Whilst planning a short week in Beijing both Ali and I were told enchanting stories of a place with magical street food a plenty by two separate colleagues at work. This place was none other than Xi’an, a short flight journey from Beijing and the start of the historic Silk Road. Xi’an was connected by traders on the Silk Road from as far as Arabia, Greece, the Persian Empire and India. The Arab traders in Xi’an intermarried with the Chinese and Islam was spread to the region resulting in the Hui ethnic group who, with their distinctive features, are easy to identify (the colourful hijab clad women may also be a hint).
Glowing reviews of food was more than reason enough for us to change up our itinerary, book a flight to Xi’an and spend three days sampling for ourselves what Ali’s colleague referred to as “food with that moooslim spice”. Oh by the way…Xi’an is also famous for being the home of the Terracotta Warriors, and yes that was great and all but can we get back to the real business of the food please?
The famed street food delights of Xi’an are available in its truest form in the Muslim Quarter which is location perfect. Located right by the famous drum tower the Muslim Quarter is formed of intersecting narrow roads with food stalls, restaurants, make shift trolleys and carts selling glorious food. The narrow roads also lead into traditional bazaars selling all sorts of random things (I bought a beautiful hand crafted wooden sling shot for my brother, you know, to honour all those times many years ago where I have been victim of his preferred weapon of choice in his campaign to execute maximum force with homemade tools).
|Image source: www.wanderlust.co.uk|
The ‘Great Mosque’ sits at the epicentre of the Muslim Quarter, built over 1200 years ago, it is essentially Narnia – challenging to find yet once you do, you wonder how you could ever miss it. We wandered around in circles desperately beseeching every old building to be the Mosque, until eventually we found it, in its huge grandeur covering over 13,000 square meters and beautiful surrounding garden. Located at the centre of the Muslim Quarter it is eerily quiet and serene, the bustle of the outside world muted. The Great Mosque is unique in its beauty – unlike most mosques in the Muslim world the design is not at all conventional ‘Islamic architecture’, it is completely Chinese in its construction and it is simply beautiful.
With the best of Xian’s conventional sites ticked off our list; the Drum Tower, the Bell Tower, The Great Mosque and the Terracotta Warriors we were free to indulge in the real reason for being there – the food.
I have listed our personal top 10 favourite street food eats of Xi’an from the food sampled in three short days:
1. Chinese Hamburgers: Rou Jiamo
Xian’s take on the hamburger is something to behold – slow cooked, aromatic beef is shredded and placed in a soft fluffy English muffin meets pita pocket bread and the result is delicious glory. Something so simple yet made so well, there are quite a few Rou Jiamo stalls around – follow the locals and get in queue this is a must try!
2. Fresh Sesame Seed Bread
Can anyone resist the charms of freshly baked bread? The smell wafting through the open air is enough to entice even the hardest of men. The bread on offer in Xian certainly does not disappoint.
3. Pick’n’mix Heaven
This was by far one of the more exciting and rewarding items on offer. Think of an interactive culinary experience where you are presented with tens of options of different food items laid out colourfully and neatly on trays before your very eyes. You take your own empty tray and pick whatever items appeal to you to place on your tray. These include skewers of everything from octopus, chicken, lettuce, peppers, onions and a whole load of other things in the middle. Hand over your tray for the cook to immerse into a magical metal pot with liquids and aromas wafting out and minutes later your ingredients are merged into a bread sandwich. The result is if course dependant on the strength of your ingredient choices – Ali and I tried this a few times till we formed the perfect permutation of ingredients.
4. Kebab skewers
The familiar kebab skewers are also available in plentiful supply in Xian and when we passed by a stall with a raging barbeque and tens of eager locals waiting impatiently in the queue we knew we had to see what this was all about. We were so glad we made our order for the 10 small skewers as we ended up being the last order they took as the stall completely run out of meat after that and packed up. It quickly became apparent what the hype was for – succulent beef spiced with the distinctive spices of Xian we devoured our succulent skewers in minutes.
5. Quail Eggs
Quail eggs are a staple in the Xian street food scene and has certainly made converts of us to the quail way of life. Be sure you get them made fresh to order rather than the pre-prepared lukewarm skewers many stalls will try to push onto you.
The food in Xian was the highlight of our trip to China (though we only visited Xian and Beijing – the latter we felt is an extremely overrated city which left us disappointed) and these 5 foods are just some of the favourite stuff we tried over two very short days.
For those braver than us there is another popular favourite amongst the locals that we saw plenty of people enjoy…though this is not something we’re in any rush to try…