If I had just 24 hours in Xian China I know, without a doubt, I would be at Xian Muslim Quarter. The Terracotta Warriors are… meh, the City Walls offer little more than the Drum Tower and the Drum Tower sits directly next to the Xian Muslim Quarter. Also most of my memorable experiences in Xian came from exploring back alleys and picking at street food which Xian Muslim Quarter is perfect for; from early morning hours to late at night. Arriving from the back walls of the Drum Tower at Beiyuanmen Street you will find a seemingly endless labyrinth of street food, restaurants and bustling local life. Dotted throughout are a number of other attractions including the Xian Great Mosque and the Gao Grand Courtyard and shadow puppet show. For me though it is all about the food and below is just a small sample of what you can look forward to.
Broken pieces of pitta-like flat bread, cooked in a broth and topped with tender slabs of mutton. For me the textures of the mutton and flat bread stew were a tad weird, an odd mix of chewy and gooey as vermicelli noodles fuse with the soaked flat bread. It did quickly grow on me however with happy additions of pickled garlic and chilli sauces. This is probably the most common food in the Xian Muslim Quarter and has become somewhat synonymous with the area. Look for the restaurants fronted by pita loaves.
Stewed mutton pieces in a pitta bun, flavoured with drizzles of spiced mutton gravy and dollops of chilli paste. While popular throughout China the origins of the “Chinese Burger” trace back to Xian and of course this is where it can best be found with vendors dotted throughout the Xian Muslim Quarter. Each vendor has their own secret spice mix recipe which will likely include chilli, cumin and the mouth numbing Sichuan pepper.
For the sweet tooth there are a number of sticky rice desserts found in the Xian Muslim Quarter, the favourite being the Eight Treasure Rose Mirror Cake a steamed sticky rice cake served on a skewer stick, with 8 optional flavours of jams (6 including rose), ground peanuts and sesame seeds. The other popular dessert is the Feng Mi Liang Gao which is a cold yellow sticky rice cake with layers of jujube Chinese dates. The mirror cake is by far my favourite.
In China dumplings vary regionally and in Xian their dumpling are famous for thin skins and juice filled insides. As with most of Xian Muslim Quarter the meat of choice is mutton (Halal) but there are other options found in the larger (non-halal) Chinese restaurants along the main Beiyuanmen Steet where menus often include other local flavourites like Liang Pi cold noodles and Shaanxi Chicken (here for Xian Food Favourites). Alcohol is also available at the non-Muslim restaurants and the booze of choice is often local Baiju.
For many the peanut crisp stalls are the highlight of the Xian Muslim Quarter where a day-long performance of twisting caramel, slamming mallets and shouting makes them hard to miss. The result is a thin, crisp and flaky sweet snack with variations of ingredients and flavouings including sesame, walnut and rose scented peanut crisp.
A jelly textured bean cake, chopped and stir fried with a mix of spices, chilli, bean sprouts, sweet corn and egg. If (like me) you are completely put off by the less appealing bean jelly you can find a more appetizing potato alternative.
In Winter months this was more of a necessity than a preference as temperatures drop as low as -12′c during our visit. The perfect hand warmer comes as a hot plastic glass of Asian Pear, Red Date (Jujube) and rock sugar juice.
Roasted dried chillies stuffed with sesame and peanut. Not the most exciting of snacks but for Fanfan they were an obsession, eating on the plane, eating in bed, eating until her jaw hurts and still going. We brought bags back to Bangkok and now Fanfan is planning a trip back to Xian to get more.
Skewered lamb pieces coated in salt, dry chilli flakes and ground cumin, barbecued over flaming charcoals. Again lamb is the meat of choice but kebabs can be found as all sorts from fresh whole squid to spirals of tofu. Often comes served and are eaten with local flat-breads
Staying in the Xian Muslim Quarter the best budget option is likely Xian MYFO a renovated courtyard residence at the far end of Beiyuanmen Street (leaving the Drum Tower). For a more swank option try the Bell Tower Hotel Xian with views over the nearby Bell Tower 500m from the Beiyuanmen Street entrance.