Xian Street Food - The Glutton Returns

This, my last post from Xi'an, is a loving tribute to all the street foods I ate in and around the Muslim Quarter (Huí Fāng - Muslim Street). Some, like the persimmon cakes, I tried again, possibly more than once (in the interests of trying the different flavours you know), and some are new eats I didn't get the chance to try on my first epic Glutton's Journey through the foods of the Muslim quarter. Enjoy.

Stepping through the gateway of the Muslim Quarter is to enter a world that looks, smells and tastes very different to the world outside it. Men in white embroidered skullcaps spill out of mosques as prayers finish, women in headscarves stand gossiping on their way home with the shopping, and old men, in thick-rimmed glasses, sit quietly smoking and watching it all happen. The streets are filled with the steam and charcoal smoke of hundreds of street food stalls, and the scents of cumin, chili, and char-grilled lamb fill the air.

First up is one of Xi'an's most famous dishes - yáng ròu pào mó 羊肉泡馍 - consisting of a richly fragrant lamb broth, in which the lamb has been cooked with spices for at least 24 hours. The meat pieces, as soft as butter, are placed in the bottom of the soup bowl with noodles and some coriander. Alongside the soup are several bowls of condiments - spiced chopped pickles, and roasted chili and sesame paste you can add to taste. With your soup comes a basket of flatbreads, warm from the oven, which you traditionally tear into small pieces and drop in your soup where they can soak up the meaty goodness of the broth.

Persimmon Cakes - -shì zi bĭng 柿子餅 - are one of my all time favourite street foods! The soft ball of orange persimmon dough is filled with a dry mixture of granulated sugar and one of several fillings - black sesame, peanut, rose petal or walnut, then pan-fried until the outside is crisped and the filling melts to a sweet sticky syrup which oozes out when you take a bite.

Peanut cake, and walnut cake - huā shēng gāo 花生糕 and hě tao gāo 核桃 糕 - are delicious flaky sweets made with nuts, sesame paste and sugar, much like halva. It's interesting to see the influence of the Middle East on foods brought in by the Silk Road.

Fan Ji La Zhi Rou Jia mo - famous Xian rou jia mo restaurant on Zhu Ba Shi, near the Drum Tower

And introducing a new favourite - ròu jiā mó 肉夹馍 - a warm flatbread, stuffed with shreds of slow cooked meat, either pork or lamb, with a slick of gravy. It's a tender, juicy, roast meat sandwich with loads of rich buttery juices that would run down your arm if it weren't for the handy greaseproof paper bag. 

This very friendly gentleman is selling thin slices of a glutinous rice cake, coloured with saffron, and flavoured with a syrup made from dates and rosewater. Served cold on a skewer, it's a surprisingly delicious snack. The gent told me it was hui huā gāo (回花糕) which I took to be literally Muslim flower cake. When I asked our guide Melanie the next day, she thought it was more likely mei huā gāo (糕) - plum blossom cake. Either way, it was the surprise find of the night, because frankly, it doesn't look like it would be that tasty.

Red dates, known also as jujubes (hóng zăo 棗) are available at every street stall in Xi'an because they're grown further north in Shaanxi province. They make a lovely little snack as you walk along thinking what to eat next. Whether you pronounce them joo-joo-bees (the way the locals say it) or joojoobs (like the sweet), they taste just like honey, and along with dried whole persimmons and local walnuts, are really popular Xi'an food souvenirs.

You're not going to believe what these are called - Dragon's Beard Sweets! (lóng xū táng ). What a great name! Shreds of white floss (just like Persian fairy floss) are cocooned carefully around a centre of finely chopped nuts and black and white sesame seeds. The Dragon's beard unravels as you bite into them and you have to take care to catch all the yummy bits.

This is a type of chăo miàn - fried noodles - quite different from usual though with the addition of sliced flatbread strips to the beansprouts and noodles, thrown into the streetside wok along with spices and seasonings. The fried bread strips add a lovely chewy texture.

Two flatbreads are spread thinly with a savoury filling (spiced lamb mince, for example) then pressed firmly together and fried on a griddle until crispy, then sliced into easy to eat pieces.

No trip to Xi'an for me is complete without a bringing home a few bags of spiced nuts and broad beans from one of dozens of peanut/broadbean shops. The broadbeans are absolutely delicious, fried until very crispy and then seasoned with salt and spices. And the peanuts? Roasted with industrial grade chilies, they will blow your head off if you try eating a whole handful, so savour them slowly.

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