Muslim street food adventures (eating everything in Xi’an)

We went back and forth about going to Xi’an, home of the infamous terracotta warriors (and also of China’s largest mosque).

Our vague plan for China was to head south from Beijing, follow the coast round the South East corner, and reach Hong Kong by the end of our 30 day visa.

Xi’an is 1000 kilometres South West of Beijing, so not exactly en route. The terracotta warriors sounded intriguing, but were they worth a fourteen hour train ride in the ‘wrong’ direction? High speed rail gets you from Beijing to Xi’an in five hours, but it’s more than twice the price of the sleeper — not an option on our budget.

What made up our minds (as usual) was food.

The Muslim quarter of Xi’an isn’t just, or even mainly, famous for its mosque — the main attraction here is the street food. The people’s origins further West mean the food here is a unique mix of flavours and ingredients — a little bit Chinese, a little bit Central Asian, a little bit Middle Eastern. The forebears of this community (and their recipe books) came here by way of the silk roads, more than a millennia ago. This network of trade routes once reached out from Xi’an all the way to the Western edges of the Roman Empire. Silk, porcelain and lacquerware moved West. Dates, saffron and pistachios moved East. People moved too.

So here, while the flavours are still fairly typically Chinese, you can eat things like potatoes, and bread. And here’s the clincher — instead of the limitless variations of pork steamed buns served up across most of China, in Xi’an you can find vegetarian ones. Heck yes.

Long story short, we’ve got a train to catch.

We’ve scrambled back to Beijing from our adventures on the Great Wall with just enough time to repack our bags, quaff a beer, and pop to the make-your-own-noodle-soup cafe round the corner. We’re out of the hostel with 90 minutes until our train, into the pitch black that is a Beijing side street on a December evening. It’s only a short walk to the metro, which will seamlessly convey us to Beijing West station. We’ve got plenty of time. We think.

Obliviously enjoying our make-your-own-noodle-soup.

When the first tube train arrives, it’s full. People falling out the doors full. The crowd on the train surges off, the crowd on the platform surges on, and the train is gone. We’re left behind.

The second train looks nearly as bad, but maybe… I make a split second decision to squash my way on, then look around for Arthur. I can’t see him. The doors close. As the train pulls away I glimpse Arthur and Sabine still stood on the platform. Johann, a Swedish guy we met in Beijing, isn’t there. So he’s on the train. Somewhere.


I decide to try and catch the others on the platform of the station where we need to change trains. What will we do if we lose each other completely? We haven’t made a plan for this.

Five minutes of elbows in my ribs and trying not to cause a human bowling pin situation. When I get off, Johann is there! Success. He had no idea where to change, and has been getting off and back on again at every intermediate station, looking for the rest of us.

But before too long we’re all reunited, to embark on a seemingly interminably long second metro ride. The minutes are evaporating. Surely we’ve still got plenty of time though.

An hour, forty-five minutes, forty.

Trying to exit the metro station sucks away more minutes, and we abandon the idea of returning our metro cards for a refund. It’s looking bafflingly likely that we’re going to miss the train. Panic begins to creep up on us. How did this happen? It’s the last train tonight, and we booked our places days in advance. If we miss it, we’ll have to miss Xi’an altogether.

But finally we’ve escaped the metro station, and come out blinking into a square packed with people. There’s still twenty minutes to go. We should be fine, right? If we could only find the entrance to the railway station.

Integrated transport network you say? China laughs in the face of integrated transport networks. And logical architecture. Maybe feng shui overrules crowd flow. Or maybe it’s security paranoia.

Fifteen minutes to go. You know what we hadn’t allowed for? The fact that boarding a train in China is like boarding a plane anywhere else. Passport control, first check of our tickets, luggage scanning, walking through the scanner, the pat-down. Eleven minutes to go.

Running up the broken escalators, desperately scanning the departures screen for our train number, hard to spot in a sea of Chinese characters, lit up neon red.

Still running, to our gate, into the waiting room, leaping over piles of luggage, suitcases, sacks, and oversized chequered laundry bags. At the far end of the room, the gate attendant is dragging the metal fence across the way to our train, reaching for the lock. Ten minutes tick down to nine, and we’re still fifty metres away.

But then, mercy. She sees us, and she pauses. Perhaps in horror, at the sight of four sweaty, mad-eyed Westerners in backpacks, running at her full-pelt.

It’s enough though, we’re through the gate! Down the stairs, past the second ticket check, onto the platform, third ticket check, onto the train. Eight minutes to go. The doors are closed behind us.

Into the carriage. Everyone else is already sat on their bed, shoes off, luggage stowed, looking at us with mystified amusement. The train begins to move. Seven minutes to go…

Lesson learned: in China, subtract ten minutes from your train’s departure time.

We sit on our third tier bunks, the cheapest option, heads crammed awkwardly into the ceiling, and try to stop hyperventilating. For the first fifteen minutes the conductor delivers an unrelenting tannoy announcement in as close to a monotone as you can manage in a tonal language. What could possibly take this long to explain we never learn. Then the tinny Chinese pop music kicks in over the speakers. It’s going to be a long night.

An actual sign from our actual train.

They switch the music off around midnight. Several helpful people replace it with their phone music after that. Hurray collectivism. But we do sleep. Eventually the phones fade out too, one by one, and there are a handful of precious hours of quiet.

When we wake, mountains have sprung up to the left, and on the right we’re passing scruffy rural towns, interspersed with piles of rubbish, and low hills peppered with small caves. Small caves that people are living in, in 2015. The music has started again.

The first thing we find when we leave the station in Xi’an (well, the second thing, after the scrum of taxi drivers) is a stall selling beautiful, fat, shiny, piping-hot, steamed buns. Served straight from the steamer, full of delicious. And not full of pork. We’ve arrived in the land of the tofu bao. All is forgiven China — you make a mean savoury bun.

The short walk to our hostel turns into a culinary pilgrimage. Still munching on bao, we come across a man selling big round flatbreads from a cart. They’re dotted with sesame seeds, and patterned with intricate swirls indented in the thin, crisp base. The edge is raised up in a sturdy crust, like the rim of a plate. We wonder if they’re meant to be taken home and filled with stew, but we’re hungry and the smell is too good to resist, so we eat them as they are. Chewy, savoury, warm rich sesame. Mouth watering.

Photo by Alessia Arban (@alearban on Instagram) because I ate all my bread without even thinking of taking a photo. It was that delicious.

It turns out that this is the bread of the Turkic-Muslim Uyghur community, who mainly live in and around Kashgar in China’s extreme North West. I’m not sure if there is a significant Uyghur presence in Xi’an, but there is at least one baker. Lucky for us.

Then we have to cross the road to a cake shop, where there are ALL OF THE CAKES. Tiny pastries filled with nut pastes, seed cake with just the right balance of sweet and wholesome, eggy, rich little oval shaped cakes. It’s very challenging not to buy one of everything.

And I can’t even blame our cake binge on blog research because I didn’t take any photos of these either. Can I blame low blood sugar for this? Medicinal cake, then.

After a sojourn doing our laundry, we’re back out to see what other treats Xi’an has to offer. We’re staying at a YHA right on the edge of the Muslim quarter, so it quickly transpires that the answer is many.

In the 5 o’clock dark, we walk into the heart of the street food area, past a large group of men desperately shovelling sand into a partially constructed basement. Bamboo poles prop up the front of the emerging building, which is jostling its way into a tiny gap in the wall-to-wall shophouses that line the street. Under improvised, strung-up lights, the men all work with manic intensity. My brain conjures the explanation that they must be finished by dawn, or the gap the building is squeezing into will close again, swallowing it up. Such is their fervour.

We pass butchers, tea shops, ice cream places, all busy. The streets are full of people out walking, or sat on plastic chairs eating a meal, or just taking tea together. The roads and alleys of the Muslim quarter are narrow and alive, worlds away from the wide, car-dominated avenues that we’ll soon discover make up much of the rest of Xi’an.

In fact, it will unfold over the next few days that parts of Xi’an closely fit my definition of hell: engine noise from eight lanes of traffic bouncing of the cold glass fronts of luxury stores. Smog and squashed heritage. But not here. Here I’m in heaven. Food and drink, and family businesses. Mess and joy.

Soon we reach the main street of stalls, and it smells amazing. It’s touristy, but Chinese-tourist-touristy, which is nearly as fascinating as untouristy to us. Some stalls sell trinkets. Embroidered shoes and purses sit next to mugs made of bamboo tubes, miniature shopping trolleys, notebooks made to look like passports. Instead of a nation they boast epithets: Best Girlfriend, Public Figure, Virgin.

Everyone is drinking little glass bottles of the same orange drink. No beer here. It’s crowded, but not crushing. The mass of bodies in the street flows from one snack to the next, with not too much jostling. People are laughing and shouting to each other and the stallholders. For China, this passes for relaxed.

Steam and smoke thicken the air, from the charcoal braziers and hotplates the stalls are using to cook up their offerings. On one stand kebabs are being made up from scratch, carcasses on one side, passing through several hands to emerge as sizzling snacks on the other. On the next stall tofu, rubbed with cumin and chilli, is topped with spring onion and fried on the griddle.

We start the evening with a bowl of soup in one of the restaurants opening onto the street. Ordering means bending down to see through the tiny window between the restaurant and the kitchen. We try to get some of the soup without lamb, or goat, or whatever is in the soup, and it seems to work.

Sort of.

Some plates of dry bread and empty bowls arrive at our table. Then a bowl of herbs.

That’s it.

We stare at them for a while, unsure how best to proceed. Laughter is rippling round the small, tiled walled room. Soon, the table next to us is calling suggestions. In a language that is not English. Embarrassingly, that is as precise as I can be.

Eventually a lady comes over to rescue us. You rip the bread into tiny pieces into the bowls. Obviously. We smile gratefully at our rescuer, who looks at us like we’ve never heard of soup before. Which perplexes her, naturally. Then the bowls are whisked away to the kitchen, and come back with broth in them, and lamb for some. Or possibly goat. The herbs go on top, and we’ve got ourselves some bowls of pao mo — hard bread soup.

The soup is herby and salty and light and savoury. More middle eastern tasting than Chinese to me. But I guess this is Chinese food, just not what you’d find at a takeaway. It’s so good that I want another bowl, but we’re saving space to gorge ourselves at the street stalls. And we do, oh we do.

Salty, spice encrusted tofu and savoury, chilli-laced fried potatoes. Crisp, fatty kebabs shiny with juices, sweet crumbly cakes soaked in a molasses-rich fruity syrup, and sharp-sweet pomegranate juice, served hot against the cold night.

These cakes on a stick are made of ground rice and dates. Delicious. (Fed up of that word yet? Bad luck.)

Everything smells good, and it’s hard to resist trying it all, but too soon we’re full. Plus it’s getting bone-achingly cold, and we’ve got an early start tomorrow. Bed calls.

As we’re leaving, instead of the usual testosterone laden competition to get us into a taxi, we’re propositioned by a lady tuc-tuc driver in a glamorous sparkly headscarf, jazzy patterned leggings, and neon motorbike gloves. I almost say yes, because she’s my hero, but it’s only a couple of blocks to bed, and the hope, finally, of, a good night’s sleep.

On the way back we pass the sand-shovelling building site again. A truck full of bricks has arrived. It’s 10 pm, and if anything their pace has increased. I wonder if the building will be there come morning.

Our hostel-made dumplings, look at that crimping. Skillz.

The next day we’re up early to see the terracotta warriors (which are spectacular — another post on that coming soon), and then there’s a lesson on making dumplings at our hostel, so we all get to play with dough, and the meateaters get a free dinner. But we can’t resist going back for another round of street food anyway. When in Xi’an…

This time we start off by hitting up the best fried-stuff-in-fried-bread stall ever, just round the corner from the YHA.

The idea with this (we discovered, through a mix of pointing, confused facial expressions, and trial and error) is you pick a few things on sticks from the selection, they’ll rub them in a spice mix and deep fry them for you, while also helpfully deep frying a bun to put them in.

Health food! This was good for me because I could make mine (not very strictly) vegetarian – there was tofu and plenty of veggies in the selection.

Sooo good.

Then it’s another whirling roam through the main street food area. At some point on our wanderings Johann buys some mysterious balls in a syrupy sauce from a stall. When he offers me one, I (somewhat suspiciously) ask what they are. He doesn’t know. But he’s pretty sure they’re vegetarian. They’re dessert he thinks. I eat one.

It’s OK, kind of chewy, doesn’t taste of much. Glutinous rice ball, maybe? Like we had in Nishiki market in Kyoto. The stall owner has been watching us sample his wares. When I’ve just about finished chewing he gives us a wide smile, and announces (with a little too much glee) FISH!

Oh, wank.

While we’re buying some (actual) sweets from an older couple’s stall, I absentmindedly wipe off some dirt I see on Arthur’s cheek, he flaps at my ministrations in irritation. When I turn back around to grab the sweets, the couple behind the counter are in fits of giggles. Our domestic kerfuffle has been observed. Some things don’t require translation.

When we’ve just about had our fill, and are wondering where to go next, a flash silver saloon car screams to a halt at the entrance to the pedestrian street. The man behind the wheel starts screaming at stallholders, who begin panickedly to try and move their stalls from his path. They are mostly women and old men, scrabbling to protect their wares while taking care not to make eye contact with the man who is now gesticulating wildly, and literally spitting with rage.

They are not moving fast enough for him. He flings open the car door and begins pushing stalls back towards the buildings behind them. A tray an armspan wide of those beautiful sweet date cakes is thrown to the floor. Cups of juice spill across the street. The stall owners stand passive as their evening’s earnings are thrown into the gutter. Nobody intervenes.

Should we? I don’t understand what’s going on. It feels wrong to wade in. Or maybe we’re just afraid.

Then some men come running out of what looks like a police station, only a few doors down. I expect the man to be hustled away. Instead he begins barking at the police, or whoever, and marches into the building. The perhaps-policemen start shouting at the stall owners, though with little conviction, and several stalls are wheeled off into the night. The man is inside for five minutes, then he comes out and drives off. Composed as anything, cocky even. The detritus of his attack still litters the ground.

We decide to call it a night.

On our third and final day in Xi’an we actually do some exploring of the city, but not before grabbing a multi-stage street food brunch in the Muslim quarter… You have to taste this stuff, seriously.

Doughnuts start us off, sweetly crusted, just the right balance of greasy crunch and doughy chew. Then we finally find somewhere to get one of these orange drinks everyone’s been drinking. Not knowing what they were called, we’d been trying to find them on display so we could point.

And to finish there’s something like burek for the meateaters – delicious filo pastry coils stuffed with stuff, that you find in the Balkans and around. For me it’s a spicy noodle salad. Spicy-China-spicy. It’s really good, but I have to pour the leftover dressing down a drain rather than drink it down. My eyes are watering.

And it’s in this spice-shocked state that I stumble into our first sight for the day, Xi’an’s famed mosque. More on that next time, for the moment, suffice to say that China rarely fails to surprise me.

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