I came across this dish when I was looking for new ways to eat pickled garlic, which is something I’ve been doing a lot. What a condiment. Spiky yet sweet, it’s an unusual and addictive flavour. My friend Sally Butcher who owns the Iranian shop and deli, Persepolis tells me that in the Middle East, “they eat it with everything.” This makes sense to me.
On my internet travels I came across an apparently famous Chinese dish called the mutton or yangrou paomo; it’s from Xi’an, the result of cuisines converging via the Silk Road. Small pieces of unleavened ‘Muslim flat bread’ are an Arabian influence; the diner tears the bread into peanut-sized pieces and returns the bowl to the cook who tops it with mutton slices, spiced broth and often, glass noodles.* The dough pieces swell to form springy nuggets as they soak up the liquid. Common accompaniments are chilli paste, coriander leaves and most importantly, the pickled garlic. I was having me some of that.
The bread was a bit of a ball-ache. An e-mail exchange with Sunflower revealed that it’s usually a “heavy, griddled bun similar to an English muffin” but attempts to find a recipe failed. I considered substituting a muffin but it seemed the wrong way to approach a challenge. In the end I used the ingredients found scrawled on a piece of paper, apparently the results of a frantic searching session; I have no recollection. Cooked in a dry pan, it was dense enough to form the desired sticky dumplings rather than gummy mush.
Mostly you just need to chuck everything in a pot, but it will take a good three hours to cook, so one for the weekend. Other recipes cook broth and meat separately but I didn’t have time for that so I asked the butcher to cut up a leg of mutton and simmered the meat and bones together. Mighty black cardamom pods swelled like giant raisins on the broth, releasing their smoky, underground flavour. A lean over the pot made my nostrils buzz with chilli and star anise.
I’m pretty sure that this dish only partly resembles the real thing. I needed more broth in the bowl that’s for sure and usually the meat would be added separately before the hot stock is poured over. At least, that’s what I managed to glean from some rather dodgy translation. I do know however, that the dish is the most famous contribution of Xi’an to Chinese cuisine and apparently, served nearly everywhere in the city and also as part of the state banquet. I think it’s fair to say they are proud of it. If I’ve made it wrong or done it a disservice then I apologise but in my defence, it tasted great.
Mutton Paomo (Yangrou Paomo)
1kg of mutton (mostly chunks of meat and a few large pieces of bone)
2 onions, roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 x 2 inch piece of ginger, finely grated
1 mild red chilli, slit lengthways or chopped (I slit mine as I wanted to add chilli paste as a garnish)
200g glass noodles*
2.5 teaspoons of salt
2 star anise
A few pieces of cassia bark
3 black cardamom pods, crushed with the side of a knife
2 tablespoons cooking wine
Pickled garlic (available from Persepolis and Khan’s if you live in Peckham), plus chilli paste and coriander leaves to garnish
Trim your meat of any large pieces of fat. Put your meat, bones and everything else apart from the noodles and garnish into a large stock pot. If you want to get fancy, you could bundle your spices into a piece of muslin to make them easier to remove later on. Cover with water (mine took about 3 litres) and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer and allow to cook, uncovered for about 3 hours. After this time, remove the bones, whole spices and any remaining pieces of visible fat. I now allowed the broth to cool and skimmed the excess fat from the top. There is already enough fat in the broth to give a good flavour.
Cook the noodles according to packet instructions.
To serve, re-heat and spoon over peanut sized pieces of the bread (recipe below). Add a serving of noodles to the bowl and garnish as desired with the chilli, coriander and pickled garlic.
For the bread
300g plain (all purpose) flour
1 teaspoon salt
200ml boiling water
1 tablespoon lard, softened (by softened I mean leave it out until completely soft)
Mix all the ingredients together until you have a smooth dough. Let it rest for a little while before rolling it out into 8 pieces, about 4-5 inches in diameter. Wipe a heavy skillet or tava with oil and cook each bread for 5 minutes or so on each side until lightly golden. To serve, tear into small pieces and spoon the broth and condiments on top.
* As you can see, I only had wheat noodles.