While my past experiences with travel in China may have hardened my attitude toward it, there is one city that has the power to change my mind: Xi-an, a street food paradise. Despite the rude crowds and long lines elsewhere, the delicious cuisine found on the bustling streets of Xi-an is enough to make any traveler forget their troubles.
For this reason, I was prepared to forego the trip to Xi’an that my parents had planned so that I could stay home, watch The Big Bang Theory on Youku, and eat boxed mac and cheese while wearing my pajamas. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out like that, and I found myself tagging along on the Xi’an trip with my parents despite their wishes for an empty nest.
To put it simply, I’m happy I went. I was thrilled beyond words.
Even though I was pushed onto overcrowded buses (one driver started the engine before I was even on the bus), I still managed to get where I needed to go. I wish I was fluent in more obscene Chinese phrases, there was Muslim Street, also known as the Muslim Quarter, and the bullet train smelled strongly of onions for some reason; we had a major incident en route from Huashan to Zhengzhou.
Okay, so after a long day of terra cotta warriors and museums, on our second night in Xi’an, we headed to hui min jie, or “Muslim Street,” where the large muslim community in Xi’an serves up a street food bounty unrivaled by anything we’ve ever seen. Xi’an’s street food scene is a whirlwind of fire, sizzle, chili, and enormous cauldrons bubbling with deliciousness, and it’s always packed with hungry locals and visitors.
We doubled back from the main road to locate this maze of side streets. Even though it was hectic at 5:30 p.m., things were about to get even crazier as the night progressed. The first thing we saw was a woman selling fresh tart yogurt and honey that she had made herself.
At the next stand, we sampled a honey date cake that was so sickly sweet it had to be made with sweet rice. Most things that can be eaten off a stick are pretty good.
We sprang on a bag of chili peanuts and devoured them. Oh, man. You can remember Mr. Peanut and his honey-roasted whatever. Amazing things, indeed.
However, the more you proceed, the better it gets. Foods that are suitable for snacking give way to those more appropriate for a full meal. When we looked again, we found these pancakes stuffed with meat and cabbage. Indeed, they were incredible—the perfect combination of crunchiness, flavor, and heat.
Most of the meals we observed were prepared on portable, coal-powered stoves or griddles…
Flames burst from every crack. They turned up the heat with these suckas.
BBQ meats are galore! That’s the next thing we noticed. There was smoke, some bare industrial fans, and a team of grill masters making sure that everything was cooked to juicy perfection. The scale of operations ran the gamut from minuscule to… well, not minuscule. Crunchy, greasy lamb on a stick? Sure, go ahead.
The spits were turning so fast (and I mean fast) that the guy had about twenty chickens on them. Those rotisseries at places like… Like, say, at Costco? This time, multiply the speed by ten and do it over an actual fire. The hot combination of cumin, chili, and sesame gave them their distinctive flavor. I can’t remember ever having chicken that was so juicy. Honestly, it was mind-blowingly delicious. The meat was tender and flavorful, while the skin was crisp.
The flatbread these guys were making was a type of Uyghur bread that is soft, chewy, and slightly crisp due to being cooked in a cylindrical oven. They looked young, but they were experts in their field. Twenty of these were being produced every minute.
The coolness factor of these is through the roof. It’s crunchy, has a slight chew (like a bagel), and gets great flavor from the sesame seeds.
In Beijing’s Muslim restaurants, I’ve had stir-fried lamb and peppers atop this bread, and it was served to me and sliced like a pizza. A lot of people describe it as awesome.
In less than 30 seconds, he could transform small balls of dough into perfectly thin, chewy strands of noodles by hand. Watch a video on YouTube to see how to make hand-pulled noodles if this is your first time seeing them. To put it simply, it’s unbelievable.
Many different mom-and-pop shops popped up. One could buy spices from a couple, while also most likely engaging in Candy Crush.
Some fresh watermelon cubes are also included. Good for soothing your palate after consuming intense flavors.
Or to make room for even hotter stuff. Potatoes in the fryer. Everything in the same chili-cumin blend.
It looked like a bunch of dudes were busy making stuffed pancakes. They’d make you one from scratch with your preferred filling, then fry it in a pan. This photo is fantastic.
These infants were displayed in steamer baskets outside one of the quaint cafes—beef dumplings for the soup broth rather than the usual pork ones. So, we settled in for a round. Beautiful people.
It got more crowded as the night progressed. This area is large enough to spend the night strolling around in. Muslim Street is not a single street but a network of streets with a Muslim theme. In addition, there are many interesting places to explore along the way.
Traveling there is something you should do.
Now, on to the remaining culinary delights of your trip:
The first night’s meal was a memorable experience. The frequency with which we experiment with something novel is relatively low. “Pao mo” is a dish made with hard-tack-like bread; it reminds me of what the pilgrims probably ate when supplies ran low on the Mayflower. It’s so dry that eating it is a chore. But the proper way to eat it (as demonstrated by the patrons around us) is to tear it apart and heap the pieces into a bowl. Afterward, the waitress will take your torn hard tack to the kitchen, where the chef will ladle on hot soup, lamb, mushrooms, glass noodles, and vegetables. They soak it, or “pao,” until the dry bits of dough become chewy, like gnocchi or thick udon noodles.
The pickled garlic on the side elevated the flavor.
In addition to the tofu salad, we got this dish of spicy cold noodles.
We returned to the hotel and stopped at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts for some much-needed caffeine. That resulted in a strong craving for Dunkin’ Donuts.
It was too late, and the establishment had already closed. The fact that you can’t get your yearly quota of chocolate cake donuts in Beijing was a major bummer. It appears that Dunkin’ Donuts can be found in Shanghai and Xi’an but not in the nation’s capital. There was even a Baskin Robbins right next door!
Ultimately, we decided on this bakery, and I purchased a chocolate donut. This was different. The bakery was appropriately named “Pandora’s,” and a large sign out front retold a twisted version of the “Pandora’s Box” fable, proclaiming, “Pandora opened the box, and all these wonderful things came out, just like our bakery!” A rereading of the story is in order. The doughnut was tasty and filled with a purple sweet potato paste. A bit like a Boston Creme with an Asian twist.
The following day, we dined at a dumpling shop. There were many different kinds…
But here’s what we learned:
That there is a tofu dumpling if you will. It’s not a very appealing proposition. However, the “old tofu” they used is my absolute favorite variety because of its robust flavor. It tastes very much like tofu and is quite strong in flavor. Plus, the exterior was encrusted with sesame seeds and was super crunchy, making it a total win. You’re not buying what I’m saying. Okay, indeed, you can’t win them all.
On our last day in Xi’an, we walked to the train station to get out of there! Triumph!
My time in China is up.