For food lovers, Xi’an is all about lunch
Everyone I know loves to visit Xi’an. The Terracotta Warriors are a must-see whether you are Chinese or a foreigner, and attractions like the Big Goose Pagoda and the still-intact city walls are a treat to explore by foot or bicycle.
But the thought of going to Xi’an makes me smile for a different reason: It makes me hungry. For me, no trip to the fabled gateway to the old Silk Road would be complete— or worthwhile — unless I could spend at least half a day roaming the Muslim quarter. The warrenlike streets between the drum tower and the city’s GreatMosque have been home to the Hui community for centuries.
This is a street-food paradise, where rouchuan (kebabs) are ubiquitous, cheap and delicious. The vendors are mostly too busy and too reserved to be shouting at passers-by — this is not your big-city Silk Market — but they’d have plenty to shout about if they were so inclined. The lady onmy left has gorgeous dried fruits, including beautiful doughnut-shaped persimmons lined up in rows — the sort that caravan drivers heading for Kashgar snacked on centuries ago.
The fellow at the next stall is serving up bowls of cold noodles in sesame sauce as fast as he can dish them up, while other vendors have a huge variety of candies and pastries that evoke a Turkish bazaar.
It’s a challenge to keep my feet moving as I pass these: I have a sweet tooth that prompts me to stop for a nibble at every one. Most irresistible are the stalls where sesame candy is made on the spot.
This usually involved two or more young fellows with big wooden mallets, which I had not previously considered to be part of a candy-maker’s art. But there is an art to pounding sesame insensible: The choreography that keeps the hammerers from hitting each other, the rhythmic BAM! BAM! BAM! echoing down the street, and finally the delicious sweets that emerge after the sesame paste is pounded into chewy blocks.
There are plenty of sit-down restaurants too. You’ll want to stop in at least one for a bowl of yangrou paomo, the distinctive soup that sends the aroma of spicy boiled lamb drifting through the neighborhood. It’s made by crumbling a flat loaf of bread into a bowl and then adding noodles, mutton and broth. I like to get it at the smallest eateries, because the cook is usually wrestling a big wok over an equally big fire right out front, instead of behind the dining-room wall.
This may be humble fare, but like at a five-star restaurant, sometimes presentation is all.
This weekend marks the start of Ramadan, when faithful Muslims abstain from food during daylight hours. That will slow down the usual hubbub of lunchtime. But you can expect the innate joy of Damaishi Jie and its adjacent alleyways to burst into life as the sun goes down — and the pious come together to break their fast.
Roadside shops at the Hui community in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, are a street-food paradise.