Friday, January 23, 2009
Muslim Quarter Street Food, Xi'an
One of the most kick-ass cities for street food in China is Xi'an, in Shaanxi province (not to be confused with neighboring Shanxi province, of course). In the northwest section of the walled city lies the Muslim Quarter, a super-touristy ethnic section of the best sort. The Muslim Quarter is home to a large concentration of the Hui ethnic minority (the majority ethnic group in China, as in Xi'an, is Han). These guys are ubiquitous in China's streetfood scene, always selling grilled meat or seafood on a stick and maybe some flatbreads too. In Beijing they sell starfish and sea horses and in Shanghai I ate minced lamb and vegetables on pancakes in a Hui restaurant, but the one item you always see is grilled skewered lamb with generous sprinklings of ground hot peppers.
In Xi'an you can get plenty of grilled lamb, but they also have a constellation of other tasty things to try: grilled breads, more kinds of dried fruit than you have ever seen unless you work in a fruit drying factory, some kind of rice pudding cooked in individual pots over a flame, roast beef sandwiches, goopy mutton stew with crumbled bread (Yang Rou Pao Mo), another goopy soup eaten for breakfast with twisted doughnuts floating in it, and the list goes on and on.
The food that most interested me (enough to buy it twice with so many unexplored options close at hand) grabbed my attention with a huge cloud of steam, in the midst of which a Hui man was shovelling portions of something redolent of Chinese five-spice powder out of a big metal tub. The food turned out to be some kind of starch, mashed or rolled very small, steamed with chewy mutton, and beautifully spiced. I ordered a bowl, but didn't manage to get any of the soft buns he also had steaming in his metal tub. When I brought some back to the hostel to ask the receptionists what the starch was, they said it was wheat. This was the most satisfying dish I had in Xi'an, but I can't figure out its name or how it's made, so if anyone can tell me what it is, please please post a comment!