The Xi’an Muslim Markets – A Street Food Paradise
One does not typically associate China with Arabic style cuisine or Muslim culture – However, bang in the centre of Xi’an is a thriving Muslim community dwelling within the aptly named Muslim quarter of the city. A sprawling maze of covered markets, street food and ancient Mosques. Truly, a cacophony of colour, sights and smells. Let’s explore!
Typically when one thinks Xi’an, one immediately thinks of the Terracotta Army that is housed nearby. These guys are the primary reason most western tourists ever end up here, which is a real shame as Xi’an is one of my favourite cities in all Asia. 1000 years ago Xi’an was the starting point of the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty. Due to this large numbers of Persian and Arabic merchants ended up here for either trade or schooling. They brought with them their religion, culture and food – Leaving a lasting impression on the city, still relevant over a millennium later.
To get there you should head to the famous “Bell Tower” (Built in 1384) which sits conveniently in the centre of the old walled city. After you marvel at the tower, as well you should, head northeast of it and you will find yourself at its sister – the “Drum Tower”. Marvel at this for a while as well and then wander a couple of hundred meters past it in the same direction. You will soon be at the entrance to Beiyuanmen Muslim Street – The “Main street” of the Muslim quarter.
This, much like most of the entirety of the Muslim quarter, is a paved pedestrian street. Flanked either side by street food stalls, restaurants, markets, entertainers and occasional branching side-streets into fascinating alleyways full of all manner of things to discover. This is not considered a tourist attraction by locals, but rather a place to go and eat – As such it can be pretty crowded if you come during meal times and pretty much nobody speaks a word of English. Luckily the Shanxi people are friendly and laid back. They seemed more than happy to accommodate the tall couple from Finland with a little pointing, smiles and pantomime.
There is quite a number of well preserved ancient buildings, gates and monuments in here, some dating back to earlier than 600AD, but we all know the real reason you came here was the food…
This is quite simply a street food snackers paradise. Hundreds of vendors making fresh food for you to dine in or take with you. Most of it is the local Shanxi cuisine; a glorious fusion of Middle Eastern and Chinese foods. Vegetarians beware, this place is a meat lovers heaven (lamb in particular) and those of you who dislike spicy food need not apply. Shanxi Muslim food is laced to the brim with chilli, spices and Szechuan peppers. Yum!
Wandering here is a true assault on the senses (in a good way). Every few feet has delicious new smells and colourful sights to see. Old men grinding sugar into candy with wooden mallets, cooks frying lamb skewers on a charcoal grill, people deep frying scorpions – It’s all here.
There are several speciality dishes that you must try while here. My personal favourite being the Shanxi style, knife cut noodles. Deliciously thick, flat cut noodles (they look a bit like Italian pappardelle pasta) that they traditionally serve either cold or in a soup. The locals seem to pretty much eat them with everything and one bite will make you understand why. In the street, they make them by hand in the traditional way. The chef will loop the raw dough over a small hook outside their stall and walk backwards, stretching the noodles. They repeat this hundreds and hundreds of times – Each repetition strengthening the gluten within the dough and making it more stretchy. Take a look at the extensibility of these noodles! All my years as a chef and I have never witnessed dough even half as extensible. Clearly, this is black magic.
Look at that! That was easily over 4 meters (13 feet) long!
The finished product – Complete with crappy Instagram filter…
You also cannot walk 10 minutes without passing someone selling “Náng” – An Uyghur Flat Bread that is a staple of all the Chinese Muslim communities. Picture a kind of star-shaped, flat baked and crispy bagel that has been smothered in aromatic Arab seeds/spices and you will be on track. It is everywhere, about 20 cents a piece and quite simply brilliant.
My deepest regret is that there is simply not enough room in my stomach to even taste a fraction of what is on offer here. You eat one tasty looking thing and then walk 30 seconds and find something you haven’t seen before. Steamed buns, lamb soup, dried chilli, fresh vegetables. It’s all here. You could spend a month in this town dining here for every meal and not even come close to tasting it all.
It’s not all food in here. There are thousands of stalls selling everything from handicrafts and tourist trinkets to cell phones and toy robots. There are quite many narrow and winding covered shopping streets that would honestly not be out of place in Marrakesh, Morocco. This is not China “as advertised” – it is like stepping into North Africa, and I love it.
We haggled for some really nice chopstick sets and a couple of other random trinkets that would make excellent souvenir gifts for our friends and family back home and then pushed on to one of the coolest things about the Muslim quarter in Xi’an – The Great Mosque.
Hidden deep within the Muslim quarter and only reachable after navigating a maze of side streets and shops lies the Great Mosque of Xi’an – The largest, oldest and most important place of Islamic worship in all China. According to records engraved on a stone tablet inside, it was built in 742 during the Tang Dynasty. Divided into 4 separate courtyards covering an area of 12000 square meters, this place is staggeringly huge.
I have travelled to many places and seen many things. I can say without hyperbole that the Great Mosque of Xi’an remains one of the most beautiful, tranquil and unique things I have ever witnessed. Ancient Chinese architectural flair is fused with Arabic style stone construction and Islamic artwork. Beautiful 3D carvings adorn the walls of the courtyards, hewn directly from the stone itself. Well preserved paintings and artworks depicting Arabic and Chinese calligraphy are hung in the many halls. A beautiful Chinese garden sits in the second and third courtyard as well as a beautiful three-story octagonal pagoda that is believed to have served as the mosque’s minaret for the call to prayer. Worth mentioning is that each courtyard is separated by beautiful Chinese gates, of which no 2 are alike.
The fourth courtyard holds a large open square and the main temple itself. There was a religious ceremony in progress so I did not enter, but I was able to see it from the outside. A large, turquoise roofed open temple that can allegedly accommodate over 1000 worshippers. It is built in the Chinese style and covered head to toe in ornate carvings and calligraphy. You could be forgiven for confusing it with any Asian Buddhist temple at first glance (discounting the Arabic scripture on the outside), but inside it is Spartan – A huge open area with ample space between the pillars for worshippers to bring their prayer mats and kneel down, in the Islamic tradition. The photos I took of it came out terribly over-exposed, so have some other pictures instead.
And there you have it. If you ever find yourself in Xi’an waiting to catch your bus over to the Terracotta Army, please consider spending a night and hitting up the Muslim quarter for dinner to take in its sites and incredible food. This unique cultural fusion is an experience you won’t find anywhere else in China (or indeed the world…). Xi’an itself is a fantastic city to visit, with many things to see and do (Tandem biking around the old walls anyone?) but that is a story for another blog…
I choose to leave you with this epic statue that I found there because I can.