Located at the terminus of the Silk Road and at one time the cultural and political capital of China, the city of Xi'an in Shaanxi province has one of the more interesting culinary histories in China, in no small part due to the influence of its large Muslim population.
The old Drum Tower acts as the de facto entryway to the Muslim Quarter, located in the Northwest quadrant of the ancient walled city. At first glance, you get a sort of Epcot Center, Disney-esque impression, what with the loud hawking and bright signs everywhere, but it's a location steeped in history: the neighborhood has housed a largely Muslim population since the 7th Century AD. Many of the dishes served have changed little since that time.
At least, that's what I hear.
You'll find sights familiar to both Chinese and Middle Eastern culture. Chefs stir-fry lamb and spices in hot woks set over blazing hot coal ovens. Nearby, hawkers roast walnuts or sell prunes of varying prices and degrees of quality.
Stacks of bamboo baskets filled with mutton and beef dumplings steam away next to fresh fruit vendors and old ladies stir-frying potatoes.
And of course, there are tourists. Tons and tons and tons of them, though mostly Chinese.
I stopped by the Muslim Quarter three times over the course of a few days to get a gauge of the best times to go and the best things to eat. If you want to see crowds and hawkers and get jostled before your meal, head there in the late evening, after 7:30 or so. Go there in the afternoon or earlier in the evening and you'll get treated better with a little more space to walk around—and food that's prepared with a bit more time and attention.
No matter how hungry you enter, you can expect to leave fully stuffed without spending more than around 40 Yuan (about $6.50) per person. Not a bad price for a night out.
Noodles come in all shapes and sizes 'round here, and you'll find noodles made from wheat flour, rice flour, mung bean starch, green bean starch, and a half dozen other grains and pulses in a variety of sauces and soups in the Muslim Quarter alone, but for my money, the best of the bunch are the thick, hand-stretched, ribbon-shaped type.
The noodles are always stretched to order, and you'll recognize the restaurants that serve them by the oiled steel tables set out in front, topped with a bucket of greased dough balls. When you place an order, the noodle-stretcher will place a few balls on the oiled table and start by flattening them out with a smooth wooden dowel.
Next, he folds and stretches the noodles as far as he can without lifting them off the table. It's remarkably like watching an expert pizzaiolo at work. Anyone who's made a pizza before knows the process: stretch on the work surface first, then finish the process by lifting it and letting gravity do the rest of the work.
In this case, it's gravity along with a bit of kinetic energy provided by vigorously slapping the ever-elongating noodle up and down.
As the noodles stretch, they get thinner and thinner. The end result is something about an inch and a half wide, with the thickness of good Italian pappardelle, though it's much stretchier and more supple than any Italian-style pasta.
The noodles are boiled for a few moments along with some shredded cabbage in a large wok set over a roaring coal fire. The cook watches the pot carefully, topping it up with a bit of cold water every time the starchy liquid threatens to boil over.
As the noodles cook, bowls are brought out from the kitchen. At the bottom of each bowl is a bit of concentrated sauce—savory, vinegary, and aromatic.
Depending on what you order, the noodles are topped off with vegetables or braised meat. Beef or mutton are the most frequent choices; don't expect to see pork here—it is the Muslim Quarter after all.
Hot chili oil is provided at the table for you to adjust the heat according to taste. The finished noodles are thick, slick, stretchy, chewy, and excellent at sopping up the sauce, a mixture that fires flavor on all cylinders, with hot, sour, pungent, sweet, and meaty aromas commingling.
You may not know it from restaurants in the West, but the Chinese are prolific consumers of things-on-sticks, whether grilled, simmered, or fried, and nowhere more so than in Xi'an, where the smoke rising from tiny chunks of lamb sizzling over coal fires competes with steam and smog as the most prevalent substance in the lower atmosphere. In Xi'an they're called rouchuan.
You can get grilled lamb or beef skewers on almost every street in the city—my wife and I spent a night sitting on plastic stools just outside our hostel drinking beer and snacking on dime-sized chunks of lamb threaded onto skewers no thicker than piano wire and sold for one yuan apiece—but you'll get a wider selection in the Muslim Quarter.
There are chunks of fatty lamb basted with chili sauce and sprinkled with cumin, dried chilies, and salt, of course, but there's also beef, mutton, lamb's liver, chicken wings, sausages of all sorts, chicken... you get the picture.
One of my favorite skewers was these: quail eggs fried in a cute little cast iron aebelskiver pan. What makes these so much better than other quail-egg kebabs?
Easy. The answer is this:
A big fat swipe of sauce, in the Sichuan mala-style, flavored with both dried hot chilies and mouth-numbing citrus-y Sichuan peppercorns.
Don't worry, even vegetarians can get their things-on-a-stick fix. In fact, the whole Muslim Quarter and the city of Xi'an in general is a haven for vegetarians in a country where meat is a symbol of prosperity.
So what happens to all those wooden skewers once they've been picked clean?
You see this every 20 meters or so:
Like many Asian desserts, these persimmon doughnuts can pose a bit of a textural challenge for Westerners. They're fried and crisp, sure, but the interiors are made of an entirely unleavened dough based on dried persimmons with a dense, chewy texture much like Japanese mochi.
Persimmon doughnut vendors will have a dozen or so varieties, each with a different filling in the center, though it beats me what they all are. I employed the usual tactic I fall back on when faced with a food choice in a language I don't understand: I pointed at the one the guy in front of me pointed at. It ended up being what I believe was some sort of slightly sour, candied citrus rind.
You know how come summer time, every high school kid in New England gets a job as a clam-fryer or lobster roll-stuffer or root beer-slinger at some seaside shack?
I think sugar-stretcher and candy-hammerer is the Xi'an equivalent of those jobs.
Xi'an is a city obsessed with nuts, and their candy reflects it. After repeatedly folding and stretching hot sugar across a hook (it comes dangerously close to touching the spit-covered street every time it stretches out, but I never once saw one of three kids fail in his mission), the candy gets transferred to a large wooden stump, where it's sprinkled with nuts.
That's when the kids-with-hammers get a go at it, pounding the nuts into the warm candy until it hardens into a quarter-inch-thick sheet.
Wanna know the honest truth? I didn't actually taste the stuff—candy just ain't my thing—so I'm not sure what it's doing on a "must eat" list. That said, it's pretty cool to watch anyway, and candy-fan Max, who encountered a rather similar dessert across the country in Hangzhou, digs them.
Braised Sheep's Hooves
I believe that it's in Disney World where there's a string of kiosks called "Shank O' the Day" where Hoveround-bound park-goers can chow down on entire lamb shanks as they wait in line for the spinning tea cups.
I don't know why I mention it, other than that it's what came to mind when I saw the piles and piles of braised sheep's feet you find on the main stretch of the Muslim Quarter—some naked, some dressed in chilies and sesame. They're gelatinous and strong, so you better be sure what you're getting yourself into before you pick one up.
Beef or Lamb Roujiamo (Steamed Bread Sandwiches)
Rou jia bing, the arepa-like steam-griddled bread split and stuffed with a wide variety of fillings (or as they call them in the Xi'an dialect rou jia mo), are a staple around here. A local downing a bowl of majiang liangpi (sesame cold skin noodles) with chopsticks in one hand and a small pork-filled bing in the other is a sight you come across multiple times a day.
In the Muslim quarter, however, you'll also see lines for bing stuffed with beef which, in all honesty, tastes like a moister, more-chopped version of corned beef.
The cook will fish out chunks of braised cured beef brisket from a vat in their kiosk and place it on a wooden chopping block before finely chopping it with a large cleaver. He then splits open a bing and spreads it with slick chili oil.
Finally, it's stuffed with some of the chopped beef.
Wash it all down with a glass of prune juice, which is sold out of bubblers all over the place.
Outside of the Muslim Quarter, you're more likely to find the sandwiches stuffed with chopped braised pork.
This was an egg and veggie-filled version I had for breakfast one day. There's a hard-boiled egg stuffed into the bottom, which then gets topped with pickled cabbage, long beans, hot peppers, bean sprouts, shredded spiced potato, seaweed, and pickled shallots.
The true staple of the city, liangpi noodles are made by first washing a wheat or rice flour dough in water until its starches are completely rinsed off. This starchy water is then allowed to sit overnight until the starches collect at the bottom. The clear water above is poured off, and the ultra-starchy liquid below is steamed until it forms thin sheets with a uniquely crunchy-but-soft texture.
Those sheets are cut by hand into thin ribbons, then tossed with cucumber shreds and bean sprouts in a sauce made with sesame paste, black vinegar, and roasted chili oil. It all gets served, inevitably, out of bowls that are first slipped into a thin plastic bag for easy clean-up. You wouldn't believe how many plastic bags the city goes through in the name of deliciousness and hygiene.
Good news, New Yorkers: the versions of this dish (and the various pulled-noodle dishes) that they serve at Xi'an Famous Foods in New York is actually every bit as good as anything I had in Xi'an.
Holy crap, fried spiced Xi'anese potatoes, where the heck have you been all my life, and please let us never part again, mmkay?
They start as teeny-tiny yellow potatoes deep fried in a large, shallow vat. At this point, they very much resemble Colombian papas criollas, a variety of Andean potato that my Colombian wife is particularly fond of. In Colombia, they deep fry them in a similar manner, until lightly crisp on the outside, then toss them with salt and serve them with Colombian ají.
In Xi'an, they take those same fried potatoes (okay, the Chinese potatoes are a little creamier and less fluffy than their Colombian counterparts) and toss them to order in a wok with a couple types of dried chili, finely ground and coarsely-smashed cumin, salt, sugar, garlic, and scallions.
The spiced potatoes are served in paper bowls with a bamboo skewer for eating on the go. These will be making an appearance in my apartment come September.
So they aren't the most delicate-skinned, expertly-made dumplings in all of China, but the dumplings in the Muslim quarter are unique in that they forgo the standard pork filling for beef or—better yet—chopped mutton. Heavily spiced and not-too juicy, the purse-shaped steamed dumplings are served with a dish of black vinegar slicked with roasted chili oil.
P.S.: The word for lamb is yang rou (beef is niu rou). Learn it well, as it'll serve you at times like this.
Bread and Mutton Soup
If you wander deep enough into the side streets of the Muslim Quarter, you'll run into a stretch of restaurants where the folks sitting at the table outside are all meticulously tearing flat disks of pita bread into tiny cubes into big soup bowls in front of them.
You've just walked by a paomo restaurant, which specializes in what is the most-interesting-conceptually but least-interesting-actually dish in the Muslim Quarter. Once you've filled up your bowl with torn bread, it then gets whisked back to the kitchen where they'll add a handful of thin rice noodles, some chopped greens, and a few slices of braised mutton or beef to the bowl before topping it up with a thick, mildly-flavored broth. You want the lamb-y kind, so ask for yangrou paomo.
If it weren't for the pickled garlic and sweet chili paste served on the side, there's be little to say about this flavor-wise. As it is, it's the kind of dish you eat when you want to be comforted and stuffed.
Fried Liangfen (Green Bean Jelly)
What are those things, I kept asking as I walked past large shallow pans filled with cubes of some sort of vegetable coated in a dark red sauce studded with chilies and scallions. Turnips? Potatoes?
Turns out those cubes were actually liangfen, a tofu-like jelly made with fresh green bean starch. It also happens to be one of my favorite foods.
To be frank, I've only ever had it served cold, usually dressed with a fiery chili sauce, Sichuan-style. This hot incarnation was a bit of a revelation. The cubes hold heat—both the kind measured in degrees and Scoville units—remarkably well, and actually manage to get nice and crispy around the edges.
Like the potatoes, this stuff is served in small paper bowls made for snacking as you walk.
Bonus! Wonton Soup and Tomato Egg Noodle Soup
Wonton soup isn't all that common, but one of the tiny restaurants on our street seemed to be hawking it, so I got a bowl. It was pretty delightful, with a rich, cloudy broth flavored with pork and tiny dried shrimp, along with cabbage, seaweed, and small, sweet pork-filled wontons.
Twice I was served a tomato and egg-based noodle soup that tasted very much like a can of Progresso beef and vegetable noodle soup, if Progresso deigned to hand-pull its noodles fresh before adding them to the broth. Not my favorite dish in the city, but that's the price you play for playing menu roulette.