World Palates Favor Xi’an Foods-Shaanxi’s Pita Bread Soaked in Lamb Soup Sold in Manhattan, Xi’an Snacks Stun New York
Published:2018-04-09
 

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JasonWang

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Foreign eaters love Xi’an foods so much that they cannot stop eating them.

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Long queues are the daily sight before Xi’an Famous Foods restaurant, with eaters eager to have a taste of the oriental delicacies.

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Some of the foods offered by Xi’an Famous Foods restaurant

Recently, a public account “Chang’an Hao” of WeChat, a Chinese social media app, published an article that flooded the circle of friends. The article titled “Queuing for A Bowl of Noodles—It Takes Xi’an Only One Shop to Conquer New York!” brought the public once again to the already well-known “Xi’an Famous Foods” which has opened a number of chains stores in the US. People have a true and clear understanding of the high popularity of authentic Xi’an foods such as cold noodles, lamb burgers and Biangbiang Noodles in that country.

Like flowers not only blossoming at home but also having their scent enjoyed by others outside the wall, Xi’an foods have not only made a happy eating for local Chinese people, but also conquered the taste buds of people in foreign countries. In New York, the shop of Xi’an snacks above mentioned was well received, with a long queue of eaters staying in front of the headquarters of the shop located in the downtown Manhattan at noon every day. The foreign eaters cannot stop their taste of such delicious foods.

“Xi’an Famous Foods”, a by-product of homesickness

At noon each day, people who wish to have a bite in this “Xi’an Famous Foods” restaurant of 900 square feet in Manhattan have to wait for 30 minutes. Most of the customers may not have much idea about Xi’an, the capital city of West China’s Shaanxi Province and home of Terra Cotta Warriors, but they are all familiar with the signature snacks of the city—Cumin Lamb Burger, Cold Noodles, Hand-Ripped Noodles and Pita Bread Soaked in Lamb Soup—that has to attributed to the 6 branches opened by “Xi’an Famous Foods” in New York and the increasingly higher popularity among eaters of different dietary habits, some of whom are the celebrities including Andrew Zimmern and Antony Bourdain, both being hosts of food programs.

The 25-year-old Jason Wang and his father David Shi are the two owners of “Xi’an Famous Foods”. To Wang, opening this chain store is his business interest and an important thing in his life. Jason was born in a family that loves cooking and he vividly recalled the taste of Pita Bread Soaked in Lamb Soup that his grandfather made for him in his childhood. Like most of Chinese families, the family of Jason stays together for a feast on holidays, which is based on the local foods of Xi’an. Since the immigration to the US in 1990s, the homesickness has prompted Jason and his father to make foods with the recipes of his grandfather.

To run the business of Xi’an snack is the sideline of the homesickness. After a various jobs, in 2005, Jason’s father opened in Flushing, Queens of New York where Asians inhabit in large number a bubble tea house, with handmade Xi’an snacks on sale. “At that time, we did this not for money,” said Jason, “we missed such snacks and we wanted to eat them at home and they happened to become the products we make and sell.”

But the time was right. The immigration craze to the US occurred in North China in 2005 or so has brought new flavors to the food circle which used to be Cantonese cuisine. The local snacks became so popular in New York that “people began to visit Flushing to taste the delicacies there,” said Jason. Soon his father realized the food they made could make more profit than the tea house. At the end of 2005, he opened the first “Xi’an Famous Food” in Flushing with his savings. The shop space was small and simple in the basement of Golden Mall, with only two employees, and is still there up to now. The secret recipe of Jason’s grandfather consists of some 20 spices and sauces, becoming the winning magic of the small shop.

Go beyond Chinese community to win more customers

Not long after college graduation Jason joined the family business. His business degree of Washington University in St. Louis gained him a decent job as inventory manager with Target Department Store. However, as a person who made his own pocket money by opening an Internet startup company in his college days, Jason is more an entrepreneur than a white collar manager. Later, he found himself restart in New York by learning the ins and outs of the family business. It would take him 13 hours a day doing various things like pulling noodles, ordering meals, cleaning, or even carrying materials with prams. “Some employees forgot to hang the receiver after a phone call to my father, so I overheard what they talked about me, saying the son of the boss is bad enough and he is good for nothing and slow in doing anything,” said Jason laughing.

But what Jason brought is the great ambition for future development. Despite the Chinese characteristics of Xi’an Famous Foods, Jason did not limit his business to the small Chinese community. He attributed the failure of most Chinese food restaurants to their narrow vision on business development when defining their market. “Chinese people always think Chinatown is the world,” Wang pointed out. “Everyone is focused on how we compete in Chinatown as a microcosm…with those ‘northerners or southerners,’ not really how we compete in the U.S. with other types of restaurants.”

Jason has considered the needs of wider consumers. From the growing up experience of his non-Asian American friends, he realized that what Americans seek is not a particular food but the food with pure flavors. As a college student, Jason took great pains to look for authentic delicacies with his classmates, whether they were Chinese cuisine, or Mexican, American or Mediterranean cuisines. With worldwide dietary cultures gathered, Manhattan was like the college where many open-minded young people venture to taste different foods. Jason was very confident that as long as they could maintain the product quality, Xi’an Famous Foods would surely have customers in or beyond Manhattan.

What he thought is right. Over the 4 years, four branches of Xi’an Famous Foods were opened one after another in Midtown, Chinatown, St. Marks Place near New York University and Williamsburg near Brooklyn. Another sit-in restaurant-Biang! was also established in Flushing in 2012, which was good for making Biangbiang noodles. All these shops offered fast foods with small space, each containing less than 35 seats, with foods sold at cheap prices—one burger at 3 dollars and a big bowl of beef noodles at less than 8 dollars. Conservative estimate showed that the Middle Town shop alone could attract 140,000 consumers on working days each year, which meant that the annual business turnover could reach 1.1 million dollars. Unlike others, their restaurants could attract two types of totally different customers: one being the new immigrants from China or visitors; the other being fans who do not have Chinese origin and have never been to China, the latter accounting for more than a half of the total.

Replace obscure Chinese names with explicit translations

The popularity of the restaurant also draws the attention of TV producers Andrew Zimmern and Antony Bourdain, who made special presentation of the local foods of Xi’an in their respective programs of Travel Channel, i.e., “Bizarre Foods” and “No Reservations”, now broadcast in the restaurant. Jason also won two grand prizes of diets, i.e., Zagat’s “30 Under 30: NYC’s Food World Up-And-Comers” and “The Eater Young Guns Class of 2013”.

Jason believed that a rapid expansion is lucky and unlucky. He knew that a steady growth relies on improvement of management and operation, so after that he upgraded the computer software of the restaurant, provided standardized training to employees and adopted the real time monitor over business operation. He also adjusted and translated the menus with graphic statement, such as “spicy and tingly” or “cold skin noodles” in replacement of the Chinese names that were hard to understand. For easy access by customers, apart from the usual free food at the grand opening ceremony, Jason kept releasing such information on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and recently on Instagram, as one of his publicity strategy.

But now the bigger challenge was to meet the need for increasing development. Jason recalled that previously a little box of dough could meet the daily consumption need. But now much more materials are in need. He predicted the pressure of expansion three years ago, and established a kitchen of 5,000 square feet in Brooklyn, where some 10 employees worked on rotation night and day to supply the needed noodles, sauce and meat to all the shops with mass production, which not only standardized the products but also accelerated the cooking and service in the restaurant.

Of late, Jason had the idea of mechanized production. But the cold noodles manufacturing machine he introduced either produced lousy goods or did not work properly. So up to now, all foods sold by Xi’an Famous Foods are still handmade products. How about the seasoning and sauces that have increased their foods by 85%? They are still the products made by his father at home, Jason has been ready to take over the job though.

Be about to branch out of New York

With the growth of Xi’an Famous Foods, discussion on how to attract more customers never stops—use bigger space, less spice to cater for American customers, keep the air fresh in the shop, play soft music, replace the noisy R&B with music of Chinese ancient stringed-instrument, etc. But Jason is not crazy about blind expansion. “In this world, nobody can meet the needs of everybody, unless you can sell air,” said Jason, who upholds the idea of catering for specific groups and preserving the authentic taste of foods, “not all the people enjoy R&B, but to me, the people I feel like drawing are—younger, more adventurous people who do not mind more spice in their life and music.”The key to sustaining development, as pointed out by Jason, lies in the likes of the specific target customers. “Do they care about the big dining hall decorated with flying golden dragons and phoenixes? No, I don’t think so of the Manhattan people. What they really care about is the real deal, or the things you sell.”

Jason plans to open more shops in New York and continues to directly manage them. He has refused the franchise proposal of his father, because he thinks such will lower the quality of the products and reduce the profit margin. He would rather find a new path to provide mobile meal service because he has received many such inquiries online, or to expand his business to New England. The recent culinary performance in a local event “Eater Young Guns” held in Los Angeles has attracted a large number of audiences, which has reinforced his expansion ambition.

With great success, “Xi’an Famous Foods” has its presence beyond Flushing, with 12 branches opened in New York, 9 in Manhattan, 2 in Flushing, 1 in Brooklyn. It is expected to branch out into Washington DC, Philadelphia, or Boston.

Cultural Scholar Xiao Yunru: to create the unique culinary calling card of Xi’an

Hand-ripped noodles as wide as a belt and as long as nearly one meter when placed with shiny hot spice can greatly stimulate the appetite and make eater finish a big bowl unknowingly. Such is the special charm of Biangbiang Noodles, the No. 1 brand of its kind in Shaanxi. And the Chinese character Biang is said to be most complicated word in structure of the Chinese language.

Xiao Yunru, a famous cultural scholar who has lived in Xi’an for more than half of a century despite his non-native identity, has had his native dietary habits replaced with his long stay in the city. In his eyes, a big bowl of Biangbiang Noodles is the true representative of Xi’an cuisine. In such a bowl of noodles mixed with spicy seasoning, the characteristics of Shaanxi people featuring simplicity, passion, generosity, perseverance, roughness and balminess are well expressed. Unique local cuisine can cultivate local people with unique characteristics. In his opinion, the diets and folk customs of Shaanxi reflect the distinct characteristics of local people, as well as the branding of Shaanxi cultures. The taste of Biangbiang Noodles exactly agrees with the flavor of local Shaanxi people. He told the press: “While taking pains to create a sea of cultural brands, we should give appropriate attention to some profiles, highlights and details of cultures, as trivial matters can be easily accessible to the grassroots, but the key lies in how to identify and create such trivial matters. As the No. 1 brand of Shaanxi, Biangbiang Noodles can effortlessly catch the attention and appetite of outsiders from the perspective of taste, form, name and the folk cultures with strong local features and the characteristic of Shaanxi people that are carried by this unique food. So it is a unique calling card of Xi’an in food cultures. We should focus more efforts to promote and study such a good and famous food as Biangbiang Noodles so that more outsiders are acquainted with this food and ultimately with Xi’an.”

Wang Zhi, a famous expert for making application for world intangible heritage, who made himself present at important TV variety shows of China, told the press that there are many explanations for the pronunciation of the Chinese word Biang: the sound made on kneading board during the rolling and ripping of the noodles; the sound made on the edge of a pot when noodles are put into the pot; the sound made on mouth of eaters when noodles are chewed; the sound made by the noodles when put into the hot water from high above.

In addition, the form of the word is unique, with the most complicated structure that can be written in 10 ways with minimum 54 strokes and maximum 71 strokes. There are various ballads passed down from generations, which reflect the writing sequence and form and structure. Biangbiang Noodles as the representative of Shaanxi food of wheat flour, Biang as the most unique Chinese word, and ballad of Biang as the most typical representative of folk signs of the Central Plain, are all likely to be qualified for the status of world intangible heritage.

Fascinated by the special noodles, Udo Mills, a folk culture volunteer from Germany said, “Biang is like a totem as well as a picture, and I think whatever their background and language is, people who see this word will have the impulse for a try.”

Images for this article are courtesy of www.forbeschina.com

[Source:Xi’an Daily]