Welcome back to Ethnic Eating 101!
Guangdong (Canton), Sichuan (Szechwan), Shanghai; these are provinces of China that most people can identify. But when you read Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, what springs to mind, if anything, is the image of vast expanses of desert, the Silk Road, and the desert scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which were, in fact, filmed on location in Xinjiang Province, China's westernmost province).
The Chinese government recognizes 56 separate groups besides the ethnic Han majority. Most have their own languages, and they range from Mongolians to southern hill tribes to Tibetans. One of the 56 is a catch-all group for Muslims who don't fit into another of the groups. These people are called Hui, and their numbers are greatest in an autonomous region in northwestern China called Ningxia, tucked between Inner Mongolia (Nei Menggu in Mandarin) and Gansu province.
There are several Hui restaurants in Southern California, but they're normally called Chinese Islamic or Islamic Chinese, and all serving halal ( or qingzhen in Mandarin) food. There is no pork of any kind on the menu at a Chinese Islamic restaurant; lamb is common, and beef, and ox. These restaurants are very popular with Muslims from a variety of ethnic background. At any given time, half the diners in Southern California's qingzhen restaurants will be non-Chinese Muslims, Pakistanis and Arabs and Central Asians and Indonesians.
Hui cuisine is influenced by the foods of the provinces near the traditional Hui homeland in Ningxia: Gansu, Xinjiang, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia. In addition, the Hui have historically had a large community in Beijing, which means that the northern, wheat-based food of the capital also plays a role in Hui cooking.
The influence of Xinjiang and the import of central Asian food over the Silk Road is obvious. Chuan (whose character, 串, leaves no doubt as to what it is) are commonplace; the most common is lamb kabob (羊肉串, yang rou chuan). Chunks of lamb shoulder or a similar soft cut are rubbed with cumin and garlic, threaded onto skewers and grilled over open fire. Just as Levantine kabobs are eaten with flatbread, so too are Chinese yang rou chuan. The flatbread of the Xinjiang and Hui people, called nang (the Sinified version of "naan"), is an unleavened flatbread shaped like a large, flat-bottomed saucer; it is extremely hard to come by in these parts.
What you will see on nearly every table at a qingzhen restaurant, though, is da bing (大餅): this is partially-leavened wheat dough, stuffed with chopped scallions, studded with sesame salt, and pan-fried. Da bing comes in thick or thin varieties; it's my personal opinion that the thin is better, since you get more sesame salt per bite.
Beef is also much more common in qingzhen restaurants than in other Chinese restaurants. A common dish, called niu rou mian (牛肉麵), is a beef noodle soup that eats like a stew. It's chunks of halal beef, a few carrots or turnips, and chewy, wide, flat wheat-flour noodles in beef broth with salt, pepper and onions. Because beef noodle soup is a dish embraced by a number of groups, you may see the particularly Hui version (which is lighter in flavor and less salty) called qing dun niu rou mian (清燉牛肉麵), or "clear stewed beef noodles".
Another beef dish worth seeking out is five-spiced beef with Chinese leeks, which goes by several names on menus. This is very thinly-sliced beef that has been treated a bit like twice-cooked pork; dusted with star anise-heavy five spice powder, cooked, then returned to the pot with the flat Chinese leeks. The leeks themselves are not astringent at all; they provide a great foil for the heady punch of the beef.
The Hui are lovers of suan cai (酸菜), preserved cabbage that tastes like a much stronger, much more fermented sauerkraut. Mas Islamic Chinese in Anaheim makes an outstanding dish of lamb with suancai (called, I believe, "lamb with preserved cabbage" on the menu). If you order this, you may need to convince the server that you really do want this Chinese analogue of choucroûte garnie. It's worth it; the gaminess of lamb is completely subsumed by the powerful fermented punch of the suan cai.
Dao xiao mian (刀削麵), a speciality of nearby Shaanxi province, literally means "knife-shaved noodles". You may also see the English translation as "dough sliced noodles", which doesn't make any sense until you see them being made: a cook takes a large round of stiff noodle dough and a cleaver, and with expert skill hacks off thick, stubby pieces of dough into a waiting wok full of water or broth. The resulting texture is inimitable; thick, toothsome and with an assertive wheat flavor that goes well with strong beef or lamb.
La mian (拉麵) are the exquisite hand-pulled noodles of Lanzhou, in Gansu province; an unassuming chunk of wheat-flour dough is spun, dance-like, into an ever-longer single noodle. Watching this the first time is as breathtaking as watching dao xiao mian is nerve-wracking. Eating a bowl of la mian is a physics lesson in itself; biting straight across the noodle, you would think it's the most delicate noodle ever. Try to eat a noodle the long way, though, and gluten will rear its ugly head; the noodle becomes nearly bouncy in its chewiness.
Hot pot (火鍋), which is immensely popular in Beijing, is a staple of qingzhen restaurants. This is not the roiling, chile-laden broth of the iron-stomached Sichuanese. Lamb and vegetables are usually the ingredients of choice, and they are cooked in broth, like Japanese shabu-shabu. As with beef noodle soup, you may be given a dish of suan cai to top your hot pot, or it may be tipped into the broth to cause the broth to turn a bit sour.
Where to get it?
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Mas Islamic Chinese (601 E. Orangethorpe, Anaheim) is the reigning queen of this cuisine in Orange County. It's busy, it's popular, and there's a reason.
Jamillah Garden (2512 Walnut #1, Tustin) was the first qingzhen place in the county.
Lotus Chinese (16883 Beach, Huntington Beach), owned by the people who started Jamillah Garden, is a close second to Mas for the food.
Malan Noodle (2020 S. Hacienda, Hacienda Heights) isn't in OC, but it isn't far outside the county, and it's by far the best place for la mian; stand up front and watch the magic. You can choose from a variety of noodle shapes and thicknesses, too, and for $6 a bowl it's hard to beat.