Thursday, 29 September 2016

CHINA: 6 must-eat dishes from Xi'an's Muslim quarter

What to eat in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter

braising sheep hooves in Xi'an, China
China's ancient capital of Xi'an (here's my post on how to spend a couple of days in Xi'an) once marked the terminus of the Silk Road. The trading opportunities drew people from across Asia, and migrants became an integral part of the city.

Fast forward to today and the result is an exciting melting pot of cultures and religion, which also happens to be the failsafe formula for great food - check out my culinary adventures in Penang in Malaysia for another good example of this.

In Xi'an's Muslim quarter, you'll find sights familiar to both Chinese and Middle Eastern culture. 

Hawkers roast walnuts, carve watermelon, and pick out the seeds from giant sunflower heads. Perspiring cooks stir-fry cubes of spiced lamb in roaring woks set over screaming-hot coal ovens. Steamed mutton and beef dumplings stacked high in bamboo baskets sit alongside vendors selling a kaleidoscope of fresh fruit, and little old ladies frying potatoes for optimal walk-and-eat snackage.

It does get busy; Xi'an as a whole sees a lot of tourists. Mostly Chinese. But it's fun to get swept along with the hungry crowds, and if that's your thing, get there for around 7.30pm. If you prefer to avoid the masses, and for easier photo opportunities, head over in the afternoon or early evening. Either way, and regardless of how hungry you are, you won't end up spending much more than around 40 Yuan (£5) to get totally stuffed. 

Below are a few pointers on what to eat in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter. As ever, it's by no means an exhaustive list, but it's certainly no bad place to start.

scenes from Xian's Muslim quarter, China

1) Rou jia mo - steam and griddled bread sandwiches with lamb or beef

These aren't exclusive to Xi'an - the Chinese are pretty good at stuffed sandwiches, where they're called rou jia bing across the rest of the country. But the local dialect in these parts refer to them as rou jia mo, and you won't be finding any pork in them.

Instead, the bing are stuffed with chopped beef brisket, a bit like corned beef, but more moist. The meat is braised and cured in a vat, then the cook takes a big cleaver to it on a wooden block. The bread is split open, covered with a slick of chilli oil, and stuffed with the beef. Often enjoyed with some sesame cold skin noodles, the two together are great.

2)Pao mo - bread and mutton soup

This bread and mutton soup is found across Xi'an, but especially in the Muslim quarter. 

This was gorgeous - tiny cubes of torn bread, thin rice noodles, chopped greens, braised mutton, and a thick meaty broth, served with pickled garlic and sweet chilli paste. Hugely comforting, full of flavour - it's a signature local dish to seek out when here. And it's only about £1.80.

The way the locals eat it is that they tear the bread into the bowl themselves, then it gets whisked back to the kitchen where the chefs add the rest of the ingredients (see the video below) to make the final soup. 

But my bread was already torn; I suspect it was easier for the lady to do it herself than try to explain what I was supposed to do. Either way, it's lovely stuff.

3) Hammered nut candy

There are two main observations to note with this guy below. Firstly, that's not dough he's stretching. It's in fact warm sugar. Secondly, I watched him for a while, and not once does the sugar touch the spit-covered floor. Skills.

Xi'an is obsessed with nuts, and their sweets reflect that. This guy repeatedly folds and stretches hot sugar across a hook, then the candy gets transferred to a large wooden stump where it's sprinkled with nuts. Guys then go at it with big wooden mallets, pounding the nuts into the warm candy until it hardens , then it's cut into pieces. 

The mallets are pretty noisy and always draw a crowd, as does the sugar-stretching boy. Fun theatre, and a tasty sweet treat.

4) Fried liang fen - green bean starch jelly

I walked past this assuming it was animal based, because we're in China, and the Chinese eat everything, right? Wrong. I mean, the Chinese are pretty good at eating all of the animals, but that doesn't mean they don't love their veggies. And in fact, the whole Muslim Quarter and the city of Xi'an as a whole is a great place for vegetarians, in a country where meat is a symbol of prosperity.

These were cubes of liang fen, a sort of tofu-like jelly made with green bean starch. They were studded with chillies and spring onions, and fried in shallow pans. Outside of Xi'an they're often served cold and coated in a hot chilli Sichuan sauce. But these ones retained both kinds of heat well, and got nice and crispy round the edges. Another great snack to graze on as you walk and scout for the next treat.

5) Persimmon doughnuts

Oh boy, did I love these. I actually had them in a restaurant in Xi'an, rather than the Muslim street food strip, but wherever you go looking for them, make sure you do actually find them.

These are interesting in texture, and have fantastic flavour. Inside they're dense and chewy a bit like Japanese mochi, thanks to an unleavened dough made from dried persimmons. But outside they're fried and crisp. There are apparently lots of varieties available, each with a different filling at the centre. 

But if you don't know the language, and you don't know what options are available, just point to what the person before you ordered. You can't go too far wrong.

6) Skewers

Speaking of the Silk Road, there's a restaurant in South East London called Silk Road, and they're particularly well known for their cumin-crusted lamb skewers. And you'll find exactly these in Xi'an too.

The Chinese as a whole are prolific consumers of things on sticks, be that grilled, fried, simmered, or however else you can think of cooking them. This is particularly prevalent in Xi'an where you'll find grilled lamb or beef shish kebabs on pretty much every street throughout the city; it's almost impossible to return to your room after wandering the streets without honking of meaty coal smoke.

In the Muslim Quarter though, there's more choice. You'll find tiny chunks of fatty lamb coated in chilli oil and dusted in cumin, dried chillies and salt. There's also mutton, beef, lamb's liver, chicken wings, quail's eggs, all of the sausages, all sorts of vegetables, and most other things you could think of.

Sticks go for around 1 Yuan a pop, which is like, 12p. Try to resist spending more than 40p on these supremely tasty skewers, or you'll struggle to find room for everything else. 

How to get to Xi'an

Finnair were the first Western European airline to fly non stop to China; it was Beijing in 1988. They were also the first Western European airline to fly to Xi'an. Another claim is they were the first airline in the world to send SMS messages to customers regarding their flights. Which is fitting, seeing as SMS was invented in Finland.

Their minimum connection time in Helsinki is 35 mins, and they're rather proud of their extremely low statistic of only losing 4 in 1000 pieces of luggage - that's a very good number.

I was lucky enough to experience their fully flat beds in business class, which included some of the best food I've eaten at 30,000 feet. That's thanks to the new culinary collaboration for long-haul business passengers, with world-class chefs Steven Liu from China and Sasu Laukkonen from Finland, launched in April 2016 this year.

Think such Nordic delights as cucumber and dill soup with yoghurt and smoked salmon tarter; pressed beef neck with celeriac puree, herb butter and spring vegetables; Peltolan Blue and Viinitarhuri Finnish cheeses; organic Finnish ice cream by Jymy; and a very healthy stock of the excellent Finnish Napue gin, voted the best gin in the world to have with tonic, according to the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC).

Get a couple of those down your neck along with some fine bubbles, and you can start the holiday well before you get there.

aboard a Finnair flight from Helsinki to Chongqing


Note: This trip and the flights was hosted by Finnair. Thank you to everyone involved for a truly wonderful experience. Must get back to China...

All views remain my own, as always.

Related posts
CHINA: How to spend 2 days in China's ancient capital, Xi'an
CHINA: 8 Sichuan dishes to eat in Chongqing

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

SPAIN: the farm to fork journey of a Knorr tomato

Knorr and sustanability - what part are they playing?

We all know, and many of us love Knorr. Their stock cubes remind me of the childhood meals my parents used to cook - it's the only stock brand they would ever use. Today, they're in the top three chosen food brands in Europe. Globally, we're talking 320 million people in 87 countries using their products every day. That's big business. And with big business comes big responsibility. And keeping with the big theme, Knorr have big goals: to source all their raw agricultural ingredients sustainably by 2020.

Sustainability, what does that even mean? "It's a blob term," says Dr. Sally Uren, Chief Executive at Forum for the Future. These guys are a global non-profit NGO working with leading global businesses, including Unilever (Knorr is one of their brands), to address system-wide challenges, particularly in food and energy, with a mission to create a sustainable future.

There's that word again. What Sally means by 'blob term', is that it's a big and somewhat intimidating word, that can in fact be broken down into smaller and more specific conversations, which is a lot easier to digest. I like the sound of that. 

Here are some scary stats: agriculture is responsible for using 70% of the planet's fresh water, and destroying 40% of the planet's ecosystems. Anyone can see that's not sustainable. There it is again; the word is starting to make a bit more sense.

What Unilever did 16 years ago was set up their Sustainable Agriculture Programme. It's purpose was to set a code by which farmers working with Knorr had to comply with, and continually improve upon. The handout I was given below nicely breaks down the blob term into its constituent parts, when it comes to farming:

Unilever's 11 sustainability indicators for agriculture

So what's been the result? As it stands, no less than 20,000 farmers are part of Knorr's sustainable agriculture code. There are even 30 Knorr farms around the world, that have been award Landmark Farm status. This means they demonstrate the best possible standards in all this commendable stuff; they basically get a big fat gold star. And what's particularly cool, is they open up their doors to those interested in popping by and learning about how they do it so well. The farm we visited in Badajoz - La Pinuela - is one of these. All in, 92% of the top 13 vegetables and herbs used in Knorr products today are sustainably sourced. 

Knorr also estimate that operating at the current rate, in line with the holy-grail code above, around 8,258 kg of pesticides - that's about the weight of a blue whale - will be saved from being used by 2017. Not to mention the 4,500 Olympic sized swimming pools of fresh water. And doesn't that just make you all warm and fuzzy inside.

But it's all very well Knorr telling people about this; the proof is in the pudding. Or the tomato. Tomato pudding? Either way, they invited me - along with a load of other journalists and bloggers from around Europe - out to Spain to see it for ourselves. We visited La Pinuela farm, the Agraz tomato factory around the corner, and ate a lot of tomatoes and great Spanish food in general.

It was a fab and informative trip, and pandered nicely to the food geek within me. Plus, I got to climb a tomato harvester. You can read about the best bits I learnt and experienced below.

scenes from one of Knorr's Landmark Farms, La Pinuela in Badajoz

From the farm

I love a farm, me. I visited a commercial one in Andalucia a couple of years ago, growing broccoli. These parts of Spain are affectionately known as 'Europe's vegetable gardens', because they produce a significant amount of the continent's fresh produce.

Along with brocolli and tomatoes, corn is another common crop found around here. And crop rotation is key in being a sustainable farmer - it's the best way to maintain soil fertility. Different plants suck up different nutrients; by rotating, you're giving the ground a chance to replenish what the previous crop depleted. It makes sense, and you should apply the same principle to your veg patch.

In terms of pests, the fields were littered with traps to track their numbers, meaning pesticides are only applied when there's a significant enough problem, rather than using it as a prevention tool from the get go.

scenes from one of Knorr's Landmark Farms, La Pinuela in Badajoz
In high season, La Pinuela harvests 20,000 tonnes of tomatoes every day, or 150 fully loaded trucks. That's a lot of tomatoes, from a lot of tomato plants, which need a lot of water. Right? Not necessarily. These farmers use a drip irrigation system, which gives plants just the right amount of water they need to be healthy and tasty, and nothing more. It saves 30% of water compared to just flooding the place.

And then there's the harvester, which I scaled to get some cool tomato shots and a silly tomato selfie. The farmers thankfully turned the thing off first. Or I could have ended up as a paste myself. The machine uses a colour sorter to determine what to pick up off the ground; colours that are unlikely to ripen approaching the end of the season (so still too green), are left to be ploughed back into the field as fertiliser. Clever.

To the factory

The main ingredient in a lot of Knorr's final products is tomato powder. You can see it in the collage below. Looks pretty unnatrual, doesn't it. About as far from a fresh tomato as you could possibly get. Must be full of nasties to end up looking like that.

But actually, it is completely natural. Made from 100% tomato, and nothing else. This was probably the biggest revelation for me on the trip. How do they do that? It's actually pretty obvious, by using one of the oldest preservation techniques known to man - drying.

Agraz factory where tomatoes from La Pinuela are turned into paste and powder - it's very close by


In other words, the water is removed. The process is simple: the tomatoes are washed, peeled, de-seeded, and crushed. They're heated up, where they're reduced to a tomato paste. This is an end product in itself, but some of it is dried further to create tomato powder. The powder is the result of removing 96% of water from tomatoes. 

Within five hours from them being picked, the tomatoes become a paste. Within six hours, they're powder. In a similar way to freezing vegetables in the field, these lovely freshly picked fruit are frozen in time, with all the nutrients and flavour being retained by drying.

Because there is no moisture, microbes can't grow. Which means there's no need to add any preservatives to prolong life. It has been preserved naturally, with nothing else added. 

Around 21kg of fruit is needed to make 1kg of powder, which results in the most tomato-y thing that will ever pass your lips. Check out the video below of freshly dehydrated tomato powder - cool right?

All the unwanted pulp is loaded into trucks and sent back to local farms to feed livestock, so there's no waste. And 85% of the water used to wash the tomatoes is recycled. Even the water extracted from the juice is sent to the water station to be reused.

To the fork

All this tomato-learning and harvester-climbing is hungry work, and Knorr rewarded us duly with consistently fantastic meals. All sixty-ish of us were hosted in local restaurants, cooking us bespoke menus showcasing local produce, created by the top Knorr chefs. 

There were copious amounts of cured meats, excellent cheeses, lovely salads and soups, beautiful bread, casseroles and cod, pork tenderloin and carved ox-loin, pickled pumpkin and cumin carrots, roasted vegetables and fettucini, tomatoes in every which way possible, and quite a lot of wine.

getting creative in the kitchen with Knorr chefs

On our final day, we were invited to try our hand at coming up with our own creations, using some Knorr products such as their tomato powder and dried spices. We were put into teams and presented with a huge table, creaking under its own weight of glorious local produce, from meat and fish to fruit and veg, and we had an hour and a half to rustle something up the rest of us might want to actually eat. That's no mean feat. 

I went straight for the morcilla, pancetta and chorizo, and decided on a simple tomato-based chickpea stew, with these flavoursome meats, and the help of a friend. There were prizes to be won, and whilst I received no trophies for flavour (sob), the picture below did win me a whole leg of Spanish jamon in the food photography category. So I was pretty pleased with that.

my chickpea stew with a Knorr tomato powder base, morcilla, chorizo and pancetta

I learnt loads from this trip, both about sustainability, and Knorr as a brand. I had no idea being good to the planet and their farmers was such a big deal to them. It seems to me, when it comes to huge brands and big business, Knorr are one of the good guys. 

This was a sponsored trip and blog post in partnership with Knorr, in order for me to experience, learn about, and share the sustainable agricultural techniques they are pioneering, as part of their #KnorrFarmtoFork campaign. All views remain my own, as always.

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Sunday, 25 September 2016

RECIPE: Vegetarian vine leaf dolma stuffed with rice and herbs

vine leaf dolma stuffed with rice and herbs

Whenever I'm entertaining a number of people, and I've got the time on my hands, my go to party dish will always be meze. Any sort of meze is a great option for a casual gathering, as they’re often small and can be eaten with fingers. But there is surely no better meze than little plump and juicy dolma. My goodness, I do love a lemony stuffed vine leaf.

I recently knocked a few of these up to take along to a family shindig, and took a load of snaps of the process with the intention of writing this up as a recipe on the blog. But I sort of never got round to it. Then the nice folk from Expedia got in touch, asking if I had a Greek-inspired dish I'd like to share (these guys have some great holidays to Greece going on - my advice is hit the Med in September to November - sublime weather, not too hot and no crowds), and I was like - DO I!

So now I've had the push to finally get this up on the blog. Which is handy, because people asked me for the recipe, and now I have something to send them.

Dolma is a generic word given to any vegetable stuffed with something, usually rice, meat or a combination of both. The most typical and recognisable dolma is that of rice, herbs and spices encased in a vine leaf, rolled up into a short and fat cigar. As well as it being a favourite of Greece, you’ll find this dish in many other countries around the Mediterranean including Turkey, heading east to the Middle East, and also heading back west to Eastern Europe (common in Bulgaria, I hear).

It’s a lot of fun to make and not difficult, if a little time consuming. This recipe is one that I’ve flavoured to my own palate and I think it works well. Follow the technique but feel free to adjust the amount of herbs and spices to your own tastes.

Vegetarian vine leaf dolma stuffed with rice and herbs

vine leaves in brine from TFC
Makes about 40

450g vine leaves pickled in brine (either from a jar or vac-packed)

2 medium onions, diced
A handful of pine nuts, dry toasted 
370g white rice, washed in cold water and drained
Juice from 3 1/2 lemons
Dried mint flakes

1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 large bunch of flat leaf parsley, chopped finely (including stalks)
1/2 large bunch of dill, chopped finely (including stalks)
1/2 large bunch fresh mint, leaves chopped finely
120ml good quality olive oil

Tip You'll find the vine leaves in any Mediterranean supermarket. TFC (Turkish Food Store) is a great one and where my vine leaves are from; there are a few dotted about London.

The most time consuming part of this process is finding usable vine leaves from your pack and preparing them. I find the easiest way to tackle this is to put the mass of squashed leaves in a big bowl of warm water and swish them about a bit – this helps to separate them. 

You then need to pick out ones that are not too big (otherwise your dolmas will be huge) and are not torn. Rinse these under warm water to remove the brine, pat dry, break off the stem and repeat until you have a decent pile of leaves ready to use. When you do come across ones that are torn or a funky shape, use these to layer the bottom of a large saucepan. This will be the pan you cook your wrapped dolmas in and the layer of leaves at the bottom will stop them from burning.

layer the base of a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a load of vine leaves - use the torn ones

Use one tablespoon of the olive oil to gently fry the onions on a medium heat in another saucepan, until cooked and softened, but not browned. Add the already toasted pine nuts and saut̩ for a few more minutes. Add the rice and stir constantly for 5-10 minutes until the rice begins to turn translucent. Now add the juice from two and a half lemons and the dry spices Рa good pinch of cinnamon and around three heaped tablespoons of dried mint. At this stage, season with a decent amount of salt and pepper too. Stir thoroughly.

Add 1-2 cups of boiling water and simmer on a low / medium heat for 15-20 minutes until the water has been absorbed. At this stage, your rice will be half cooked.

Turn the heat off and add your finely chopped dill, parsley and mint and stir thoroughly. I blitzed these herbs in a food processor to get them nice and fine. Be sure to include the parsley stalks - it's where most of the flavour can be found. Allow your rice mixture to cool before handling it.

you can either finely chop or blitz your herbs in a food processor
Tip As this whole process is quite lengthy, you can split it up into two parts as I do. In the morning I made my rice mixture and while that was cooking, I separated out the leaves, rinsed them, dried them and kept them in a little pile. Once your rice is cooked and has cooled, be sure to transfer it to the fridge until you're ready to start the assembly of the dolmas which can be done later on in the day.

Now you have the task of hand rolling 40-odd vine leaves, which isn't as daunting as it initially sounds. Get your leaves and rice filling and sit somewhere comfortable like the dining table.

Now you can begin.

Step 1 | Lay a vine leaf flat with the veins facing upwards

Step 2 | Place about a tablespoon of rice mixture in the middle of the leaf and shape into a fat cigar
Step 3 | Fold the bottom of the leaf up to meet the rice, fold in the sides, and then roll up towards the point of the leaf. You should be presented with a short and fat dolma

Repeat until you've used up all of your rice mixture.

Step 4 | As you create the dolmas, place them in your saucepan (that you've already lined with leaves) with the open fold underneath and pack them in tightly so there are no gaps between them, or they'll unfold during cooking. You'll probably end up with two layers.

steps 1 - 4 of hand-rolling the dolma, from top left

You now need to cook (steam) these dolmas until the rice is tender. To do so, add water to the pan until it reaches about half way up the sides of the dolmas, the juice of one lemon, and the rest of the olive oil. Put the lid on and bring the water up to the boil then turn it down so it's gently bubbling. Leave this for 40-50 minutes or so, or until the water is absorbed or the rice is cooked, whichever comes first. Take a dolma from the top and test it to check if the rice is tender. Be sure to keep an eye on the water level - if it runs out and the rice is not yet cooked, just add a bit more.

When cooked, remove them from the pan and allow to cool. Serve with lashings of lemon juice - don't allow anyone to eat one without it. 
As so often is the case with lovely food coming out of the kitchen, expect these to disappear in a fraction of the time it took to make them *heavy sigh*.

It's worth mentioning that Expedia have a nice little blog area that combines two of my most favourite things in life - travel and food. Check out their World on a Plate for the best type of inspiration - international food!

I'm glad Expedia asked me to share this recipe - thanks for the writing push guys!

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Wednesday, 7 September 2016

CHINA: How to spend 2 days in China's ancient capital, Xi'an

Xi'ans Muslim food district, China

How to spend two days in Xi'an

After spending a couple of days in Chongqing - one of the country's emerging mega-cities - we took a domestic flight to nearby Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, to experience a truly ancient pocket of China.

It's a humbling 3000 years old, and was the country's capital during no less than thirteen dynasties, spanning 1000 years. Once the terminus of the Silk Road, it brought migrants to China from the likes of Mongolia and Korea, as well as Muslims. The result today is a vibrant and exciting melting pot of cultures and religion, and some seriously good food (check out my post 6 must-eat dishes from Xian's Muslim quarter).

Xi'an's glory days - occupied by great emperors, merchants, warriors, poets and courtesans - may be long gone. But the history remains, and there's a lot of it to take in. The Ming-era city walls are still there, and the narrow lanes and street hawkers of the Muslim Quarter will keep most people entertained for hours. Dynastic enthusiasts could easily stay busy for a week.

Below are a few pointers on what to see and do that could nicely fill a couple of days or so. As always, if you're able to stay longer, do. I wish I had extended my trip by two more days, as I felt I'd only just tapped the surface. I really enjoyed Xi'an and it's intimacy. And I absolutely loved the food. I hope to be back some day.

What to do in Xi'an

Take a morning Tai Chi lesson

How zen does our Tai Chi master in white look below? We popped over to Revolution Park one morning to both witness and participate in some of the daily group exercise routines that take place. It was full of elderly people working up a sweat, bending and flexing whilst doing aerobics, dancing, Tai Chi, playing sports, and generally putting us young bucks to shame.

We were privileged to have a Tai Chi grand master show us some basic moves, having practiced the discipline himself for 30 years. His precise and fluid movements drew a big crowd, who also stuck around to watch (and film) us westerners give it a go too. We did pretty well in the heat; it's far more demanding on the body than it looks! Kudos to the little old ladies who can lunge with far greater stability than the rest of us - great glute action. 

And it reminded me of that time I was coerced to join in a similar activity in the village of Mae Rim near Chiang Mai - that was a great evening.

There's nothing stopping visitors turning up and latching onto a group, copying the movements. It's good fun.

Revolution Park, 53 Siwu Road, Xi'an 710004

early morning Tai Chi in Revolution Park, Xi'an

Marvel at the vast Army of Terracotta Warriors

This UNESCO heritage site is so much awesome, really. All these thousands of clay statues were accidentally discovered just 40 years ago, which is pretty cool in itself.

So, what's the story? In a nutshell, two thousand years ago, three large underground pits were created, housing these armies of soldiers with real weapons in their hands. The Qin Dynasty emperor at the time, who these were made for to protect him in the afterlife, made no recording of their existence - he wanted them to remain a secret forever. He even had those who designed the pits killed so they couldn't reveal how to find them. They were hidden there, covered by a wooden roof and buried under five meters of soil, for 2000 years.

Fast forward to the 1970's and a farmer stumbled across some fragments as he was digging his field to make a well. The rest as they say, is history. The farmer himself did pretty well out of the discovery; credit to him for not keeping it a secret for fear of angering the gods (as his friends wanted to), and sharing it with the relevant authorities. 

Two thousand soldiers currently stand, but archaeologists estimate there are around 8000 in total. They're still excavating and reassembling the pieces today. Only one terracotta warrior was found completely in tact - the kneeling archer (the close up below). The rest were smashed to pieces which have painstakingly been put back together over the last 40 years, in what is possibly the world's biggest jigsaw puzzle.

The place is fascinating, and there's so much more to it than I can do justice here. Saying it's a must visit when in Xi'an is an understatement; people from around the world visit Xi'an because of the Terracotta Warriors. Heck, my boyfriend joined the queue at 6am one Saturday morning to ensure he got in, when some of the warriors were loaned to the British Museum in London a few years back. He was a little envious I got to see the real deal.

It costs about 200 RMB (£23) to get a taxi from Xi'an city to the Terracotta Warrior museum, and is roughly a fifty minute drive. My advice is to get a guide to talk you through the history of it all; it will really bring it to life.

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, Lintong, Xi'an

the Terracotta Warrior Museum, Xi'an

Learn how to make (and eat) dumplings

The latter is a lot easier than the former, let me tell you. I've
tried making Chinese dumplings before; let's just say I'm lacking in natural talent.

Xi'an was the capital of the whole of China for a whopping 13 dynasties spanning more than 1000 years, and it's regarded as the home, if not the birthplace of the fine art of dumplings. And who doesn't love a good Chinese dumpling. No one, is the answer to that.

Rice isn't grown in this part of the country as the climate is too dry, and it's too far from the sea. Instead, corn and wheat is the staple, which means noodles and dumplings are the carb of choice in Shaanxi cuisine. 

De Fa Chang is one of Xi'an's most famous restaurants, and it's the place to visit for dumplings. The chefs craft these little packages of joy in every conceivable shape, colour, and with a whole host of fillings. Enjoying a dumpling banquet here is highly recommended (see below), but if you can get someone who knows the lingo to organise a dumpling demonstration for you too (perhaps ask your hotel concierge to give them a call), all the better for it.

De Fa Chang, 3 West Street, Lianhu, Xi’an +86 29 8721 4060

dumpling making at De Fa Chang Restaurant, Xi'an

Soak up Xi'an's Muslim quarter

Look for the old Drum Tower located in the northwest quadrant of the ancient walled city, and you have the main entry to Xi'an's Muslim Quarter. Initial impressions are dominated by loud hawking and bright neon signs. But spend a little more time here and you'll soon realise it's an area steeped in history.

This neighbourhood has been home to a largely Muslim population since the 7th Century AD, and many say the local cuisine found in these parts have changed little since then. I'm writing a whole separate post on what to eat in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter - stay tuned.

Expect lots of tourists. Tons of them, mostly Chinese. But walk these streets, sample the street food, and soak up the great atmosphere. And when it all gets a bit too hectic, head to the serenity of The Great Mosque.

Unlike most mosques found across the rest of the world, The Great Mosque in Xi'an is completely Chinese in construction - not a dome or traditional minaret in sight. Built in 742 AD during the Tang Dynasty, it's a stunning example of Islamic culture and traditional Chinese architecture blending seamlessly, and is one of the most revered mosques in the country.

The Great Mosque, near the Drum Tower on 30 Huajue Lane, Xi'an

scenes from the Muslim quarter and the Grand Mosque, Xi'an

Where to eat in Xi'an

Full on Shaanxi feast at Shaanxi China Folk's Restaurant

This small chain started as a modest eatery, expanding to eleven sites across Xi'an since it launched in 1999; they're very popular with locals after classic Shaanxi cuisine. We visited what's probably the most accessible location on The North 2nd Ring Road. As is often the case with Chinese restaurants in China, it's big. Covering two floors, it also has an 800 square meter banquet hall to accommodate big events.

All sorts of beautiful food was brought to our table, including stuffed lotus root, a whole fried chicken, vegetables and more. But the winning dish, and one of my favourite things I ate throughout the whole China trip, was their you po mian (biang biang) - hot oil noodles. Wide and very long belt noodles, ground meat, vegetables, black vinegar, red-hot peppers, and garlic, with hot oil being added last, then the whole thing is tossed. Simple and so very excellent.

Bai Xing Chu Fang (China Folk’s Restaurant), No.111-1, Weiyang Road, Weiyang District, Xian

Shaanxi dishes at Bai Xing Chu Fang (China Folk’s Restaurant)

you po mian at Bai Xing Chu Fang (China Folk’s Restaurant), Xi'an

Dumpling banquet at De Fa Chang dumpling house

Following on from the dumpling demo above, we went on to enjoy De Fa Chang's fourteen course dumpling banquet. A formidable array of stuffed dough with some serious tourist appeal, pretty much everyone who visits Xi'an will come here to experience this. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the majority of those tourists are Chinese. And if anyone knows a good Chinese dumpling, it's the Chinese. Right?

There were loads of different colours and shapes, with fillings like duck and sesame, pork with black fungus, pork with leek, and spicy chicken. There were Shaanxi fried dumplings with celery, pork and chilli, even more dumplings, plus half a dozen non-dumpling plates for starters. It ended with the Empress Dowager Cixi Hotpot, which involves your fortune being told by how many teeny chicken dumplings end up in your bowl. I got three, which means a good career, I'm told. I have to say, I really enjoyed this meal. 

De Fa Chang has been at the foot of the historic Bell Tower, serving up bite-sized parcels of pleasure, since 1936. They boast over 300 varieties of dumpling, and I would advise going for the full on banquet set menu served upstairs, rather than choosing from the a la carte downstairs. For all that food, it was only around 150 RMB per person, about £15. Be sure to get your hotel to book ahead.

De Fa Chang, 3 West Street, Lianhu, Xi’an, China, +86 29 8721 4060

dumpling banquet at De Fa Chang dumpling house, Xi'an

Ancient Qin Dynasty feasting at Qin Restaurant of Real Love

Any excuse to don a cool ancient Chinese outfit in a restaurant with a funny English translation. Qin Restaurant of Real Love is a Qin dynasty themed get-up, housed in a modern high-rise. The meal involves a series of small dishes that capture the flavours and techniques that once graced the dining tables of emperors.

What struck me was how very Japanese this experience was, from the table set up, to the way of eating, to the traditional attire which looked exactly like a kimono. Of course, the response to me raising this observation was that the Japanese stole all this from the Qin Dynasty. I'm sure the Japanese have a similar, but opposing view.

Dishes were very different to modern day Shaanxi meals, altogether much more delicate in flavour. Think hot and sour soup, seasoned cold noodles, smoked fish, deep-fried meat balls with spiced salt, boiled white radish with abalone sauce, steamed pumpkin with fried vegetables, steamed bean curd, stewed pasta with pork and vegetables, and pan-fried golden persimmon cake.

You'll receive a copy of the menu written in both Chinese and English, along with a stamp of the emperor's seal on the back - a nice souvenir to take away.

traditional Qin Dynasty banquet at Qin Restaurant of Real Love, Xi'an

Where to stay in Xi'an

I had a very pleasant stay at the Hilton Hotel in Xi'an, with an elegant and large room and a glass wall separating the bathroom to the rest of the space. It's in an ideal location, set within the ancient City Wall, and very close to landmarks like the Bell Tower, which is where you'll find De Fa Change dumpling house.

Hilton Hotel Xian, 199 Dongxin Road, Xin Cheng District, Xi'an 710005

The Hilton Hotel, Xi'an

How to get to Xi'an

Finnair were the first Western European airline to fly non stop to China; it was Beijing in 1988. They were also the first Western European airline to fly to Xi'an. Another claim is they were the first airline in the world to send SMS messages to customers regarding their flights. Which is fitting, seeing as SMS was invented in Finland. 

Their minimum connection time in Helsinki is 35 mins, and they're rather proud of their extremely low statistic of only losing 4 in 1000 pieces of luggage - that's a very good number.

I was lucky enough to experience their fully flat beds in business class, which included some of the best food I've eaten at 30,000 feet. That's thanks to the new culinary collaboration for long-haul business passengers, with world-class chefs Steven Liu from China and Sasu Laukkonen from Finland, launched in April 2016 this year. 

Think such Nordic delights as cucumber and dill soup with yoghurt and smoked salmon tarter; pressed beef neck with celeriac puree, herb butter and spring vegetables; Peltolan Blue and Viinitarhuri Finnish cheeses; organic Finnish ice cream by Jymy; and a very healthy stock of the excellent Finnish Napue gin, voted the best gin in the world to have with tonic, according to the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC)

Get a couple of those down your neck along with some fine bubbles, and you can start the holiday well before you get there.

aboard a Finnair flight from Xi'an to Helsinki

China Guides

Finnair worked with the China International Travel Service for the guides that accompanied us in both Chongqing and Xian.


Note: This trip and the flights was hosted by Finnair. Thank you to everyone involved for a truly wonderful experience. Must get back to China...

All views remain my own, as always.

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