ZHAO KUANGYIN (趙匡胤) was not having a good day. He was a high ranking soldier who felt he was destined to one day become leader of the country. But he had many battles ahead of him. On this particular day, he was a tired and hungry man, wandering through the city of Chang’an. This incident happened about 1100 years ago.
Anything to eat in my bag?
Zhao found only two steamed buns, both of which were old and had gone hard.
To make his misery worse, he could smell delicious food, but had no money to pay for it.
Nearby was a man at a popular food stand featuring savoury lamb soup. Zhao approached it and asked for some hot soup to soften his bread.
The vendor took pity on him and tore the steamed bun into small pieces in a bowl, then added lamb soup to soak the pieces. Zhao gobbled up the steamed bun soaked in lamb soup and found it to be an unforgettably delicious meal in flavor and texture.
THE EMPEROR REMEMBERS
Ten years later, Zhao had triumphed, and had begun his career under his new title – he was Taizu, Emperor of the Northern Song.
When he passed by Chang’an, the same lamb soup stand reminded him of the tough years he went through and the delicious steamed bun soaked in soup he had eaten. He decided to stop and ask the vendor to cook the same dish he had eaten ten years ago.
The vendor was worried, because he did not have steamed buns. His oven was already hot, so he immediately baked some pies to replace them. However, he forgot to leaven the dough, so the pies came out dry and hard. What to do? The Emperor was waiting.
He tore the pies into small pieces and stewed them with the lamb soup for a while to make them softer and more palatable.
A LEGEND WAS BORN
In fact, the dish was as delicious as before, or more so. Emperor Taizu was so pleased after eating that he rewarded the vendor with a gift of hundreds of taels of silver as appreciation.
The praise of the country’s leader made the small stand famous. The “steamed bun stewed in lamb soup”, known as paomo in Chinese, gradually grew in popularity to become a standard item of the cuisine of Shaanxi Province.
The following centuries witnessed the development of paomo in Northwestern China. Skilled cooks opened paomo-special restaurants in Xi’an, especially the Muslim cooks that were good at mutton dishes, attracting eaters nationwide since the Ming Dynasty (明朝) 1368-1644.
HUMBLE BUT TASTY
Today, paomo (泡饃) is a popular dish of chopped-up steamed bun cooked in lamb broth, unique to Northwestern China.
Paomo is mainly made up of two parts, the mo (饃), which is a typical Shaanxi snack made of half-leavened dough, and the lamb soup. As soon as you enter a paomo restaurant, you will get a small numbered plate and a big piece of mo.
After finding a seat, you begin to tear the mo into pea-sized pieces, which usually takes more than half an hour. The mo is really hard, and the size of the pieces has to be just right—oversized pieces will not take in flavors thoroughly, and small-sized ones will spoil the texture of the dish.
Put the pieces in a bowl, and hand it to the cook behind the kitchen counter. The chef will boil your broken-up mo with lamb broth which has been stewed all night long with a dozen spices like cinnamon and star anise (八角).
How is the broth so delicious? Experienced cooks usually select the hind leg of sheep and cut it into slices. They boil it over a hot fire for 15 to 25 minutes before lowering the heat for many hours of simmering. After adding some lamb slices, cellophane noodles (粉絲) and chopped red chilli, the paomo is ready to be served. And the numbered plate will assure you that the bowl of stewed mo was the one you prepared.
The side dish is essential too. Customers eat it with garlic pickled in a vinegar- and- sugar concoction. The sour-sweet garlic flavor is considered the perfect match for the hot and spicy paomo. Paomo remains a favorite dish of the people of Xi’an.
And if you find Shaanxi cuisine restaurant elsewhere in the world (there are quite a few), you’ll find paomo on the menu.
However, this dish is usually not eaten by business people having working meals. It’s too slow and fiddly.
But it’s perfect for family and close friends, who will enjoy the preparation process as a chance to chat while working up an appetite for the delicious food ahead.
And it’s a nice thought that you are eating a dish that celebrates an interaction between a street chef and a soldier – one who become one of China’s greatest emperors.
Image at the top is an ancient illustration showing a Song dynasty gathering