Monday, September 12, 2016

My Muslim Quarter Food Diary.

Cubes of soft glutinous rice mixed with chili and cumin and topped with bean sprouts and scrambled egg.

I'm back in Xi'an after 7 years and the first place I go to is one that I fell in love on my last visit here - the Muslim Quarter. Why? Because for me, it's all about food!  The photos on in this posting were taken both yesterday, when I wandered about the place on my own and today, when I returned with Yim and Mal aka Malamo.  Salivate away!

Xi’an was the starting point of the ancient Silk Road 1,000 years ago during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD). A number of merchants and overseas students from the Arabic countries and Persia came to Xi’an and they settled down in this small neighborhood. They were called the Hui people by the locals.

One generation after another, the descendants of the Hui ethnic people multiplied and lived here. Though miniscule in number in comparison to the overall Chinese population, the Hui in Xi'an number around 60,000.  I would describe their food as Silk Road influenced Chinese food.


Entering from the direction of the Drum Tower, the main street that leads into the neighborhood is Beiyuanmen Street.  The Muslim is popular with both locals and tourists and it's always crowded!  Chinese are non stop eaters so I'm never surprised to see so many Chinese faces here.

Yes, the narrow Beiyuanmen Street is lined with ancient buildings that date back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties but for me the buildings are overshadowed by dozens of street food vendors, restaurants and shops serving up food in all forms. It's a foodie paradise. Keep in mind that the Hui are Muslims so the food is halal and there is no pork served here.


I always take my time checking out each vendor but oddly enough, I've rarely ever bought anything to eat.  That just might change on this visit :-)

Much of what is sold are considered to be snacks that are popular in Xi'an.  A favorite snack, among the locals, is a glutinous rice flour cake topped with a jujube (date) topping.


Vendors slice the cake into wedges which are then sold on skewers so you can eat it while walking.


I think the Silk Road heritage of the Hui people has left them with a diet that's heavy meat.  You can't walk two feet on this street without smelling something being grilled.  That something is typically lamb.


Fall is pomegranate season.  Vendors were juicing up the fruits for sale in plastic cups.  Very refreshing drink on a hot day.


All the barbecue vendors were skewering their meats onto sticks that had been hand tapered into a sharp point.  The lamb is coated with a spicy, cumin dry rub.


Xi'an is also known for its hand pulled noodles of which there are several varieties - the most famous is biang biang mein.  You can have your noodle topped off in various ways though a tongue searingly hot chili sauce is a must.


I had to stop at this one shop that sold all things chili.  I think I was already sneezing, from the spice, well before I even reached the store!  :-)


Snacks.  This one shop had at least 20 sample bowls laid out.  I took a few :-)



If you were not on this street, the feet would have come from a pig but here, it's braised sheep's feet in....yes, a spicy chili cumin sauce!  Yum?


The loaves of flat bread speckled with pumpkin seeds were reminiscent of the loaves I saw when I traveled through Central Asia.  They look pretty but I don't know how they taste.  If they are as delicious as Uzbek non, I could easily devour a loaf!


The loaves of bread on the left look just like what you see in the markets in Central Asia.  The small  ones on the right look like mini Uzbek non or if you were in Israel, bagels :-)


Then there was this crusty, dimpled pita like bread.  Never seen anything like this before and I have no idea how the locals eat it. 


He may look Chinese but his skull cap is a reminder of his Islamic heritage.


You can't see the food below very well.  Chalk that up to me being a tad too short to take the photo from a higher vantage point.  Anyway, it's a dessert of steamed glutinous rice with a filling of red bean paste.


I don't know what these cakes were made of but they smelled good.


Noodles are hand pulled here.  There's always someone making them and someone like me watching in awe as a guy transforms a lump of dough into ribbons of noodle.



The signs, with their Arabic script and Islamic star, are constant reminders that this is a Muslim neighborhood. I wonder if the local Hui can speak the language - I've never asked any of the vendors to say something in Arabic. 



Nai lao aka Old Beijing Yogurt aka is a traditional fermented, sweetened milk drink that is sold in cute little ceramic or glass jars.  I got a bit obsessed with the jars though I've never had the drink itself. I'm always a bit leery about drinking milk that has been left to stand outside for who knows how long though some of the jars were kept in refrigerator compartments.  I'm sure it's safe but I don't want to risk have an upset tummy when I'm traveling.




This guy is boiling freshly made noodles in a ginormous wok!  


Some of  the fryers and cooking implements were enormous.  Here, they're frying up cubes of tofu. I don't think it was stinky tofu though.  They would just be topped with (no surprise here) chilli.


I've come to the conclusion that the Hui love dried fruits - especially jujubes.  I lost count of the places selling dried stuff.




Nuts are also a very popular snack.



Every now and again, I would step back to look a the architecture.  New building on the ground floor, ancient one above.  I would also look at where my feet were as the entire street is paved in green stone.  It's beautiful and they keep the place very clean.


You gotta love a place where the butchers work in full view of passers by.  There is no thing as *we must slaughter the meet out back*.  I'm guessing they do this in part to show you that the meat they are cooking is fresh.  I have to admit, they strip off every bit of meat off the ribs!




If there is something that you can call an iconic street snack here, it would be roujiamo, a sandwich of braised lamb meat stuffed inside a small loaf of pita bread. 


The braised meat is shredded, a bit of the liquid mixed in and then the lot is stuffed into the bread.  There were at least two vendors selling the sandwiches but they were so popular the lines were incredibly long.  People were hauling away bags filled with the sandwiches.  I was drooling.  We decided we had to had the sandwich but we would have it elsewhere.


After a while, I got thirsty walking around.  I spotted the one and only vendor selling freshly squeezed sugar cane juice which is probably my favorite juice drink in the entire world.  Of course, I had to buy a cup.



Chinese could not exist without tofu and like most Chinese, I eat it in a variety of different forms though one of my favorite ways is the method shown in the photo below - just topped with a sprinkling of chili powder, scallions, shallots and strips of chili.


One thing that I noticed is that the food here is all served in blue and white dishes of all sizes.  Large ones, like these holding spiced tofu cakes, were common. 


I loved these huge crocks.  They would be perfect for home use - storing dried goods like flour and sugar.  Luckily, I did not see any stores selling the dishware otherwise, I might have been seriously tempted to buy some.


What would snacks be without sweets?  Sad.  This guy was making the traditional Dragon's Beard aka Chinese cotton candy.





On a side street, we came across this lady who was also making a sweet made from glutinous rice flour and red bean.  The rice and bean filling are steamed to cook.  Apparently, her rendition of this dish is notable because she had pictures, posted up around her cart, of her TV appearances.  She was obviously very proud of her success and even though you can't see her face in the photo below, you can tell she's smiling.



While most people, especially tourists, were seated at tables inside restaurants, local diners would just take a place at the low chairs and tables set out on the sidewalk.


This would be exactly how I would enjoy a meal here!  On my next trip back to Xi'an and yes, I will be back, I will have a full meal here and not just snacks.  I've looked at the food enough to now sit down and enjoy a full meal!