Recently, I was asked if I had any New Year’s resolutions. Without giving it too much thought, I responded, “Not really, I prefer to make rash and whimsical life decisions year round.” A few days later, after some consideration, I thought about “what would I like to do more or less of in the new year?” There was one singular outlier example that I knew should happen more often; epic meals with friends. I’m not talking about those great meals one can have often…I’m talking epic.
The 2011 meal involves a one Tricia Wang (who you might remember from the Great Passover of 2010) and Beijing (where she assembled a small six person crew of people to eat some Hui Chinese Muslim food). I only knew one other person, so I knew 1/2 the group counting myself. The stage was set. James, Tricia and I met up in Beijing’s Embassy Row and headed out via subway to the western part of the city. At the restaurant, we met up with Roger and Lydia (Lisa was going to be late) and sat down. Tricia began ordering in Chinese at the speed of summer lightning and I, armed with a 10-22 mm lens, began snapping photos. Now, right about here, Tricia said something to the waiter which caused me to freeze up:
In Chinese she was talking about 羊肉泡馍 vs 牛肉泡馍 (basically lamb vs beef). I stopped taking photos and said, “羊肉!” and my mind was transported back to 2001. Stumbling around Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, I found this man selling something from a little street shop. I was hungry, whatever he was selling under 1 USD, and I knew fell into my dietary restrictions. What I got was a big steaming delicious bowl of 羊肉泡馍 (or Yáng Ròu Pào Mó), served with some fat looking, kinda hard pita bread. Instinctually, I tore the bread into my soup and began to eat. In the 4 short days in the dead of winter I was in Xi’an, I ate from this guy 7 times. So many times that if he saw me at end of the street, he’d have a bowl ready for me by the time I made it to him.
For 10 years, I searched for this dish States side. Never did anyone have it. I was told by Chinese people that it doesn’t taste good or that it’s smelly. Once, in a Milpitas CA restaurant, they told me they had it but what they handed me was so not Yáng Ròu Pào Mó. I had resolved to believe this meal, this incredible mutton in a clear garlic broth, was nothing more than a figment of my imagination, a distant memory of a dream I once had many years ago…up until Tricia said 羊肉泡馍 to the waiter.
China being what is is, nobody orders just one dish and remember this is a Hui minority Muslim joint…there ain’t a slab of pork in sight. What you get is an incredible variant of Chinese food clearly inspired by the arabian silk road. Many things came out as our appetizers: Two types of soup dumplings (one beef, one lamb), some pickles cucumbers, some greens, some rice & grain soup.
Then a platter of lamb kabobs landed:
And the wolves in all of us began to eat.
Once we started to slow down, we were brought individually numbered bowls and little pieces of hardend pita looking bread. We were to break up our own bread into our own bowls for the soup to be poured over.
Now, you might ask, “why don’t they just do this in the kitchen?” Simple, to do it right, it’s a pain in the ass and takes forever. You need to crumble it up into little even pieces—a process that takes some considerable time. If they do it for you in the back, they have this little machine break and grind it down into a non-uniform glob of bread. No cook respects that. As Tricia put it, we can’t let the machines win this one…it has got to be non-cyborg 羊肉泡馍…humans still matter…people matter! Plus when you offer to do it yourself, the cooks will send you your soup with the best cuts of meat in the stew; it shows the kitchen that you know what you’re doing when you order this soup. Respect yo! Things being as they are, and we being who we are, James and I got super competitive to see who could do the better job (I won, Tricia disagrees).
And then we wait. Thinking I was taking a closeup of Tricia’s nose, Lisa took my camera for a moment to check out the lens for herself:
"I’m moderately impressed" she responded in a very British quip. Then our soup landed and silence engulfed the table as the tide rolls in after a storm.
Sported our serious shades and giggled even more:
The best part, yes even better than the food, was the incredible, smart and amazing diverse company. Each of us totally unique, friendly, and funny. I noticed our shoes and pants described the party well:
Oh ya, and we stopped for a Uyghur snack on the way back to Chaoyang, were all smiles on the subway:
And were still giddy and jumping for joy for the rest of the day:
So, for a 2012 New Years resolution…more days like this!