© Cinda Chavich
Connect the pots
Browse the food stalls in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter and discover where Middle and Far Eastern flavours meet
When visiting Xi’an, a city in China’s central Shaanxi province, they say you must see the Terracotta Warriors and dine on dumplings. I added panda viewing in the wilds of the nearby Qinling Mountains to the list, and after 10 days of hiking and a mainly vegetarian diet, I returned to crowded urban civilization, in search of something meaty to eat.
Xi’an is one of the fastest growing cities in China, an industrial and high-tech centre, sprouting out of a forest of construction cranes and filled with modern shopping malls, neon billboards and the smog of too many new cars.
But it is also here, in Shaanxi, meaning “west of the [Taihang] mountains,” where Chinese civilization began. Xi’an is one of the four ancient capitals of China. It was the first Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who filled his burial tomb with 8000 life-size clay soldiers and who united the country with a single currency and writing system. Later dynasties ventured over the mountains, establishing the trade route to the west from Xi’an, the last stop on the famed Silk Road.
Xi’an welcomed traders from faraway India and Persia 2000 years ago and their descendants are still a prominent force in the Muslim streets of the old walled city. And, if you eat in a street stall or dine in a fine restaurant, the cuisine of Xi’an’s 30,000-strong Hui Muslim minority offers a unique blend of middle and far eastern flavours.
Baking bing and bread
The Muslim Quarter, just outside my hotel, was a labyrinth of narrow streets where breakfast means sticky rice steamed with dates or sweet electric orange persimmon cakes, bobbing in makeshift deep-fryers.
In other parts of the city where pig kidney and Pizza Hut literally sit cheek by jowl, you’ll get braised pork in rou jia mo buns, but around the Great Mosque it’s predominantly beef and lamb stuffed into pancakes and simmered in soup at the many food stalls that spill out of small storefronts.
Every other business seems to be a butcher shop, and while the bloody sides of beef and lamb hanging on big meat hooks, and tables piled with offal are graphic reminders of the origins of our lunch, it’s comforting too, for it’s definitely not dog (gouròu), or the other small animals we were certainly served as we travelled through rural China.
While you’ll always find food stalls and bakers hovering over tandoor ovens and butchers along these streets, on Sunday everything is on offer: flowering potted plants, truckloads of Asian apple pears, tiny wild songbirds in bamboo cages. Some streets specialize in vegetables, other in meats and many in an array of hot and cold snacks.
We stopped where the crowds were thickest to wait for hot stuffed bing, fried bread of flakey layered pastry that’s as light as a croissant and filled with savoury meat and vegetables. Two cooks worked in tandem at a table on the street, rolling and pulling pliable pieces of soft dough into thin strips. They smeared one end with ground meat, and piled on a handful of seasoned cabbage and chives then stretched the dough around it all, forming a ball that looked like it was swaddled in wide bandages. The fat, egg-shaped parcels were then flattened into thick rounds and fried in a hot griddle until golden on both sides and steamy in the centre like a meaty version of a traditional onion pancake. The show is as impressive as the price — about $0.35 cents; we munched as we followed local shoppers along the busy back streets of the old city.
Though still mid-winter and cold in this northern Chinese region, the weather doesn’t stop food vendors and farmers from selling their wares outdoors. Wearing thick insulated coats, big aprons and covers over their sleeves to the elbow to protect from greasy spatters, women fried long doughnuts in massive woks, rolled flatbreads with beautiful braided edges to bake in searing tandoor ovens and dished up bowls lamb soup called yáng ròu pào mó.
A vendor of steamed date cakes mimed his satisfaction with a bowl of the thick stew filled with chunks of bread, winter greens and tender mutton when I looked curiously at his lunch.
This is one of the most famed Muslim dishes of Xi’an, but you need to know the drill. Take the unleavened naan bread you’re handed and break it up into small bits in your bowl then the cook will ladle in the thick soup. It’s definitely a cold weather dish and on this March day steaming bowls were being slurped all along the street, topped with extra sweet pickled garlic and chili paste to up the warming ante.
On the Air China flight that brought us from Bejing to Xi’an, we were served the famous Xi’an-style “hamburger:” salted and smoked, or slow-cooked, lamb pieces served between two small pan-fried flatbreads. We saw the flat-bread vendors on the street — some even creating spectacularly-patterned rounds to bake in wood-fired tandoor ovens — but we didn’t find the delicious fen zheng yang ròu (or ròu jiã mó if made with shredded pork) during our afternoon at the market. Still, the market is the source of many of the ingredients found in local dishes.
It’s all in the ingredients
As in neighboring Szechuan, chilies loom large in the food of Shaanxi province and we met a friendly woman who was turning piles of hot red peppers into sliced chilies, chopped chilies, minced chilies, chili powder and searing chili paste with an impressive cutting device.
There were vendors grinding sacks of sesame seeds, the golden brown paste gurgling out of the spout of a chugging grinder into an array of jars. And customers waited in line for fresh noodles, steamed in large sheets in huge bamboo steamers and then cut into thick ribbons by machine or hand into dao xiao min.
It’s the kind of noodle — a fat, chewy wheat noodle — that you’ll find at the Liu Xiang Mian Noodle Restaurant served in a rich beef or lamb broth with lots of chilies, chunks of meat and vegetables like eggplant. It was being slurped here and, on many streets in the old Muslim Quarter, we found these long noodles served in liángpí, cold noodles with chilies, sesame paste and cucumber, or hand-pulled into broad biang biang noodles with soy sauce, pepper paste and cilantro.
Tofu looms large on these Muslim menus and mápó dòufu (spicy tofu) is often one of the tastiest (and safest) dishes to order. But there were other vegetarian options like spicy fried green beans with Szechuan peppers, fried cubes of mung bean starch (chao liang fen) sautéed with onions and chilies which looked like fried hash brown potatoes and steamed glutinous rice cakes topped with sweet rose petal jams and peanuts served on a stick.
We found preserved duck eggs, encased in a shell of salted mud and straw, barbecues bristling with skewers of beef and lamb, and sweet nut brittles loaded with local walnuts and cashews. There were stalls filled with spices and bins of tea leaves, piles of cabbages and leeks, feathery black fungus and shiny silver fish dumped on the sidewalk.
As night fell, the fruit and vegetable sellers were replaced by more food hawkers, cooking over wood and coal fires with big steamy woks and grills lined up outside tiny restaurants and shops. But, for me, nothing beat an afternoon noshing through the snack stalls of the Muslim Quarter.
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