When I got hungry, I thought we’d eat whatever the Chinese equivalent of hospital cafeteria food was; we were in sort of an industrial, restaurantless area. Instead, I was led outside onto the street, where the back of the parking lot of the hospital had been converted into what in the U.S. would totally count as a night market; sweating men and women, the lower halves of their faces covered in cloth, fanned at thick smoke billowing off a multitude of hot grills. Nearby, more vendors chopped fruit and scooped it into bags.
The grills, and whatever was on them, didn’t look immediately appetizing. The way the air was, thick and heavy, created an illusion that the smoke from the grills was what was creating the ambient haze. I didn’t feel like eating whatever caused me to feel like I was living in an exhaust-cloud city. Plus, it was hot, and the grills were hot. I wanted the cut fruit.
And I did get the cut fruit (watermelons mixed with carrots - weird), but my boyfriend insisted I also get what was on the grills, which turned out to be mutton skewers. This popular street food, ubiquitous in all parts of China but best-tasting, I think, in the western half, consists of mutton chunks skewered through and brushed with chili sauce, dried chilies, cumin, and salt. They’re handed to you scorching, so the experience has to begin with the smell, which is rich and spicy. Oil drips dangerously down the skewer towards your hand if you hold it too vertically, so you have to be careful with your angle. Once it’s cooled down enough to touch, you get the cumin first, a light coating all over your tongue, then the most explosive, fatty, gamey flavor. I don’t know why Chinese mutton and lamb tastes so much gamier than American mutton and lamb - whether it’s diet, the amount of fat left on, or the cooking method - but the difference is as big as if they were two different animals.
The second time China fed me sheep was in the prettier and much more touristy Muslim quarter, in a second floor cafe that looked like a converted shed draped in tapestry. I ordered yangrou paomo, a thick lamb broth filled with torn bits of bread and fat-streaked lamb chunks. It was delicious - rich and so gamey it felt like the used the essence of hundreds of sheep to make it - but regrettably so heavy I had to haul my stomach home and resume my Muslim Quarter culinary tour the next day.
I HAVE, however, been able to find gamey, lamby, pickled-garlicky replicas of Xi’an style lamb soup in the Los Angeles area, one with torn-up bread as the base and one with wide, hand-cut-and-stretched wheat noodles.
The torn-up bread version comes from Rainbow Bridge, a Ningxia province specialty restaurant in Irvine. The bread chunks here are perfect little tiny crouton-like squares. (I have no idea how they get them so uniform. Mechanical bread separator?) They cause the soup, at first glance, to resemble a bowl of white Legos. But they rapidly slurp up the thick cloudy broth and turn into puffy Legos with indistinct edges that, upon contact with your tongue, become lamb bombs. The experience of placing a spoonful of those in your mouth is not unlike placing a xiao long bao in your mouth, in terms of the shocking spurt of meat essence it releases. And if the lambiness of the bread isn’t enough, there are also hunks of lamb, almost appropriately fat-streaked, sitting in little wood-ear mushroom beds and wearing leek hats. The overall effect is added to by a pervasive taste/smell of pickled garlic; I’m not sure if this is because it was actually used for cooking or because the little plate of it next to my bowl was sending aromas wafting up to mix up my senses.
The broth here is less aggressively gamey and garlicky than Rainbow Bridge’s, but mostly because it tastes like it may get a slight moderation from chicken broth. The lamb here is more tender, and falls apart at the first feather touch from a fork. The real fun of it, though, is the Mobius strip monster noodle. It’s so substantial it may as well be a rope of bread.