This is the second column by the journalist and author, Fuchsia Dunlop, examining Chinese cuisine and culture across London. Read about Etles, London’s first authentic Uyghur restaurant, here.
In the kitchen of Xi’an Impression, opposite Arsenal Football Club’s Emirates Stadium in north London, Wei Guirong rolls a piece of oiled dough into a long oval, stretches it into a great ribbon curving through the air and then slaps it hard, twice, on the counter before splitting it down the middle and tossing it into a wokful of boiling water. Biang biang noodles, named for the whacking sound they make on the worktop, are a classic snack of Xi’an in northern China. (Famously, the Chinese character biang in the name is a curious collage of dozens of strokes that has no other use in the Chinese language.) At Xi’an Impression, the noodles are served in a light seasoning sauce and finished with a scatter of aromatics, and a spritz of sizzling-hot oil.
Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is best known internationally for its ‘terracotta army’: thousands of clay soldiers unearthed just outside the city in the 1970s, near the tomb of China’s first emperor. Once, it was a glittering and cosmopolitan city at the Chinese end of the Silk Road which enjoyed a legendary heyday during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Foodwise, Xi’an is most renowned for its ‘flour foods’ (mianshi), including a fascinating range of dumplings, noodles and breads. In the city’s old Muslim town, around the historic Great Mosque, Hui Muslim traders make and sell biang biang noodles, buckwheat noodles, flatbreads sandwiched with juicy meat, potsticker dumplings and golden persimmon cakes stuffed with nuts and candied fruits. Chilli, garlic and vinegar are favoured local seasonings.
In the past, the food of Xi’an was largely unknown outside China, but its international reputation has grown in recent years. In New York, Xi’an Famous Foods, a stall in a basement mall in Flushing that acquired a cultish following, now has branches all over the city. In London, the unusually named Murger Han — with restaurants near Euston station and in Mayfair — specialises in Xi’an flatbreads stuffed with luscious pulled pork (often nicknamed ‘Chinese hamburgers’ but called ‘murgers’ on the menu here).
Earlier this month, Wei Guirong’s business partner Zhang Chao, along with Sichuanese head chef Li Liang, opened Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles on a prime site on the corner of Petticoat Lane in east London: the restaurant serves a variety of specialities from northwestern China, including biang biang noodles, Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles (lamian) and Xinjiang hand-made noodles (la tiaozi), all of which are made on site using different techniques (as well as some delicious cold appetisers). Rumour has it that other proud Shaanxi natives plan to open restaurants in the city.
However, the tiny and unassuming Xi’an Impression still serves London’s most accomplished renditions of Xi’an snacks. In the kitchen, great pots simmer away on the stove for the stocks that are freshly made every day. Noodles, dumplings, flatbreads and the cold wheat starch noodles known as liangpi (literally ‘cold skins’) are all handmade, from seven different kinds of dough. Wei Guirong, who runs the place with her husband Song Yong (also from Xi’an), is an extreme rarity in the professional Chinese culinary world: a skilled female chef. The eldest of three sisters, she grew up in a rural household, and knew from an early age that she would have to work to support her sisters’ education. At the age of 13 she was taken in by a family friend in Xi’an, who put her through high school and then, from the age of 15, culinary college. “My maternal grandmother was a brilliant cook,” she says, “I can still remember the taste of her food today. It’s she who gave me my passion for the kitchen.”
At culinary school, Wei was one of only four women in a cohort of more than a thousand young men, but was unfazed: “It was a very friendly atmosphere,” she says. “Because I was so young, everybody looked after me and treated me like a little sister. And I was always a bit of a tomboy.” She spent a year at college and another year on work experience before joining a restaurant serving local dumpling feasts. As she had intended, she funded her sisters’ education: one is now a doctor; the other in the vegetable wholesale business. Wei quickly excelled in her profession, and after a few years was promoted, becoming the only female head chef in Xi’an.
She came to London in 2008 to join the Sichuanese restaurant Barshu, where she worked for seven years. “But my dream was always to run a restaurant specialising in Xi’an food,” she says. In 2015 she and her husband opened Xi’an Impression with the backing of Zhang Chao, another Barshu alumnus. She is currently looking to open another place in a more central location. She would love, she says, to have the chance to serve a wider range of local specialities, but it’s hard to find skilled regional chefs in London to work with. At a recent dinner hosted by Dream of Shanghai supper club host Jason Li, she showed the range of her talents by cooking up a stunning menu of Xi’an dishes and snacks.
In the meantime, Londoners are lucky to have the chance to taste another part of the great Chinese culinary empire, alongside the more familiar styles of Sichuan, Hunan and the Cantonese south, and one that represents the wheat-eating north of the country. Chef Wei sees her work as part of a broader effort to reshape British attitudes to Chinese food, and the food of Shaanxi in particular: “In the past, people here tended to see Chinese food as cheap and unhealthy,” she says, “but there’s actually a real craftsmanship to Chinese cuisine. And I think Shaanxi food deserves more attention in Britain.”
What to order
Please note that English translations of the names of these dishes vary, but the Chinese characters (given below) should be consistent.
Shredded Xi’an bread in beef or lamb broth (niurou paomo/yangrou paomo 牛肉泡馍/羊肉泡馍): Literally ‘soaked flatbreads with beef/lamb’, this substantial soupy dish is Xi’an’s most famous speciality. Small, firm flatbreads are torn into tiny pieces and reheated in a wokful of broth with slippery sweet potato noodles and slices of either beef or lamb (Xi’an locals tend to prefer lamb in winter and beef in warmer weather). Diners add chopped coriander and pickled chilli sauce to the dish at the table, and eat cloves of sweet-sour pickled garlic on the side.
Xi’an ‘burgers’ (roujiamo肉夹馍): These ‘Chinese hamburgers’ are made from round flatbreads with crisp golden crusts, which are stuffed with meltingly tender pork (lazhirou) or cumin-scented beef. With the pork burgers, always ask for the fattier pork if there’s a choice, because the juices soak magnificently into the bread.
Biang biang noodles (biang biang mian): These long ribbons of dough are freshly pulled, split and boiled. They can be served in many ways: one of the most delicious is simple ‘oil-splashed noodles’ (youpo mian 油泼面) which are finished with a fizz of hot oil on chopped garlic, spring onions and ground chilli.
Qishan noodles (qishan shaozi mian 岐山哨子面): these finer noodles may be served ‘dry’ or in a refreshingly sour broth, with a sauce of finely-diced meat and vegetable ingredients. They are named after their place of origin in Shaanxi Province.
‘Cold skin’ noodles (liangpi 凉皮): Versions of this dish, served as a snack or an appetiser, are found across northern China. The cool, slippery white noodles are cut from thick sheets of steamed wheat starch batter, and are normally tossed with spongy pieces of boiled gluten (mianjin), slivered cucumber, chilli oil and other seasonings.
Potsticker dumplings (guotie 锅贴): Xi’an offers some of China’s most delicious potsticker dumplings, which are unusual because they are left open at both ends. With their crisp, fragrant bottoms and slightly sticky wrappers, they are irresistible, particularly when dipped in refreshing vinegar.
117 Benwell Road, N7 7BW
0203 441 0191
Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles
62 Wentworth Street. E1 7AL
0208 617 1470
Murger Han (Euston branch)
62 Eversholt Street, NW1 1DA
0207 383 4943