Xi’an lamb soup with pickled garlic

• SERVES 6 TO 8•

There are so many incredible, and unique, dishes on offer in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter, but of all the snacks and street foods you find there, this is the one most every Chinese tourist seeks out. Locals practically live on it; it's the defining dish of Xi'an's muslims. Home-made paomo can only be an approximation of what you'd have in Xi'an. Their lamb tastes different, their stocks are masterful and there's no substitute for the mo (the small, round flat breads essential to this soup) made in the quarter to an age-old recipe. Having said that, it's a fun dish to make... and a fun one to eat. 

1.8 kg (4 lb) lamb bones
2 kg (4 lb 6 oz) lamb shoulder on the bone
8 slices unpeeled ginger
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
3 star anise
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
3 teaspoons sichuan peppercorns
2 ½ teaspoons fennel seeds
1 piece cassia bark
2 black cardamom
125 ml (4 fl oz/ ½ cup) clear rice wine

12 dried wood ear fungus
20 g ( ¾ oz/ ½ cup) dried lily buds
100 g (3 ½ oz) bean thread (glass) vermicelli
6 buns (see recipe below), 2 days old
60 ml (2 fl oz/ ¼ cup) vegetable oil
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon clear rice wine
1 ½ tablespoons black rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
3 spring onions (scallions), finely sliced
fresh chilli paste, to serve
pickled garlic (available from Asian food stores), to serve

To make the stock, put the lamb bones in a large stockpot, then add the shoulder and the remaining stock ingredients. Add 5 litres (169 fl oz/20 cups) water or enough to just cover the shoulder. Bring to a simmer, skimming off any fat, and weighting the shoulder down with an inverted plate and a heavy pan. Cook for 3 hours over a low heat, or until the meat is nearly falling off the bone. Remove the shoulder from the pot and cool slightly, then remove the meat in large pieces. Return the bones to the pot and cook the stock for another 3–4 hours. Skim the stock, then strain it through a colander lined with muslin (cheesecloth), discarding the solids. Let the stock settle, then skim off any fat. The stock can be made up to 2 days in advance. If making it in advance, cool to room temperature, then transfer to a container and refrigerate.

Cut the lamb into thin slices. Place in a large frying pan with 500 ml (17 fl oz/2 cups) of the stock, bring to a simmer, then cover and keep hot over a low heat.

To make the soup, put the wood ear fungus and lily buds in separate heatproof bowls, cover each with boiling water and soak for 30 minutes, then drain. Tear each wood ear into three or four pieces. Cut any hard tips off the lily buds and discard. Place the vermicelli noodles in a large heatproof bowl, cover with boiling water and soak for 5 minutes, or until softened, then drain. Tear or cut the buns into small pieces.

Heat the vegetable oil in a stockpot over a medium heat, then add the wood ears, lily buds and noodles and stir to combine well. Add the remaining stock, the soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar and sesame oil and bring to a simmer. Stir in the bread pieces and strain the stock from the lamb slices into the soup. Divide the soup among large bowls, then arrange the lamb slices neatly on top. Scatter over the spring onions and spoon over some chilli paste. Serve with the pickled garlic on the side.

Breads (mo)
1 teaspoon instant dried yeast
500 g (1 lb 2 oz/31/3 cups) strong plain (all-purpose) flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
vegetable oil, for cooking

Sprinkle the yeast over 125 ml (4 fl oz/1/2 cup) lukewarm water in a large bowl, then set aside in a draught-free place for 5–6 minutes, or until foamy. Add the flour, salt and another 150 ml (5 fl oz) lukewarm water and stir to form a very firm dough. Add a little extra water if the dough is too firm to handle but not too much; the dough should not be too soft. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes, or until very smooth and elastic (alternatively, knead the dough in an electric mixer using a dough hook). Form the dough into a ball, then place in a large, lightly oiled bowl, turning the dough to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in a draught-free place for 1 hour, or until doubled in size. 

Knock back the dough, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and roll it into a log about 30 cm (12 inches) long. Cut the log into eight even pieces, then use your hands to roll each piece into a thin sausage about 20 cm (8 inches) long. Working with one piece at a time and using a rolling pin, roll each sausage out until it is about 36 cm (14 inches) long and 5.5 cm (21/4 inches) wide. With a narrow side facing you, tightly roll up each strip, then sit it flat on one end. Flatten it with your hand, then use the rolling pin to roll it out into a 10 cm (4 inch) round. Repeat with the remaining dough. 

Place a large, non-stick frying pan over a low heat, brush the base with oil, then cook the bread rounds in batches for 12–15 minutes on each side, or until cooked through and light golden. For paomo, these are best made a day or two in advance, so they are a little stale.

The Real Food of China
By Leanne Kitchen, Antony Suvalko