New York’s most recent addition to Chinese Food is a solid hit.
The last time I wrote about Xi’an Famous Foods there were just 8 branches of this wildly popular chain of Chinese restaurants scattered around New York. Now there are 15. There’s no stopping Jason Wang, the CEO and President of the company. While his father mans the kitchens, Jason puts his business degree from Washington University in St. Louis to very good use building their Empire. Jason and his family arrived in the United States when he was 8 years old. His father, David Shi, led a tough life often leaving his family in their basement apartment in Flushing, Queens for weeks at a time as he worked in restaurants up and down the East Coast. Eventually, David opened a tiny tea shop in Flushing’s Golden Shopping Mall. Their food sold better than the tea they served and so Xi’an Famous was born.
An ancient Chinese Cuisine arrives and introduces a whole new flavor profile: Fragrantly Spicy.
The family hails from the city of Xi’an in Northwest China. Most famous for its Terra Cotta Warriors, the city is one of the oldest in China. It is also the eastern terminus for the Silk Road used to describe the ancient network of trade routes that connected Asia to the West and stretched from Korea and Japan to the Mediterranean Sea. Today’s recipe uses an abundant amount of Cumin. Cumin is Middle Eastern in origin and came to Xi’an on the Silk Road. Like Hunan and Sichuan and Canton, Xi’an has a cuisine unique to its province of Shaanxi. Each region’s food can be described in a few words. Wang explains that the word for Sichuan is ‘mala’ meaning it is spicy and tingly. So that is their flavor profile. The profile for Xi’an is xi’ang là and suān. Suan means sour. Xi’ang la means fragrantly spicy using a lot of black vinegar and red chilies.
A family recipe, Spicy Cumin Lamb is its top seller.
Of all the dishes served at Xi’an Famous Foods, Spicy Cumin Lamb with Hand-ripped noodles ($9.69) are a top-seller. I confess to having such a passion for this dish, that I have never eaten anything else on the menu. Not one other thing. I’ve trudged through 24 inches of snow to get my fix of this extraordinarily fragrant, cumin-scented dish of shredded lamb, red onions, green peppers, celery and cabbage all sitting atop a mountain of hand-pulled noodles called biang biang. The noodles are perfectly plain. They’re made of wheat flour, salt, and water. That’s it. The flavor of the dish comes from the robustly spicy sauces that are added with the lamb and vegetables. My addiction to this dish is so strong that when I had leftover lamb, I decided that Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles was all I wanted to make.
The Search for the Recipe yields one from someone who never set foot in Xi’an Famous Foods.
Sifting through the few recipes I could find on Google, there was, of course, no way that Wang and Shi were letting go of their prized recipe. But several enterprising cooks had done their best to recreate the recipe. I have to hand it to “LadyandPups”. In providing her recipe she explained that she’s never stepped foot in a Xi’an Famous Foods location. She lives in Beijing where, thus far, there are no Xi’an Famous Foods. “Xi’an,” she wrote is also a genre of Chinese cooking and equated it with restaurants called “Texas BBQ” or “Chicago Hotdogs”. Unfortunately, in one of the most complicated recipes I have ever read, she missed literally all the vegetables that characterize the dish at Xi’an Famous. I know this because at my last encounter I noted every single element I could identify, and wrote them all down. So I was on my own.
A recipe that’s as close as I could get to the taste of the original…minus making the noodles.
Fortunately, Eater.com, did an in-depth interview with Jason Wang. While there was no way Jason was parting with his father’s tour-de-force, the interview did take its readers through every stage of the recipe. Starting with the lamb marinade, I was able to piece together the entire dish. I did substitute Soy Sauce and Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce) for the Black Vinegar. I didn’t notice a difference in taste. That is all but the noodles. While their ingredients are simple, the process by which the dough becomes an extraordinarily long noodle requires a degree of dexterity I doubt I could manage. Instead, I opted for fresh Pappardelle noodles made by Raffetto’s right here in New York. Following along with the Eater story, I made guesstimates on quantity, tasted the dish every step of the way. I was so very pleased with the final result. It really did taste like Xi’an Famous’s version. Perhaps now I can take a look at some of the other dished on offer there and not just “N1”. Here is the recipe. After it, some other takes on Chinese Food.
Xi'an Famous Spicy Cumin Lamb with Noodles
My take on a recipe that built a whole new Empire of Chinese Restaurants in New York.
- For the Lamb:
- 1 lb. of lamb chuck or shoulder or leg, thinly sliced.
- 2 tbsp. Soy Sauce
- 2 tbsp. Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)
- 2 tbsp. Shaoxing Wine (You can substitute Dry Sherry)
- ½ tsp. salt.
- For the Spice Mix:
- 3 tbsp. Cumin Powder (plus more per taste)
- 2 tsp. Red Chili Flakes
- 1 tsp. Sichuan Peppercorns, crushed
- 1 tsp. Sugar
- For the Stir Fry:
- 4 cloves of Garlic, chopped
- 2 tbsp. Ginger, chopped
- 2 Birdseye Chilis sliced 1/8 inch thick
- 1 Red Onion, halved, then sliced
- 1 Green Pepper, seeded, cored, then cut into strips
- ½ Small Head of Cabbage, cut into 2 inch squares, parboiled
- 2 stalks of Celery, sliced ¼ inch thick, parboiled
- ½ cup of Vegetable Oil
- ¼ cup Chili Oil (I used Hot Pepper Sesame oil)
- For the Noodles:
- 1 lb. Fresh Pappardelle Noodles
- Step 1 In a large bowl, make the marinade. Combine the soy sauce, kecap manis, wine, and salt. Add the lamb to the marinade and stir. Let marinate for at least 30 minutes, preferably 1 hour or in the refrigerator overnight.
- Step 2 In a small bowl, combine the cumin, red chili flakes, Sichuan peppercorns, and the sugar. Set aside.
- Step 3 In a saucepan, parboil the Celery and Cabbage for 2 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- Step 4 In a large skillet or wok, add half the vegetable oil and heat over medium-high. Add the red onion, red chilis, and green pepper and stir fry until they are just tender. Remove the vegetables and set aside.
- Step 5 When the lamb has finished marinating, drain the extra liquid from the bowl.
- Step 6 In a large skillet or Wok, heat the rest of the Vegetable Oil and add the Chili Oil. Sauté the chopped garlic and ginger, until fragrant. Add the lamb and stir, cooking until the lamb has lost its pink color. Add back the cooked vegetables, and the parboiled Celery and Cabbage. Sprinkle the spice mix all over. Taste a piece of lamb and add more cumin and salt to taste. Turn the heat down to simmer.
- Step 7 Cook the noodles according to package instructions, 2 to 3 minutes. Plate the noodles and spoon the lamb over them. Sprinkle more Chili Oil to taste over the top of the lamb. Serve at once.