More or less smack in the middle of the part of Xi’an that's ringed by a brooding ancient brick wall, the entrance to the city’s Muslim Quarter is marked by a grand, fourteenth century Bell Tower. Past here, and the strip of nearby shops flogging Chanel, Starbucks, Muji and Longines, it’s no cliché to say this is another world entirely. Just on nightfall, Beiyuanmen Street, the Quarters’ main, pedestrianised thoroughfare, is a 500 meter-long frenzy of noise, neons and endless human motion. Bare bulbs illuminate carts selling lu dou gao, dense mung bean cakes studded with dates, raisins, peanuts or walnuts. White-capped men work charcoal-fuelled grills that groan under skewers threaded with fatty mutton while the whoosh of gas, steam and flame from street-side wok-chefs lends a Dante-esque air. Strong-armed noodle cooks thwack heavy, stretched masses of wheat flour dough against metal counters to turn them, miraculously, into pulled noodles of perfectly consistent width and length. Confectioners crush roast peanuts and caramelised sugar into dense sheets of candy, using enormous wooden mallets to hammer them against thick slabs of wood. Others toil over little circular moulds filled with pounded sticky rice and pieces of dried fruit that are the distinctive Xi’an snack called jing gao. It’s reckoned to date back 600 years; the steamed discs of soft, fruity hot rice are slathered in a sweet, jam-like topping and eaten off thin skewers. Shop girls stack fat dried persimmons and huge red dates into neat piles. Restaurateurs loudly hawk their specialties to passers by and the streets heave with punters grazing greedily from one outlet to another as if they’ve never seen a square meal before. The air smells wonderfully of garlic, coal smoke, coriander, vinegar, chilli and cumin. Down the far end a banner welcomes local pilgrims back from their haj to Mecca.
Covering an area of just a few kilometers square, the Quarter is home to around a third of Xi'an's 60,000-strong Muslim population. Away from the commercialised main drag, its’ narrow streets and winding lanes retain a shambolic, pre-modern air. As the city at the start of the fabled Silk Road, foreign merchants and traders have been passing this way for centuries - Xi'an's Islamic history is said to be 1,300 years old. Residents of the Quarter most likely descend from those original, foreign traders; now their ethnicity is described as 'Hui' which signifies ‘Chinese ethnic Muslim’. (As distinct from the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province who have distinctly Central Asian DNA.) Not only is the Quarter chock-full of restaurants (many over a century old), halal butchers, bake- houses and clothing stores, it’s also home to ten mosques (including the historic Great Mosque, the largest in all of China) and their clergy, schools and produce markets. Pork and hard liquor are no-goes (although a few places sell beer); most locals favour a bright orange, sickly soft drink called Ice Peak. This is a close-knit community, where everyone seems to know everyone else and the border between street life and home is blurred by that bond that comes from living in extremely close quarters. And from sharing a minority status in a big city. It’s hardly an unfriendly place but the Quarter marches to it’s own tune and this can make even Chinese Xi’an-ites feel like outsiders.
Elsewhere in China, particularly in major cities, redevelopment has forced the decline of street -food life. “Not here,” a local woman tells me. “They (the government) wanted our streets to modernise, to have tall, new buildings. But we prefer the way things are and we don’t want change.” This resistance translates to not only interesting streetscapes, local colour and architecture (some buildings date back to the Ming Dynasty) but one of the most compelling neighbourhoods in all of China for food. There are dozens upon dozens (some claim 1,000!) regional dishes and snacks in Xi’an and numerous are unique to the Muslim community.
Many restaurants specialise in, or are famous for, just one dish. Jia San for example, decorated with photos of Xi’an notables who have come to dine over the years, is the place for guan tang baozi, a thin-skinned steamed bun with a soupy meat filling inside. Not unlike xiao long bao, the famous Shanghainese soup dumplings, these are notoriously tricky to make. Others concentrate on rou jia mo, the so-called Xi’an hamburger, featuring shredded meat (lamb or beef) cooked for hours in a stock that can contain up to 40 flavourings and is commonly decades old from re-use. Cooks jealously guard their formulas. Or dumplings in sour soup, a Xi’an specialty involving a complex, vinegary broth (think star anise, fennel, cloves, cassia, Sichuan peppercorns, sesame, ginger, garlic, chilli oil) and 24 or so boiled, mutton-stuffed dumplings. These foods all have their own history and stories. Biang biang mian (or ' belt’ noodles) are named for the sound made when dough is stretched and slapped against a wooden surface to achieve noodles of prodigious length (around 1 meter) and width ( 4 cm or so). Just 2 or 3 of these are enough to fill a bowl, and they come topped in a variety of ways; they’re arguably tastiest with an oily-chilli-lamb sauce and plenty of green onions. The character for biang is the most convoluted in the entire Chinese language. It takes 58 separate brushstrokes to execute and not many can actually write it.
We’ve been to the Quarter plenty of times but it still helps to have a guide to untangle the streets and mind-boggling eating options- although there's much to be said for simply getting lost. It also helps to hit the place early. If the evening is all about steam, smoke and the crush of too many bodies, mornings are comparatively serene. Linda, a friend who works as a local guide squiring tourists around the regions’ famous sites, is relieved to have a break from warriors, mountains and temples to walk us around. She laughs as she explains how Chinese visitors to the Quarter are known to prep their stomachs with a special pharmaceutical that allows them to eat way beyond any normal capacity. We can’t think how this works (and don’t really want to) but wish we'd been so smart. Even breakfast here is hefty and our all-time favourite is a serve of Mrs Zhao’s pounded sticky rice cake. Now in her fifties, Mrs Zhao has been making two versions of this treat for 30 years, starting at 5am each day and selling from an unassuming cart on Xiyangshi Street, just off the main drag. As the subject of various press articles, she’s a local legend and is disappointed to learn we've not seen her interviewed on the local networks. Her feng mi liang gao are diamonds of tender rice filled with red bean and crusted in ground peanuts and sesames; the plainer feng mi zong zi version is cut to order, using silk thread, from a large, compressed log of rice that weighs several kilos. A serve of each, piled in a small polystyrene box, is drenched in thick honey-rose syrup and eaten using toothpicks. Other itinerant vendors are busy hawking another riff on the rice pudding theme called zeng gao, a traditional Shaanxi breakfast of long-steamed layers of sticky rice, red beans and dates dished directly, piping hot, from the gigantic zeng, or metal cooking pot.
The Quarter’s favourite breakfast, and one we can never fully get our heads around, is a steaming bowl of hu lu tau. This rustic, thick soupy-stew of sheep's intestines, tripe and vegetables (cabbage, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes) isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s offaly smell is strong and it contains merciless wallops of chilli and sichuan pepper. Consistency-wise, it's best described as gloopy but is consumed here with great enthusiasm; it's no doubt perfect fortification against frigid Xi'an winter mornings.
Breads, of all sizes and shapes, are a feature of the Quarter. Bakers work coal-fueled tandoor-style ovens and turn out crusty rounds of golden nang, the size of dinner plates. Thick, pancake-like rounds of qian xian guo kui lie stacked on cloth-lined tables, their crisp, burnished exterior said to resemble a chrysanthemum. Numerous vendors make our favourite, jin si bing. They're fashioned by tightly rolling thin, long, oiled pieces of dough into tight coils, then flattening them with the heel of a hand into a fat disc. Then, they're fried in lashings of oil until crisp, greasy and golden- bakers make the technique (which results in fine, crunchy layers, not unlike puff pastry) look easy. Xian bing, a great snack option, are large fried flatbreads, their thin crust stuffed in a variety of savoury ways (dill, beef mince, scrambled egg and glass noodles for example).
Snacks are seemingly endless in their variety. Xi’an’s version of guo tie, or pot stickers, are oblongs of dough, crusty on the base and fluffy-white on top. Colourful fillings (of carrot, chopped greens or minced meat) peek out from open ends. The region’s famous ‘fire crystal’ persimmons, so called for the colour and clarity of their pulpy flesh, are fashioned into shi zi bing, an addictively sweet fried cake. Made by mixing persimmon puree with flour into a soft dough, they’re stuffed with osmanthus or rose-infused sugary fillings (sesame, walnut, or red bean for example ) then cooked until they’re crisp on the outside and the interior has melted into a syrupy, fragrant goo.
By mid-morning, tables of punters are sitting streetside, inhaling steaming bowls of fen zheng rou, a mushy steam-up of marinated bits of beef and spiced, toasted wheat flour. Others slurp qishan shaozi mian, one of Shaanxi’s most famed noodle dishes; it requires skill to form the ultra-fine egg noodles by hand using a special metal rod. Cooks roll out 2 kilos of dough at a time, slicing the thin sheets with deadly precision using a cleaver, before tossing them through a pot of rich, red, hot-sour soup brimming with garlic, tofu, lily buds, seasonal vegetables, wood ears and plenty of coriander.
Chao liang fen, big chunks of stir fried bean jelly, are dished up by the bowlful from vast pans, golden with soy sauce, vinegar, mustard and dried chilli. It’s one of the daintier offerings in the Quarter and Linda tells us that this, and liang pi, a cold starch-based noodle, are especially popular among local women wary of eating anything too heavy. Liang pi, she explains, is popularly dressed with a sesame-based sauce that manages to hit every sweet/salty/sour/herby/nutty note imaginable and is utterly delicious. The pungent, nutty sauce starts life in the Quarter’s diverting back alleys, where small-time producers make maijiang, or dark sesame paste. Although these days the stone-mills used for grinding the seeds are motorised, it’s still a laborious process and one that sends the roasted fragrance of the paste, sold in small glass jars, wafting enticingly about.
If there is one dish synonymous with Xian’s Muslim Quarter, however, it’s yangrou paomo, or, literally, " soaked bread with mutton." To call this a soup is like describing the Hope diamond as a lump of carbon; preparing the components requires time and care and its consumption is inextricably linked to local social ritual. Linda takes us to a functional canteen called Lao Mi Jia Paomo, for what she promises is “the best paomo” in the area- and that’s a big claim. It’s not even midday and the place is heaving, both inside and out. They put through 2,000 bowls of paomo each day. The soup begins with stock, a complex brew of lamb or beef bones, plus spices, that bubbles away for 12 hours. There are separate pots of tender, simmered mutton or beef which get tossed to order in a wok with tiny torn bread, bean thread noodles, dried mushrooms, lily buds, soy, vinegar and green onions. In goes teh stock and voila. Paomo.
It's not that easy however as this is a dish that requires commitment from the diner. Before they can eat, a big, empty bowl and 1, 2 or 3 rounds (depending on hunger) of hard white bread, called mo come to the table.The aim is to break the mo into the tiniest pieces possible; “the size of a bee’s head” or “the size of a soy bean” are both good measures, Linda says. The size, she explains, affects the eating quality of the final dish. We ask a couple next to us, half way through conscienciously crumbling several breads each, how long this is taking them. “45 minutes” they say, without looking up. Those who don’t fancy finger-ache from tearing up all that hard breadopt for machine cut mo but purists frown on this. Once our bread is done, ours maybe not bee's-head small, we take our bowls and a numbered tag for identifying our cooked soup, to a window in the kitchen. We collect free dishes of tang suan (pickled garlic) and chilli paste as accompaniments and wait. We’ve gone the whole hog and ordered you zhi (“premium”) paomo which means a better cut of meat and more of it. At 28RMB ($4.30), it’s hardly stretching the budget although locals consider this a scandalous price. Our soup, an immense bowlful, arrives and instinctively we grab spoons to stir it. “NO!” warns Linda. “You’ll ruin the texture.” With a spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other, she demonstrates the fine art of eating paomo- slowly, working from the outside in, and disturbing the bread as little as possible. Every so often we blast our palettes with a nibble of crisp pickled garlic. The owners’ wife steps over and asks if we like their paomo as much as Xian's Terracotta Warriors and we don’t have the heart to tell her we've never actually seen them. We don’t expect her to understand laowai who can never seem to get out of the Muslim Quarter, with its never ending food discoveries, to see world class archeological treasure. Because even we know how ridiculous this sounds.
Lao Mi Jia, Bei Guang Ji Jie, No 277
THE place for paomo, and for diving right in amongst the local vibe.
Tong Sheng Xiang, Bell and Drum Tower Square
Another paomo venue. Head upstairs for more comfortable surrounds, and a more extensive menu, than in the casual canteen below.
Gao Jia Kao Rou, Dapi Yuan, No 5
Excellent BBQ, although it only opens at night. Find it down an alleyway off Dapi Yuan.
Jia San Guangtang Baozi, Beuyuanmen No 93
Legendary eatery that’s forged its reputation on guangtang baozi, although many other local staples are on the menu.
Quan Sheng Zhai, Xi Yang Shi 48
A fantastic bakery where you can taste local, handmade Xian cakes and sweets. Such as Swan Eggs, a small pastry oval stuffed with fruits, nuts, sugar and lard and crusted with bright red sugar.
Melody Hotel, 86 West Street Road, www.melodyhotelxian.cn
A comfortable, well-appointed budget option right across the road from the entrance to the Muslim Quarter- the Airport shuttle bus leaves from just outside.
Bell Tower Hotel Xi’an, Nan Da Jie No 11 www.belltowerhotelxian.com
A reliable four star with all mod-cons in a stellar downtown location; the Muslim Quarter is a 5 minute walk away.