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Xi'an Cuisine

There's a famous essay about Xi'an street food by Jia Pingwa, who was born in the Shaanxi countryside but later settled in Xi'an... Jia Pingwa, who writes about street food in beautiful cod-classical Chinese, who treats street food, 小吃 xiǎochī, as an inseparable part of the ancient capital's culture. When Jia Pingwa wrote the essay, there was a perception of Xi'an food, of all northwestern food, maybe, as torn up bread in a bowl of lamb soup-- I mean, that perception still exists... but.... His essay begins:

"They say southerners are meticulous and northerners are crude. If that's true, then northwesterners are even more crude, even more rough. Their language is thick, rich with falling tones. Men are swarthy and the women are thick. And the food! Vibrant; light on the sugar but heavy on the salt. Ah, this blessed land. Shaanxi! North: the yellow loess plateaus. In the middle: the Wei River plains. Heading south, the Qinling Mountains begin to rise. Looking over the vast banquet of Shaanxi cuisine, most of it seems to come from the palace kitchens of earlier ages, the estates of the Tang bureaucrats, and then from the tables of the commoners, and then the minority peoples of the province add a few dishes, and we get a few of the famous dishes from the city restaurants. It looks like the food of the north, but there are a few differences. Of course, in my hometown (a place that I've played at writing into my fiction), we never saw any great banquets or ate extravagant dishes. But as I've wandered around the province, I've eaten xiaochi like an anthropologist collecting folk songs. Just like folk songs, these xiaochi let you understand a little bit about where they came from. So, as I've got a moment of free time and can put together a sentence or two, I ventured to write down what little I know about each dish. Think of it as an unpaid advertisement, and I'll think of it as a chance to relive the experience of sitting down to eat each dish, a chance to see if I can recall the particular flavor of all those minor delicacies."

Everytime I read that, I wish I was in Xi'an.... The only real deal Xi'an place in Vancouver is in the Richmond Public Market, run by a man from Xi'an, named Mr. Duan. Under the counter of his stall is an article from a Chinese newspaper, with the headline, 《吃了就不想西安了》, eat it and you won't miss Xi'an anymore.

There's a lineup some days, people coming for 凉皮儿 liáng pí'r, flat noodles served bare bones Xi'an-style with mashed garlic and vinegar, people coming for 大饼 dàbǐng, people coming for the hundred variations on 拉面 lāmiàn. I'm going to say that Xi'an Cuisine has the best pulled noodles in the city, perfect texture. 肉夹馍 ròujiāmó is another big seller, too, of course, but we've covered that already, right? There are some weeks where I eat ròujiāmó for lunch three or four days in a row.

There's a super extensive menu, but the real obscure things (obscure for Vancouver) aren't available all the time. Stuff like, 油茶 yóuchá, a kind of sweet porridge made from toasted flour and hemp seeds, Mr. Duan says it's easy enough to make but nobody asks for it except the occasional Xi'aner, so it's only available very, very, very rarely. My favorite thing to get there is another semi-rare item, the 粉蒸肉 fěnzhēngròu, pork steamed with rice flour, with puffy bread to stuff the meat into-- it's available most Saturdays and the occasional Sunday.

And, yo, I even dusted off my Finepix and took some flicks.

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  1. Thanks for the report. Not much Xi'an food makes it to this continent. There's the 3 branches of the Xi'an Famous Foods in New York City, improbably rocketed to stardom from the basement of a small food court in Flushing by its appearance on Anthony Bourdain's Travel Channel food show, and that's probably it.

    1. I was just down at the market today having a roujiamo! I'd say that was a total coincidence, but given the number of times that you've raved about/visited this place, not a surprise at all!

      I still have yet to try the liang pi'r, which looks amazing: part of the pitfall of going at lunchtime. One totally needs to go with a ravenous appetite.

      1. Great report and as usual the poetics make it a great read. Let me contribute some pictures from my past visits a Xian Cuisine (including pics of their version of roujiamo)...

        4 Replies
        1. re: fmed

          those look good ,what are the photos of ?,i dont know the cuisine well .that goes for all the pics on here,im drooling now and need to know

          1. re: howlin

            The noodles are called liang pi'r 凉皮 which is a homemade cold rice noodle "salad" dressed in a sesame oil, garlic, vinegar dressing.

            The burgers are roujiamo 肉夹馍 which are homemade wheat buns similar to english muffins stuffed (in this case) with a pulled pork braise (hints of five spice, etc.)

            The skewers are Xinjiang (Uighur) lamb skewers - yangrou chuan’r 羊肉串 - lamb chunks skewered, then dusted with salt, cumin and chilies and grilled.

            And the buns at the very back of the first picture are pan fried beef pie - niu rou xian bing 牛肉馅饼 - yeasted wheat dough stuffed with braised beef, steamed, then pan fried flat to finish.

            1. re: fmed

              nice info thank you .i have a separate question as well .when i see what you type as chinese figures all i see is numbers in boxes .is that normal?or do i have to download something else?

              1. re: howlin

                Hhmm...I don't know. I use Firefox on a Mac and it just works. You may need to download or enable the Simplified Chinese font or something. Try this: http://chinese-school.netfirms.com/Ch...

        2. One place you should check out if you haven't yet is Peaceful on Broadway near Cambie. The proprietors are from Xi'an. The restaurant itself serves a good survey of food from the Northwest to the Northeast with a few things from Shanghai, etc....so it is not a purely Xi'an restaurant. (Understandable considering their location and target market.) They have a number of Chinese Muslim dishes. If you phone ahead, they can do lamb skewers (which they deleted from their regular menu due to insufficient demand - they were the best ones in the city).

          2 Replies
          1. re: fmed

            Yeah, Peaceful is consistently good or great. I prefer it to any Chinese food outside of Richmond or Burnaby. But... a) you know, maybe I'm crazy, but I prefer the atmosphere of a mall food court, and, b) I had a friend who worked there and their employment ended pretty acrimoniously, so, out of solidarity, I kinda avoid it.

            1. re: DylanLK

              I'm with you on the food court atmosphere. Since we have been talking a lot about street foods, a food court is really the most appropriate venue (until such time as the authorities allow street carts with real food). We are lucky to have such food courts here.

          2. I wouldn't make a very good food blogger. Yeah, I like discovering new things, but once I've discovered them, I tend to want to settle in. Today, I almost made it to the Skytrain, to ride across the bridge and take the 99 east down to Commercial and take the Millenium over to Metrotown-- almost. But I kept walking past the Skytrain station, to my Public Market, to grab some roujiamo or maybe a bowl of lamian. But! At the top of the stairs I noticed a new place: 卤至深 Lu Zhi Shen-- actually, someone had mentioned this place to me, because of the name.

            卤至深 lǔ zhì shēn is an exact soundalike of 鲁智深 Lǔ Zhìshēn, a famous tough guy in the novel 水浒传 Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn, Outlaws of the Marsh. Now you can see why it's not translated into English, right? It's impossible. Lǔ Zhìshēn's my favorite... he kills a dude in a fight because he was bullying this chick that was into, then he has to join a monastery to hide out. He gets his head shaved and monk's robes and everything, but he kept sneaking out and coming back to the temple drunk, eating a roast dog leg. His picture is on the sign.

            卤至深 lǔ zhì shēn means... 卤 lǔ, you probably know it from 卤蛋 lǔdàn, tea eggs, boiled in a dark soy sauce-y, anise-y soup until they turn deep brown... and I think you could translate 卤至深 lǔ zhì shēn as "marinated until dark," but that's a pretty rough translation.

            But what was it like?

            Well, you know, it's easy to do this stuff, right? But hard to make it really good. The duck gizzard was, you know... pretty good. No complaints worth making. I ordered a bowl of 卤牛肉面 lǔniúròu miàn, noodles with the marinated beef. The beef was, again, pretty good.. but the noodles themselves bummed me out. I know it's not a noodle place, and I know it just opened, and I probably should have been happy to get away with some pretty good duck gizzard... but the noodles were sub-instant noodle, sorta like you'd expect in that powdered Campbell's chicken soup in a bag, with soup that wasn't much better. I think of MSG the same way I think of fake breasts, I hate 'em, but if you can fool me, well, then that's okay. But who's fooled by silicone implants or yellow chicken powder? Cooks, your soup is probably good (even if a tad bland) without a bump of MSG-- stay natural! Those noodles, though. Man, I wanted to cry. You know the ones I mean, right? The mushy soft white ones. It broke my heart to be eating those noodles when I knew that every other place in the Public Market has better noodles.

            Gizzard was good, though. And, you know, they just opened, and you know, it's not REALLY a noodle place, and you know, I hate to say anything bad about a place based on a single visit.


            After that bowl of noodles, I needed to clear my head, cheer myself up, so I went to Xi'an Cuisine for a bowl of 牛肉拉面 niúròu lāmiàn. Ah. This is why I keep going here. This is why I have habits. I know what it's gonna be like. I know that they know me. I like being a regular, you know? And that bowl of noodles, best pulled noodles in the city, with a great sproingy texture and a certain SNAP to the noodles. And the soup... hey, it's nothing special, I'll be honest, but is about as good as it gets with a glug of black vinegar and a spoonful of chili oil spreading out into a Milky Way of red bubbles across the surface of the soup.

            Check out the pictures, though.

            11 Replies
            1. re: DylanLK

              LOL on the Silicone and MSG comparison. I agree...if you are going to use either, make it subtle.

              Great background on 卤至深 (which my translation S/W translates as Deep Brine which I guess is like Deep Marinate, etc.). Hard to see from the picture of the stall - is it all Chinese signage?)

              Back to Xi'an food: I should try their pulled noodles given your endorsement. I would like to try their 粉蒸肉 fěnzhēngròu, pork steamed with rice flour with puffy bread.

              Isn't there a faster all Skytrain way to get to Metrotown? (Canada Line to Waterfront then Transfer to Millenium Line to Metrotown?)...but I know what you mean. You are already in the thick of things in Richmond. You've got a sure thing with Xi'an Xaochi already.

              I was going out exploring for food today too but ended up with "our usual" - Vietnamese at Song Huong in my neighbourhood. I guess it was just that kind of a day. (I had their Bun Hen - Baby Clam Noodles with Banana Flower Salad.).

              1. re: DylanLK

                I saw this place yesterday and was a bit mesmerized by the angry mascot on their signage - thanks for the explanation.

                In terms of the soy sauce braise, I always associate it with Chiu Chow noodles (particularly the duck), so I was just happy enough to see a dedicated stand. There doesn't seem to be any Chiu Chow dedicated places in town; when we left Calgary in 2006, there was a great Chiu Chow place in Chinatown where one could get this kind of soy sauce wonderment (along with the other staples: fish ball noodles, oyster omelettes, oyster congee, etc). The only place I've ever seen carry this in town is at, of all places, the Phnom Penh in Chinatown.

                So, it's a bit heartbreaking to hear that it ain't up to snuff.

                BTW, I think you'd make an excellent food blogger...maybe that's something we should chat about sometime.

                Also: has anyone tried the claypot rice place in the Richmond Public Market? I'm completely fascinated. One of my favorite memories of winter in HK is seeing the claypots lining the street.

                1. re: clutterer

                  Yep..I noticed a number of Chiu Chow dishes in the Phnom Phenh menu (which is dominated by the Chui Chow - Cambodian food, as a matter of fact...which is a major cuisine in Cambodia...along with pure Khmer cuisine.)

                  There used to be a crypto Chui Chow place on Fraser that I only heard about after it stopped operating (it was in a Bubble Tea joint - not sure exactly where). Also on Pender in Chinatown used to be a good Chui Chow place (second floor - anyone remember this place?) that closed a very long time ago now.) Then there is the now closed VIP's on the North Shore that was pretty highly rated. (edited to add: there is the Chui Chow stall at Yaohan center too...mediocre, but they have these great deep fried wings....)

                  1. re: clutterer

                    Haha, my knowledge of Chinese literature leaves me unemployed but pays off at weird times, like explaining restaurant signboard jokes.

                    Check this place out, though. Grab some duck gizzards. They have cool stuff like lotus root slices, too. Just order noodles, though.

                    Hey, I'd love to be a food blogger, though.

                    1. re: DylanLK

                      Dylan on Vancouver Slop -- what a coup for clutterer!

                      1. re: fmed

                        If not the Slop, maybe something else we can conjure up.... ;)

                    2. re: clutterer

                      I went for a job interview way out past 5 Road today, the edge of the world, where there's nothing but warehouses and janitorial supply companies and stuff. But I found a place, in a little whitewashed warehouse strip, between an autobody shop and an industrial pressure washing company (I forget what it's really between, but you get the idea).

                      English name is Tasty Noodle House, Chinese name is 南记米线 南记米线 Nán Jì Mǐxiàn. They have a cheap lunch special, 5.95 for meat and rice, but they've got rice noodles in their name and everyone else was eating rice noodle, too. There's an order card where you choose what you want in your noodles and I saw they had a big list of 卤味 lǔwèi stuff. I got the standard beef, some large intestine, and a 卤蛋 lǔdàn, tea egg. So good! Maybe it takes a long time for a place to sell 卤味 lǔwèi, for the broth to get deep and delicious and figure out the flavors, I don't know. The pork guts were awesome, with a deep soy sauce and anise flavor, and obviously stewed with care-- the texture was great, sort of like a slightly melted balloon, which sounds terrible but is the most accurate description: sorta soft and almost creamy, with a bit of rubberiness remaining and a great SNAP when you bite through it.

                      The rice noodles were the way I like them, tough enough to tow a trailer when they first come out, but slowly softening just a bit. Still chewy. And a decent, honest soup.

                      Address is 1B-12880 Bathgate Way, so it's not quite as convenient as the Public Market.

                      Tasty Noodle House
                      1 B 12880 Bathgate Way, Richmond, BC V6Y, CA

                      1. re: DylanLK

                        Hey good luck on the interview!

                        1. re: DylanLK

                          "Sort of like a slightly melted balloon" = my vote for best description of food item so far in 2010 on this board :-).

                          Hope you get the job, DK!

                      2. re: DylanLK

                        I went to Public Market, and I had my favorite BBQ lamp skewer as usual....noticed 卤至深 LuZhishen too. but take a look at these pictures, they changed.....
                        Now they have pretty nice pictures showing their marinated food, and they have BEEF TONGUE!! I like it so much!!! the beef tongue they have is different what Guu has, but good! I don't like the small pieces, i dont know which part of the tongue those are, but those bigger slices....good!!! soft and tendon! you guys should go and try it!

                        Back to 新疆美食Xin Jiang Delicious Food, I always order Cold Beef noodles and Lamp skewer, but haven't tried anything else, what do you guys recommend? anything better than the beef noodles? by the way, I don't eat lamp except Lamp skewers : )

                        Check out the pics, guys!!

                        838 Thurlow St, Vancouver, BC V6E1W2, CA

                        1. re: Pennhxl

                          Get the fenzhengrou (rice steamed braised pork with steamed buns) at Xi'an (see DylanLK's rec somewhere on this thread. Pic attached:

                          (oops.....you can get this dish at Xi'an stall not the Xin Jiang stall. The Xin Jiang stall is merely "OK". I like the skewers better at the Xi'an place. I recall that the XIn Jiang stall has decent pulled noodles (lamian)...and when freshly made, the nan (naan) is good...but it is more often than not dry and stale).

                          Have a look at DylanLK's recs for the Xin Jiang stall here - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5963...

                      3. OK...I was yet again in Richmond today (visiting my parents) and I popped in to the RPM to try the 粉蒸肉 fěnzhēngròu, pork steamed with rice flour. Lovely - aromatic, salty, deeply flavoured five-spice braise with some nice crunchy scrapings from the bottom of the pot. The rice and pork are steamed together then plated. The glutinous short grain rice that surrounded the pork absorbed much of the braise so it acted like a flavour carrier. Comparing it to pictures on the web, the rice here was left whole compared to the more gruel-like mush that I see.

                        Here, as Dylan indicated earlier, you are given three plain (unfilled and "folded") steamed buns. You are meant to fill these buns with the pork and rice mixture and eat it like a taco.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: fmed

                          Cool... I hope you liked it.

                          Sometimes it's got pretty big grains of rice stuck to it, but not always! Even if you look at my last picture, I think it's a lot more rice mush than grains.

                        2. like the xian food when i was in china. nice to know there are some facsimile versions locally.

                          nice pics dylan! any chance we can expect more pics from you in the future? would be nice to see thee pics of the great food and locations ... hint! hint! the pics you have here definitely tells and adds to the stories you write.

                          i suppose food court here is the closes to street food in asia.
                          i was at song hung last night for the 7 beef and bun bo hue...
                          fmed, how was the president plaza food court(in particular the tianjin one)? saw some pics, any comments? the pics looks really good. event the jiao bing looks better than the crystal mall one. definitely a more northern jiao bing which uses the flat crispy wrapper instead of the chinese donut(yiao tieu).

                          cluterer i wish there was a god chiu chow congee place in town. that would be uber

                          OT, Chinese food in Cambodia was really good and incredible value, but the Chinese food in Vietnam is even better overall...

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: kfed

                            The President Plaza foodcourt is a pretty quiet, but there are a couple of active stalls with lots of customers - The Tianjin Flavour and the Sichuan stall are fairly busy. I have only tried two other stalls...but a long time ago now - the Soymilk stall in the back right and the Shanghai (I think) stall right beside. Both are meh. And recently the Sichuan places....it has some potential.

                            I had the Dan Dan Mian at the Sichuan place - nice authentic flavours and textures...not the best DDM I've had, but certainly better than most restaurants in town. Most noodle dishes are prepped fresh....however a number of Sichuan classics are served from steamtables (eg the Twice Cooked Pork, etc.). I'll try them, but I don't have high hopes. Some dishes tend to fare well in steam tables (eg braises, etc), so if the flavours are there, those dishes may be passable (or even good).

                            The Tianjin stall is a keeper though...one of the best stalls in the whole Vancouver Area food court universe. Really good stuff there in their focused menu. Busy with Chinese student clientele speaking Mandarin. The menu is Chinese-only, but the owner-lady is friendly and fluent in English. Also, Dylan's translations in the other thread cover the entire menu well.

                            I do plan to revisit all the stalls there to provide a more complete coverage.

                            1. re: fmed

                              let me know if alright to join you next time maybe with dylan too. wouldn't mind doing a thorough review myself... hehe

                              what is dylan translation thread wait let me guess use the search function. lol...

                              yes i did mention a gal i know who's from Tianjin that says she hasn't found a better spot for her native food. and mention the cook/owner here used to work as a cook/chef at a nice hotel in Tianjin.

                              1. re: kfed

                                The relevant part starts here:

                                I'm not surprised that the cook/chef used to be chef in a nice hotel. It really shows in his cooking - nice and tight...head and shoulders above the typical foodcourt fare. The owner-lady does the jianbing - it too is very good.

                                I always need an accessory belly or two when I go on these excursions. Email me (you know how to reach me.)

                                1. re: fmed

                                  i think will change my handle/nick. i'd dint give much thought, but fmed and kfed are too similar and confusing. sorry about that.

                                  thanks. good to hear.

                                  1. re: kfed

                                    kfed is fine....now mfed or even mdef I might have a problem with :-)

                          2. I thought I'd have a bowl of 凉面 liángmiàn, cold noodles, but those aren't for a rainy, grey day like today, so I went with 羊肉泡馍 yángròu pàomó, bread soaked in lamb soup.

                            I've eaten enough bowls of it, but I've never had it in Canada. When I lived in Xuzhou, there was a great, nameless Shaanxi restaurant I loved. The only distinguishing feature was a big ol' Mao Zedong portrait in the window, it was the one where he's standing on a beach, with his long black coat blowing in the wind, looking pensive, gazing into the distance. They served it in stages, with a half bowl of soup and bean starch noodles served first, with a metal bowl of stale baked flatbread in a tin bowl beside it. When you broke up however much bread you needed into the soup, the bowl got a ladle of soup on top and then you threw in your dark vinegar or chili oil, whatever. Then, if there's any bread, you can stick it in as you go. The process isn't always that involved.

                            It's pretty straightforward at Xi'an Cuisine, just order and eat. The boss knew I'd never had it before and I can't say why. It's got 2% milk-looking lamb broth that goes great with a glug of black vinegar. Chewy bread. Vermicelli. Cilantro. A couple serious pieces of fatty lamb.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: DylanLK

                              The white broth reminds me of tonkotsu ramen broth. Here in town, I've had the same soup at Peaceful and the place that preceded Beijing at Crystal Mall. Adding the vinegar really makes it all work. It's a little too plain otherwise.

                              1. re: fmed

                                Had this tonight, for the second time. It's the no.1 on the English menu i think. Something Lamb, Pancake.
                                i think the one i had had glass noodle not vermicelli. the broth is light. the bottle of vinegar was empty. and the chili oil was also almost out.
                                i think it is $6. it does fill you up.
                                It is a good spot.
                                there were a couple of new places, one dylan mention with the character caricuture face on their sign. the kidney are really good. as was the intestine. but the fact the food sits all day is a bit concerning.
                                there was also a new congee, beef brisket and XLB place. the beef brisket was ok the xlb not so much. skin was a little thick. but it was $8 for the brisket noodles and the XLB.
                                also Daniel from the Malaysian place(yummy?) bought a restaurant in Kelowna and moving there with his family. so his business/ location is for sale. i had the curry laksa there yesterday, whilst not authentic. it was very good. he does cook real malaysian chinese food. the flavor profile is about right. and the portion is generous. i'd say it is better than hawker's delight. too bad he is leaving.

                                1. re: fmed

                                  There used to be a version of this soup at Legendary on Main but I haven't had it in ages. Quite tasty, with the added attraction for me at least of cilantro.

                              2. 油泼面 yóupō miàn, oil splashed noodles: hand pulled noodles with a ton of oil, a splash of vinegar, a bit of chili, bean sprouts.

                                I still contend that Xi'an Cuisine has the best hand pulled noodles in the city, and this is a good way to enjoy them. If you have a high tolerance for oil, oil, oil.

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: DylanLK

                                  Wow, looks tasty.

                                  How would a non-Chinese reading Chinese guy order? I'm visiting for a couple of days and would like to give it a try. Is RPM within walking distance of the hotels on Alexandria Road by Mak's?

                                  1. re: taiphun

                                    Unlike other places, it has a pretty clear English menu and a ton of pictures, so it's a breeze.

                                    Easy walking distance from Alexandria. Actually, an easy walk to most good places to Richmond.

                                    1. re: DylanLK

                                      From Alexandra Rd, you can probably cut right through Lansdowne Mall parking lot to Cooney Rd. Then right on Westminster Hwy to the RPM.

                                      1. re: DylanLK

                                        I often see people walking by Xi'an Cuisine and stopping to have a look and showing some interest, before wondering next door to the Wonder Wok, where everything is on display in steam trays and there's no guessing.

                                        When I start my Chinese menu consulting company, for places like this, I'll just draw up a nice little ten or twelve item menu, with short descriptions, the English name and romanized Chinese. It'd be a nice intro to the food and representative of what most people order.

                                        Like this:

                                        1. Xi'an-style pulled noodles (Xī'ān lāmiàn)

                                        Handpulled noodled in your choice of beef or lamb broth, with cilantro and seasonal greens. Goes great with dark vinegar! $5.50

                                        2. Knife-shaved noodles (dāoxiāomiàn)

                                        Chewy, handcut noodles in beef or lamb broth. $5.50

                                        3. Braised pork in bread (ròujiāmó)

                                        Baked bread stuffed with pork braised with soy sauce, anise, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorn. A typical Shaanxi street snack. $3.50 for two.

                                        4. Lamb and bread soup (yángròu pàomó)

                                        A thick stew of lamb soup and flatbread. $6

                                        5. "Cold skin" noodles (liáng pí'r)

                                        Rice flour noodles, served cold, dressed with sesame sauce, chili oil, vinegar, garlic. $5

                                        6. Rice-flour steamed pork (fěnzhēngròu)

                                        Pork steamed low and slow with rice flour, served with fluffy steamed buns. $5.50

                                        7. Side dishes: marinated century eggs (sōnghuā pídàn), marinated pork ear (lǔwèi zhūěr), mustard greens and pressed tofu (xuěcài dòugān).

                                        Cold appetizers that go great with anything on the menu. $3.50 each

                                        1. re: DylanLK

                                          Thanks, Dylan!

                                          That is a great help. . .A Chinese menu consulting company sounds like a great idea. :)

                                        2. re: DylanLK

                                          Thanks DylanLK. I'm gonna have to take all the stuff mentioned here, write down its Chinese equivalent and try to play match up with the menu. :D

                                          Wish me luck ;)

                                          Should've paid more attention in Chinese School in my younger days.