I’ve become rather cynical when it comes to traveling in China. You can only be shoved onto a packed bus or shamelessly cut in a ticket line so many times before you want to just call the whole thing off and go home to your blissfully empty apartment. So when my parents were planning a trip to Xi’An, I was ready to opt out–to veg out for a weekend, catch up on Big Bang Theory episodes on Youku, and eat boxed macaroni and cheese in my pajamas. It didn’t really end up working out that way, as I was persuaded to go on the Xi’an trip anyway–an unfortunate 23-year-old tagalong to my otherwise empty nester parents.
I’m glad I went. Really glad.
Because even though I did get shoved onto crowded buses (one bus driver started driving away before I was even on the dang bus. I wish I knew more Chinese curse words.), and the bullet train smelled pretty strongly of onions (not sure what that’s about), and we had a pretty big mishap on our way from Huashan to Zhengzhou (old Billy’s gonna write a post on that little fiasco), there was: Muslim Street, or the Muslim Quarter.
Prepare yourself. This is a monster of a post–over 40 photos. Because everything was so amazing, I just had to share it all with the world. Two days. Lots of things to eat. This post mostly focuses on the Muslim Street experience, but I’ll also mention some of the other things we tried while in Xi’an.
Okay, so on our second night in Xi’an, after a long day of terra cotta warriors and museums (another post on the actual travel part of the Xi’An trip coming soon! – UPDATE: see the post here!), we headed to hui min jie, or “Muslim Street,” where the large muslim community in Xi’an serves up a street food bounty unsurpassed by anything we’ve ever seen. Bustling with hordes of hungry locals and tourists alike, this Xi’an street food scene is a whirlwind of fire, sizzle, chili, and vast cauldrons of bubbling deliciousness.
We made our way back from the main road towards this labyrinth of narrow streets, and found it. At about 5:30 PM, it was already crowded, but it would become even crazier as the night wore on. One of the first things we saw was this lady selling homemade, tangy yogurt and honey.
We tried out this weirdly sweet honey date cake made from sweet rice at the next stall. I maintain that any kind of food on a stick is generally pretty decent.
And then we pounced on a bag of these spicy chili peanuts. Oh man. Forget Mr. Peanut and those honey roasted whatevers. These are amazeballs.
As you walk further down, however, things just get better and better. You go from the snacky kind of foods to the hot, sizzly, meal kind. The next thing we saw were these meat and cabbage-filled pancakes. They were amazing (recipe coming soon! – Update: the recipe can now be found here!). Crispy, flavorful, and slightly spicy.
Most of the cooking we saw was being done on small coal-fired stoves or griddles.
…With fire shooting out of every crevice. These suckers were hot.
Oh, the plethora of grilled meats! That’s what we noticed next. Smoke, bare industrial fans, and dedicated grillers making sure everything was cooked and seasoned to juicy perfection. Operations ranged in size from tiny to…not tiny. Crispy, fatty lamb on a stick? Yes please.
This guy had about twenty chickens roasting on these rapidly turning spits (when I say rapid, I mean rapid. You know those rotisseries at like…Costco or something? Multiply that speed by 10), over an open flame. They were flavored with a spicy mixture of cumin, chili, and sesame. I don’t think I’ve ever had a juicier chicken. It was SO freakin’ good. Crispy skin, tender meat, and amazing flavor.
These guys were making a kind of soft, chewy, slightly crisp Uyghur flatbread, cooked on the inside of a cylindrical oven. They seemed pretty young, but totally professional. They were churning out 20 of these a minute.
These are really awesome. Crisp, slightly chewy (kind of like a bagel), and really tasty from the sesame seeds.
I’ve been to muslim restaurants in Beijing, where they serve stir-fried lamb and peppers on this bread and cut it up like a pizza. It’s pretty kickass.
This lady had a teeny tiny cart with a griddle on top of it and she was making tie ban dofu, a griddled tofu dish with chili and scallion (Update: we have a similar recipe here! Can you tell we liked what we saw in Xi’an?).
A photo of bowls of noodles waiting for meaty broth to be poured over them…
This guy was hand pulling noodles, turning little lumps of dough into perfectly thin, chewy strands in under 30 seconds. If you’ve never seen someone hand-pull noodles, look it up on Youtube. It’s incredible.
Small businesses were everywhere. This couple was selling spices. And probably playing Candy Crush.
Cups of fresh watermelon. Useful to cool off after all the spicy stuff.
Or to help make way for MORE spicy stuff. Fried potatoes. All in that same mixture of cumin and chili.
These dudes were making filled pancakes. You could choose your filling and they’d make one with fresh dough and fry it on a griddle. I love this picture.
And theeennn, we saw these babies stacked up in steamer baskets outside one of the little sit-down joints. Soup dumplings made with beef instead of the usual pork. We sat down for some.
They were lovely.
As the night wore on, it only seemed to get more crowded. This photo was taken at 10:23 PM. You can really walk around in there for a whole night. Muslim street isn’t just one street, but a bunch of interconnected ones. And there are tons of little shops and things to stop in as you walk.
We highly recommend a visit.
Ok…to the rest of the trip’s food:
The dinner we had on our first night was interesting. It’s not actually that often that we’ve tried something we’ve never seen before. It was “pao mo,” which is this dish involving a hard-tack-like bread–something I imagine the pilgrims were eating when things got scarce on the Mayflower. You can barely eat it, it’s so dry. But what you’re actually supposed to do (we took cues from the surrounding clientele) is rip the thing into little pieces and pile it up into a bowl. The waitress then takes your ripped up hard tack, brings it to the kitchen, and the chef pours hot soup, lamb, mushrooms, glass noodles, and veggies over it. They let it “pao,” or soak, until those little dry bits of dough have transformed into these chewy things with a texture similar to gnocchi or a fat udon noodle.
It was actually pretty good.
And they served it with lots of pickled garlic.
We also ordered this spicy cold noodle dish and a tofu salad. They were pretty similar to our Cold Sesame Noodles, and the tofu salad was a spicy version of this salad that we posted a few months ago.
On the way back to the hotel, we passed by a Dunkin’ Donuts. Which really made us want Dunkin’ Donuts.
Unfortunately, it was late, and the place was closed. Which was a huge bummer because I wanted my yearly chocolate cake donut allowance, and you can’t get it in Beijing. They’ve got Dunkin Donuts in Shanghai and Xi’an apparently, but not in the capital. There was even an attached Baskin Robbins!
We settled for this bakery, where we bought a chocolate donut. It wasn’t the same.
It was called “Pandora’s Bakery” and there was a big sign at the front explaining a really misguided version of the “Pandora’s Box” story: “Pandora opened the box and all these wonderful things came out, just like our bakery!” I think they need to go back and read that story again. In any case, the doughnut was good; there was purple sweet potato paste inside of it. Kind of an Asian take on a Boston Creme. Ish.
The next day we went to a dumpling place. They had several varieties…
But the revelation was these:
That, my friends, is a tofu dumpling. It doesn’t sound particularly enticing, I know. But they used this really flavorful “old tofu,” which is my favorite kind. It has a really strong tofu-y taste. And with that crispy, sesame encrusted outside, it was kind of awesome. I get the sense I’m not convincing you. Eh, you can’t win ’em all.
On our final day in Xi’an we were headed toward the train station to get the heck out of dodge when, lo and behold! Triumph!
I’ve been in China too long.