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by Brian K. Smith with Rick Green

Bell Tower, Xi'anMillions of visitors flock to Xī'ān each year to see the incredible Terracotta Army, yet there is more to feast one's eyes upon than the city's treasure trove of venerable wonders. China's first great ancient capital also offers a unique cuisine that has developed over millennia at this cultural crossroads. Not to be missed is a dish that has become synonymous with Xī'ān's Muslim Quarter – Mutton Flat Bread Soup, whose origins legend credits to Emperor Tàizǔ (927-976).

Cosmopolitan Capital

In the centre of China, in Shǎnxī province, is the city known today as "western peace" – or in ancient times, Cháng'ān. This is where Emperor Qín Shǐ Huáng, the first emperor to unite China, established his seat of power. It's also the origin of the famous Silk Road, the most important pre-modern Eurasian trade route that connected the Middle Kingdom to the Mediterranean via Central Asia.

In the 8th century during the Tang Dynasty, Xī'ān was the world's largest city with a population of over one million. It was a cosmopolitan period in China's history and the Silk Road's golden age. Persian and Central Asian Muslim traders were welcomed and even appointed as officials. Over the centuries, their descendants intermarried with the Hàn, eventually forming the Huí ethnic group. Today the Huí are largely indistinguishable from the Hàn majority except for their religious practices. Noteworthy is their rejection of pork which is the most consumed meat in China. A common sight in the food markets of China's cities are young Huí men grilling spicy lamb skewers on charcoal braziers.

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by Rick Green

Jiao Tai Dian Crowd, Forbidden City, BeijingWhen it comes to visiting China, most people I have spoken to have only visited Beijing, the Great Wall, Xi'an, and Shanghai. Some may have cruised the Yangtze, visited the water cities of Hangzhou or Suzhou, seen the karst landscape of Guilin, or included Hong Kong because it's a nearby world city. The rest of the third largest country in the world, however, is a blank, unless some disaster brings the spotlight of international media upon an otherwise dark corner. This is a shame because China is a diverse, multi-cultural country, yet North Americans' view of it is surprisingly uniform in its limited perspective.

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by Rick Green

Dyeing Indigo Cloth in a Rice Paddy, XindiAs we entered Zenchong village, a chorus of plinking could be heard emanating from a number of houses. Even though there appeared to be no conductor, the sounds gravitated to a natural rhythm. Occasionally they would fall out of tempo, but within a short time, the cadence would be regained and harmony restored.

It was a hot, sunny day, the kind where you feel every pore in your body has opened to breathe. The village women had retreated to the shade of their homes to find some relief from the afternoon heat. Relaxing in a hammock with a cool drink, however, would be unheard of for a Dong woman. There is always work to do. In this case, it was an opportunity to labour on finishing the distinctive cloth they produce for their traditional clothing.

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by Rick Green

Rocket-fuelled woks, Anshun

Chinese food is as diverse as its geography and people. A common saying describes it as "East is sweet, South is salty, West is sour, North is spicy" (dōng tián, nán xián, xī suān, bĕi là). Southern cuisine is rice based, while the north favours wheat. Then there are the 56 officially-recognized minority groups with their own traditions. So if you are expecting the Lemon Chicken / Sweet & Sour Pork variety of Chinese food, what you actually find may be quite different.

To really get the flavour of a place, you need to go to China's small towns and villages where little of what is consumed is imported. Rather, the food represents what is freshly available in the surrounding area at that time of year, supplemented by ingredients whose life has been extended by drying, pickling, or salting. With its longer growing season, the south offers more local eating options.

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