant for our first meal. Ordering dinner was a challenge, since no one there spoke English and we were reduced to communicating with gestures. Since the specialty of the house was mutton soup that Xi'an is well known for, we were happy to go along with that choice.
Delicious flat-breads, that looked very much like naan bread, were placed on the table before us. Ravenously hungry, we broke off pieces off bread and started nibbling on them while waiting for the much anticipated mutton soup to arrive. This caused considerable consternation amongst the wait staff, who frantically signaled that this was the wrong thing to do. Our soup was hurriedly brought in and our server showed us the proper way to eat it, which was to break the naan into small pieces that were dropped in the soup to soak up some of the broth and then eaten with chopsticks. Even naan bread has to be eaten with chopsticks in China!
Xi'an's intriguing mix of Chinese Muslim cuisine was really fun to discover through its street food. We sampled dumplings, noodles, spring rolls, toasted meat wraps and many varieties of kababs. Garlicky lamb skewers, liberally laced with chili sauce, were one of my favourites.
In my recipe below i have given them a Hakka twist by adding garam masala, ginger and fresh coriander to the marinade. They bring flavours of the Silk Road to life!
The scallions are a pleasing smoky counterpoint to the spicy lamb. If desired, chicken or paneer can make excellent substitutes for lamb in this recipe. Start with an appetizer of Hakka chicken dumplings. You can find the recipe here.
Hakka Grilled Lamb With Grilled Scallions
1 lb (450g) boneless leg of lamb, cubed
4 cloves garlic
1/2 inch piece ginger
2 green chilies
1/2 cup fresh coriander
1/4 cup each: light soy sauce, rice vinegar
1 tsp each: sugar, Hakka Spice Blend, hot chili sauce
2 bunches (about 8) scallions (green onions), ends trimmed
2 tbsp oil
Salt to taste
2 tbsp lemon juice
Place lamb in large mixing bowl. Combine garlic, ginger, green chilies, fresh coriander, soy, vinegar, sugar, spices and chili sauce in mini blender or food processor. Process until well minced. Pour over lamb, toss well to coat. Cover and refrigerate lamb for 4 hours or up to overnight.
Preheat barbecue to medium heat. Lift lamb out of marinade and thread pieces onto skewers. Grill to desired doneness, about 5 min per side for medium well done.
Meanwhile, toss scallions with oil and salt. Grill alongside lamb skewers until slightly softened and charred in spots, about 8 min.
Serve lamb skewers with scallions, squeezing lemon juice over top.