For a culinary treat in Xian, home of China’s Terracotta Warriors, look no further than the western city’s Beiyuanmen Muslim Market.
Walk among the tourists in the tangle of streets just north of the ancient Chinese capital’s Drum Tower and roughly one in 10 is wielding a kebab skewer jammed with chunks of lamb or beef.
Hot steam floats up from the giant woks and vats of boiling broth lining the streets. Cool mist rises from the piles of bright pink sliced pomegranate displayed atop boxes of dry ice. Vendors crowd in front of their carts shout their offerings: “Lamb skewer!” “Fresh pomegranate juice!” “Persimmon doughnuts!” Men with hazel eyes wearing white caps and brandishing short daggersbutcher lamb carcasses. Blood drips onto the cobblestone streets. The market gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “open kitchen”.
The Muslim market is a stone’s throw away from the city’s Bell Tower, and one subway stop from the south gate of the old city wall. From inside the market, follow small blue signs through narrow alleyways lined with vendors selling kitsch bejewelled caps, mini terracotta warriors, woven slippers and Obamao T-shirts, and you’ll arrive at the city’s Great Mosque – a 12,000 square metre compound built in the Ming dynasty style. It is the largest mosque in China.
The monumental scale of what’s left of the ancient city and the sheer variety of the food on offer are a reminder of Xian’s former glory and of the vastness and diversity of the empire it ruled over. It’s on a par with other capitals of empire – Cairo, Rome, Istanbul – cities built on power, and faith.
Xian, formerly known as Changan, was at one end of the Silk Road, which started in 207BC and connected Chinese traders with the West. During the Tang dynasty, Changan played host to merchants from the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia. They brought the cuisine and flavours of their regions: cumin, garlic, saffron, chilli, mutton and nan.
Over the years, Xian officials have tried several times to close down the Beiyuanmen Muslim Market. It’s prime real estate, and it’s easy to see that everywhere else the city is upgrading – from the cranes that dot the skyline to the empty areas of gravel and dust just inside the city wall. But the market remains – its residents and vendors too entrenched, too much an integral part of the city’s economy, history and appeal.
For example, Mr Wang, a Hui Muslim who was born and raised in Xian, has been selling fried pancake – and only fried pancake – at his market stand Wang Jia Can Ting on Da Pi Yuan Street for 30 years. His pancakes are quick and made to order: scallions and ground beef encased in a crisp, thin crust. When asked the secret to making a good pancake, his response was simple: “Fresh vegetables that are in season, the right sauce, and the right amount of salt.” Thirty years of practice also doesn’t hurt.
Perhaps the best known Xian dish is yangrou paomo, literally “lamb meat dunk bread”. It is a lamb stew thick with tender slices of meat, glass noodles, black fungus, and crumbled flat bread.
At the busy restaurant chain Laomijia Paomo (various locations), I talked to two businessmen from Xinjiang. When I enthused about the dense flavour of the soup and the delightfully chewy bread, they scoffed. The paomo in Xinjiang was the real thing, they said. There, no one would offer to tear up your flat bread for you. And you’d find baby lamb on the menu – taking the paomo up another notch. But here, they said, the market is teeming with people and the paomo flies off the shelves. It’s not bad, but the huge lamb carved up on the street is mostly for display.
One worker stood near the window in front of a large bowl; her only job was to tear up the mountain of pita to her left into pebble-sized pieces.
Along Beiyuanmen Street, crowds line up for another famous Xian snack: the roujiamo, also known as Chinese burger. The thick, circular pita bread filled with braised meat is simple and filling. Chilli oil is optional.
When in Xian, do not miss out on a meal at JiaSan Tangbao Zi, or Jia San Soup Dumpling, a three-storey behemoth at 93 Beiyuanmen Street that specialises in lamb meat soup dumplings. The thin-skinned steamed dumplings, which are dipped into a vinegar-chilli-ginger sauce, are a delectable twist on the typically pork-filled xiaolongbao. Bite a small hole in the skin, slurp out the soup and devour.
Late autumn may be the perfect time to visit Xian: in October and November, pomegranate and persimmon are in season. The freshly squeezed pomegranate juice sold at every street corner is at its sweetest, and persimmon doughnuts – my favourite Xian snack – are everywhere in the market. Crisp on the outside and gooey and sweet on the inside, the doughnuts are orange globs of mashed persimmon fruit, best eaten hot.
On a visit to the Terracotta Warriors, the streets leading to the ticket centre are lined with persimmon and pomegranate vendors. Women with plastic Easter egg baskets filled with fruit approach, competing with each other on the price. Be sure to bargain hard. A fresh pressed juice is 5 yuan (HK$5.60). A box of 24 persimmons can be had for 10 yuan. A pomegranate is 3 yuan a pop. A full evening of snacking at the Muslim market should run you up to no more than 80 yuan.
An hour’s drive will take you to Shang Wangcun, or Wang Village. The local government there has decided to transform the village into a series of restaurants. Go for simple, clean, home-cooked dishes such as eggs fried with osmanthus flowers, spicy chicken, potatoes with tomato sauce, and the local favourite: spinach noodles. You know you’re eating organic when you see the chickens laying eggs just outside the front door. The restaurant Chang Lai Ju on Dong Yi Street, or East First Street, literally means “come often”, and if I were living in Xian, I would.
Taking a piece of Xian’s culinary history back home with you is easy. Pick out a few nans among the overwhelming variety: sunflower encrusted flatbreads, round stout bagels, sesame-flecked and flower-shaped. Designed to last for up to a month and a half as nourishment for nomads and travellers, the thick, hearty breads are a long-lasting companion for your journey back from China’s delectable ancient capital.