A Night of Street Food in Xi'an

Xi’an is most known to tourists for its epic Terracotta Warriors, an army of life size statues made to protect Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang around 200 BCE. (Fun side note - the Emperor went crazy and died from mercury poisoning, which he drank to give him eternal life. His underground tomb has not yet been opened because there is an actual mercury river surrounding his body. Scientists haven't found a way to safely open it yet. Crazy right?) Xi’an has much more, however. Home to the largest population of Muslims in China, the Muslim Quarter serves as home to many mosques, halal restaurants, and amazing street food. 

Visiting Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter was a major highlight of our visit for several reasons that extended beyond the lights, crowd, and spectacle of such a popular neighborhood. To start with, it was our first time in China dining exclusively from street carts - an experience we had long been looking forward to for the cuisine, cost, and adventure. Equally importantly though, the Muslim Quarter offered an opportunity to break free from constantly scanning our Lonely Planet for places to eat, which felt like a long-awaited freedom after Beijing where we spent a lot of time hunting for restaurants (hey, gotta eat) with hit or miss results. In total, we visited for three separate meals since the area was close to our hostel. Lastly, our second day in Xi’an started off with some difficulty after I suffered some pretty severe back pain from a bad mattress. After we postponed our plans for the Terracotta warriors until the next day, switched accommodations, and I rested for an afternoon, our first evening out in the Muslim Quarter salvaged the day’s enjoyment. For this and many other reasons, I highly recommend visiting Xi’an to anyone visiting China. To our gastronomically inclined readers, this post is for you! Since we were visiting the Muslim Quarter, we rated all foods on a 0-5 crescent scale. Here are photos and descriptions of everything we tried:

 

What We Thought It Was: Chinese doughnut.

What It Really Was: Batter fried persimmon. Pretty good but not super fruity flavored and a bit gushy. There were also several varieties of these with some other ingredients added. We could never tell one from another but noted that some tasted better than others.

Chinese Name: Huanggi

Price: ¥2 (about $0.33)

Rating: 3.5 crescents.

 

What We Thought It Was: Spicy Baby Potatoes.

What It Really Was: We were correct! The vendor starts with a vat of baby potatoes boiling in oil. Once a customer makes an order, the vendor scoops some out and puts them into a small wok where he or she adds garlic, chili oil, and bunch of different spices. The chili oil or ground pepper probably has some Sichuan pepper in it since our mouths finished with a delicate tingle. After our first try, we came on both of the following days. 

Chinese Name: Chao Liang Fen

Price: ¥10 (about $1.60)

Rating:  5 crescents. OMG. 5 crescents.


What We Thought It Was: Quail eggs on a stick

What it Really Was: Hard to get this one wrong. The vendor makes them in a muffin tin type metal sheet with quail eggs size divets. As the eggs cooks, she adds a wooden skewer through them. Quail eggs taste pretty much like chicken eggs but with a higher yolk to white ratio. This could have really used salt and pepper.

Chinese name: Not sure.

Price: ¥5 (about $0.81)

Rating: 2.5 crescents


What We Thought It Was: Chinese apple pastry

What It Really Was: A dense pastry/bun made by folding many layers of dough like an accordion and fanning them out on top. Between the layers is a buttery flavored paste that we couldn't identify. Tasty enough, but dense and a little hard when we ate it the following morning for breakfast.

Chinese name: Dunno.

Price: ¥5 (about $0.81)

Rating: 3 crescents


What We Thought It Was: Pulled Beef or Mutton Sandwich

What It Really Was: We were right. The vendor scoops pulled meat from a crock pot, hacks it into a bunch of tiny pieces, and shoves it into a sandwich along with chili oil and meat juice. These last two additions were hard to taste until we got to the bottom, but stewed meat is always delicious. The bun was very similar to an American biscuit in that it was slightly dry and flaky.

Chinese Name: Rou Jia Mou

Price: ¥15 (about $2.45)

Rating: 4 crescents. I argued that pretty much any pulled meat sandwich deserves 5 crescents, but Andrew wisely pointed out that the lackluster 17 year old trainee making it took an absurdly long time to make each one.


What We Thought It Was: Some sort of sugary drink

What It Really Was: Very concentrated tamarind juice. Andrew drank it straight but I enjoyed it much more with substantial dilution.

Chinese Name: Dunno.

Price: Included with beef sandwich above.

Rating: 3.5 crescents.


What We Thought It Was: Charcoal Grilled Garlic Eggplant

What It Really Was: We were right. Watching this one being made was a lot of fun - first the vendor puts the eggplant directly onto hot coals and turn it until it’s invitingly mushy. Then he places it on a grill rack above the coals, slices it in half, and cuts slits in the flesh. Oil and some mysterious dark sauce are added with a paintbrush, and then he dumps about ½ cup of chopped garlic on top of the now-bubbling eggplant pulp. (“There’s no way that can be garlic. Even garlic loving cultures wouldn’t add THAT much garlic,” I said. WRONG. Deliciously wrong.) A sprinkle of salt, chili pepper, and cilantro finish the dish. You eat it with chopsticks and the flesh comes right off the skin. The finished product is hot, oozy, fleshy, garlicky, oily, and absolutely sublime- we went back twice.

Chinese Name: Probably "grilled eggplant" in Chinese.

Price: ¥10 (about $1.60)

Rating: 5 crescents, and it's going on our next grill party menu.


What We Thought It Was: Alcohol-Free Chinese Sangria?

What It Really Was: Some warm Chinese tea, sweetened with apple, jujube (Chinese date), and the perfect amount of sugar. 

Chinese Name: Dunno.

Price: ¥8 (about $1.30)

Rating: 4 crescents.


Andrew has a funny face because the banana is really hot!

What We Thought It Was: Fried banana on a stick

What It Really Was: Correct again. The banana is covered with a crunchy batter somewhat like corn flakes. A tasty warm banana but nothing mind blowing.

Chinese name: Don't know.

Price: ¥5 (about $0.81)

Rating: 2.5 crescents


What We Thought It Was: Chinese sponge cake

What It Really Was: A sweet, glutinous rice desert flavored with dates. It’s sort of mild and chewy, but not terribly interesting. Andrew liked this one more than I did.

Chinese name: Feng Mi Liang Gao

Price: ¥3 (about $0.50)

Rating: 3


What We Thought It Was: Hot Chinese snow cone?

What It Really Was: Another glutinous rice desert. The rice is steamed in cute little pots, then once one is ordered the lid is removed, sticks added, and it’s dipped in jams and/or sesame seeds. Mild flavor- tasty but not as good as it looks.

Chinese name: Jing Gao ("Eight-Treasure Rose Mirror Cake")

Price: ¥3 (about $0.50)

Rating: 2.5 crescents.


What We Thought It Was: Xian’s famous lamb soup with bread, whatever it's called.

What It Really Was: We were right. The broth is mild and lightly colored with two thin cuts of lamb. Floating on top of the bowl is a thick layer of torn bread bits. Rather than becoming soggy, the bread becomes chewy like noodle pieces. At the bottom are glass noodles, but it’s hard to get at them from beneath the bread. It tastes fine but not that exciting. To our surprise, we've actually found this with a LOT of Chinese soups- the dish comes out looking flavorful with a richly colored broth, spice kernels, and herbs on top but then the actual flavor is mild and not that interesting.

Chinese name: Yangrou Paomo

Price: ¥28 (about $4.50)

Rating: 2.5 crescents.


What We Thought It Was: Beef noodle soup

What It Really Was: Another correct guess. The reddish broth was the best and tastes slightly like Thailand’s tom yum soup in that it was slightly sour and had a lot of cilantro.

Chinese name: Dunno.

Price: ¥12 (about $2.00)

Rating: 3.5 crescents.


What We Thought It Was: Mini candied apples. Some people from our hostel raved about them so we thought we’d give it a try.

What It Really Was: Grapes dipped in sugar syrup and sprinkles. Unpleasantly cloying.

Chinese name: Dunno.

Price: ¥5 (about $0.80)

Rating: 1 crescent.


What We Thought It Was: Sesame toffee

What It Really Was: Sesame candy. It tasted very similarly to the Middle Eastern favorite halva in that it has a sweet, muted flavor and a texture similar to a Butterfingers bar with the way it gets in your teeth. It was really fun to watch it being made, where young men stretch it like taffy on a candy hook and then pound it with mallets. Ok tasting, but after the free sample we didn’t want to buy any.

Chinese name: Hua Sheng Gao

Price: Not sure because we didn't buy any, but it looked expensive.

Rating: 2 crescents.


What We Thought It Was: Hey it’s that thing from dim sum!

What It Really Was: That thing from dim sum! Sesame doughnut ball with red bean paste in the middle. We only saw this one place so I’m not sure if it’s a “Xian-thing” but either way it’s a long time favorite!

Chinese name: Dunno.

Price: ¥2 (about $0.33)

Rating: 3.5 crescents


What We Thought It Was: Sesame noodles

What It Really Was: We were right. Cold noodles are already portioned into a bowl. Once you order, the vendor adds sesame sauce, chili oil, and some sour sauce that balances the sesame perfectly. There are small bits of shredded cucumber on top.

Chinese Name: Liang Pi

Price: ¥5 (about $0.80)

Rating: 4 crescents.


Other street treats: Pomegranate juice (¥10), watermelon cup (¥3), honeydew or cantaloupe on a stick (¥3)


We tried all these foods over several days. Usually a night out eating a very generous sized dinner would be between ¥60 and ¥65 (about$10) for the both of us.