Traveling to the terminus of the Silk Road in China: super-sized soldiers, rare bears and exotic Muslim street food in the markets of Xi'an
Words and photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
(XI’AN, CHINA) - 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’ve added panda viewing in the wilds of the nearby Qinling Mountains to that list, and after 10 days of hiking and consuming a mainly vegetarian diet, I’m back in crowded urban civilization and in search of something meaty to eat. Shaanxi means “west of the mountains” and it is here – west of the Taihang range – where Chinese civilization began. Xi’an is one of the ancient capitals of China. It was the first Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who filled his burial tomb with those 8,000 life-sized clay soldiers and who united the country with a single currency. Later dynasties ventured out 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 Persia, India and Iran 2,000 years ago, and their descendants are still a prominent force in the Muslim streets of the old walled city. And whether you eat in a street stall or dine in a fine restaurant, the cuisine of Xi’an’s 30,000-strong Hui Muslim minority is a unique blend of middle and far eastern flavours.
ADVENTURES IN EATING
The Muslim Quarter begins just outside my hotel, a labyrinth of narrow streets where breakfast means a street snack of sticky rice steamed with dates, or sweet electric orange persimmon cakes, bobbing in makeshift deep-fryers. In other parts of the city, pig kidney and Pizza Hut, sit literally cheek by jowl, and you’ll get braised pork in the Rou Jia Mo buns, but around the Great Mosque it’s predominantly lamb and beef stuffed into pancakes and simmered in soup at the many food stalls that spill out of narrow storefronts. Every other shop 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 the meat we’re eating, it’s comforting too, for it’s definitely not dog (gouròu), or the other small animals we were certainly served as we traveled through rural China.
While you’ll always find food stalls, bakers hovering over tandoor ovens, and butchers along these streets, on Sunday everything is on offer – from tiny wild songbirds in bamboo cages to truckloads of Asian apple pears and flowering potted plants. Some streets specialize in vegetables, other in meats, and many in an array of hot and cold snacks.
BAKING BING AND TANDOOR BREADS
We stop where the crowds are thickest to wait for a hot stuffed bing, a fried bread of flakey layered pastry, as light as a classic croissant, that’s filled with savoury meat and vegetables. Two cooks work in tandem at a table on the street, rolling and pulling pliable pieces of soft dough into thin strips. They smear one end with ground meat and pile on a handful of seasoned cabbage and chives, then stretch the dough around it all, forming a ball that looks like its been swaddled in wide bandages.
The fat, egg-shaped parcels are 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 – only 2 yuan (about 30 cents) for a tasty treat proffered in a bag to munch as we follow the local shoppers along the busy back streets of the old city.
Though it’s still mid-winter and cold in this northern Chinese region, the weather doesn’t stop the 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 fry long doughnuts in massive woks, roll flatbreads with beautiful braided edges that go into searing tandoor ovens, and dish up bowls of the famed Xi’an lamb soup called Yáng Ròu Pào Mó.
A vendor of steamed date cakes, taking his lunch, mimes his satisfaction with a bowl of the thick stew, filled with little chunks of bread, winter greens and tender mutton. 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 mutton soup. It’s definitely a cold weather dish and on this March day steaming bowls are 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 see the flat-bread vendors on the street – some even creating spectacularly-patterned rounds to bake in wood-fired tandoor ovens – but we don’t encounter the delicious fenz heng yang ròu (also called ròu jiã mó if made with shredded pork) during our afternoon at the market. Still, the street market is the source of many of the ingredients you’ll find in local dishes.
As in neighboring Szechuan, chilies loom large in the food of Shaanxi province, and we find a friendly woman with an impressive chopping device turning piles of hot red peppers into sliced chilies, chopped chilies, minced chilies, chili powder and searing chili paste.
There are vendors grinding sacks of sesame seeds into sesame paste on the street corner, the golden brown paste gurgling out of the spout of a chugging grinder into an array of jars. And customers wait in line for fresh noodles, steamed in large sheets in huge bamboo steamers and then cut into thick ribbons by machine or hand cut into dao xiao min. It’s the kind of noodle – a fat, chewy wheat noodle – that you’ll find at the LiuXi’ang Islam Noodle House, served in a rich beef or lamb broth with lots of local chilies, chunks of meat and vegetables like meaty eggplant. It’s being slurped here and on many streets in the old Muslim quarter but you’ll also find these long noodles 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 Mapo Dòufu (spicy tofu) is often one of the tastiest (and safest) dishes to order. But there are also other interesting vegetarian options like spicy fried green beans with Szechuan peppers, fried cubes of mung bean starch (chao liangfen) sautéed with onions and chilies that look fried hash brown potatoes, sliced smoked tofu with chilies, and steamed glutinous rice cakes topped with sweet rose petal jams and peanuts, served on a stick. You’ll find 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 are 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 falls the vegetable and fruit sellers are replaced by more food hawkers – cooking over coal and wood fires, with big steamy woks and grills lined up outside tiny restaurants and shops.
XI’AN FOOD THE NEXT SZECHUAN?
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, blinking neon billboards and the smog of too many new cars. These days it seems trendy to put Xi’an food on the menu – Xi’an Famous Foods in New York and Qing Hua dumpling house in Montreal are doing a roaring business selling Xi’an-style cumin-spiced lamb burgers, soup-filled guan tang jiaozi and bowls of slippery flat rice noodles in lip-numbing broth. But nothing beats an afternoon noshing through the snack stalls of the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an.
This feature story won a national award from the Travel Media Association of Canada