Mutton Pao Mo (羊泡馍)

12 Oct

When I left Columbus in late August, it was hot and a touch muggy. But it was no match for the humidity that greeted me when I landed in Shanghai: we’re talking so incredibly humid that air-conditioned buildings regularly “sweat” (condensation from the air builds on walls and windows) much like how a cold beverage “sweats” on a hot summer day. A welcomed respite from Shanghai’s weather came in the form of a three day trip to Beijing. It was cooler, drier, and I couldn’t have asked for better weather. It hasn’t been that long since I’ve been in Beijing (a little less than two years) but since my bro hasn’t been since he was young, we crammed in several obligatory tourist sites. We spent a half day in the Olympic Park (Water Cube: 水立方; Bird’s Nest: 鸟巢), a couple hours on the grounds of the Summer Palace (颐和园), many hours wandering the hutongs (胡同) in Beihai (北海公园), a couple hours inside the Forbidden City (故宫), and my favorite, sunset at the Temple of Heaven (天坛).

The single number one item on my list of foods to eat in Beijing is pao mo (泡馍). It is a regional specialty from Shan Xi (陝西) province whose largest city is home to the Terracotta Warriors (兵马俑), in Xi’An (西安). Traditionally, travelers would pack a couple of these unleavened flour discs because they kept well. These things are about as round and hard as a hockey puck. Since we had a late breakfast and my brother hadn’t had pao mo before, we decided to share one puck. We saw some folks put down two and three of these pucks in one bowl!

Once arriving at their hosts’, travelers would break apart these pucks into pieces about the size of a chocolate chip. We spent about five minutes breaking apart this puck. It’s kind of a pain in the nards, but if you have bigger pieces, it’s so dry and hard that it’s impossible to eat.

Once that’s done, the host pours steaming stock or soup over the bread pieces. In our case, the restaurant (we went to 西安饭庄, there’s a painted portrait of Mao Zedong’s visit on the wall!) took our bowl back to the kitchen and added a rich mutton soup with chunks of tender mutton, a couple pieces of leafy greens, and just a touch of rice vermicelli for textural interest. Unlike Western/European stocks, Chinese stock is almost a pure meat and bone broth (no aromatics or mirepoix). The bread pieces soak up the broth and end up with a surprising al dente texture, moist and with a little chewiness. In general, Chinese folk feel the same way about lamb and cheese: either you grow up on it (halal restaurants are common in Northern and Western regions) or like my aunt, wrinkles her nose, covers her mouth to hold down the nausea, and runs the other way as fast as she can. For the non-mutton eaters, there’s also beef broth. My brother and I both love lamb/mutton/game so this was a hit and we almost wish we would have ordered a portion for each of us.

As accompaniments, we had a plate of pickled cabbage and carrots (泡菜), sugar fermented whole cloves of garlic (糖蒜), fresh cucumbers, and hot sauce and cilantro to garnish the bowl of soup.  Warm, meaty, gamey, chewy, soupy, this is my type of comfort food. I really hope I don’t have to wait another two years to have this meal again…

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2 Responses to “Mutton Pao Mo (羊泡馍)”

  1. yvonne September 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    OMG!!! I went to visit my son in Xi’an and he took me to Muslim Street. This was one of the popular dishes served and I loved it!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Shanghai & Beijing Eat-ologue For Mike & Katie « lip shmacking around - February 22, 2011

    […] in a day. In between, we caught our breath with some paomuo (泡馍, which I’ve written about here) and a giant liter of soda. 西安饭庄 is located right off a subway stop so it’s pretty […]

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