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Spring Festival: Food Unites the Nation
Special> Spring Festival: Food Unites the Nation
UPDATED: February 2, 2008 NO.6 FEB.7, 2008
Fit for an Emperor
A humble soup with royal beginnings is now a traditional dish across China. The dish is usually served at small restaurants and snack stalls on the streets. Occasionally, it appears on the menu of banquets for visiting foreign officials

Bread in mutton soup is a popular fast food that originated in Shaanxi Province in west China. The dish is usually served at small restaurants and snack stalls on the streets. Occasionally, it appears on the menu of banquets for visiting foreign officials.

Bread in mutton soup smells good and tastes great. When a customer orders the dish, he will be given a large bowl of flat, dried breads. The bread is baked from partially leavened dough. Experts suggest that the best bread comes from a mixture of 90 percent unleavened dough and 10 percent leavened dough. The customer has to break the breads into small pieces so that it can absorb the flavor of the gravy. The smaller the pieces are, the better the result.

Once the customer has finished breaking the breads, he will return the bowl of chunks to the chef, who will soak them into a pot of hot mutton gravy. Five to ten minutes later, the chef will ladle the soaked bread chunks, and add a little, or a lot, or no mutton soup back into the bowl, depending on customer choice. A veteran customer usually indicates his preference by the size of bread chunks, the larger the chunk, the more soup the customer wants. The chef will understand the message in the bread chunks.

The chef will add mutton, sliced scallion, chopped parsley and boiled black edible fungi into the bowl. Soaked bread chunks and mutton soup can also be brought back to the table in different utensils, in which case, the customer will top the chunks with gravy before eating.

A customer must not stir or churn the soaked bread chunks, otherwise, they would look like boiled oatmeal paste. The soaked bread in mutton soup can be eaten with sweet pickled garlic, chili sauce and other side dishes.

Folktales credit Zhao Kuangyin, the founder of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) as the inventor of bread in mutton soup. Before Zhao became an emperor, he was a desperately poor man. One day, when passing by Chang'an City, which is now known as Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi Province, he was very hungry. Yet Zhao had nothing to eat but two dried streamed breads that he carried with him. The breads were too dry and hard for him to sink his teeth into. Zhao spotted a butchers' shop nearby, whose owner was making mutton soup. Zhao begged for a bowl of mutton soup so that he could dip the break into the soup. The shop owner broke the breads into chunks, and poured the boiling mutton soup onto them. When Zhao swallowed the soaked breads, he immediately felt energized and warm.

Ten years later, Zhao became the emperor. He was no longer haunted by hunger. Royal chefs prepared all kind of delicacies for him every day. One day, Zhao happened to pass by the butcher's shop in Chang'an again. When the emperor smelled the delicious mutton soup, he recalled the wonderful meal he had there ten years ago. So the emperor and his entourage dropped into the shop, and ordered the owner to prepare soaked breads in mutton soup.

The shop owner was very nervous to find an emperor descending on his humble store. The shop did not have steamed breads, so the owner asked his wife to improvise with a few pancakes. In a hurry, the wife took the pancakes away from the stove before they were well done. The shop owner broke the half-done pancakes into pieces and boiled them in mutton soup. He then flavored the soup and served it with mutton. To the panicking shop owner's surprise, the emperor was very happy with the taste, and rewarded him with lots of money. When local residents heard the news, they flocked to the butcher's shop to taste the famous soup. Bread in mutton soup has since become a popular fast food.

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