The red lanterns that hang from the eves in Xian’s Muslim Quarter are caked in a thick layer of grey dirt. Much like the rest of this ancient city, the streets of this minority area can’t escape the pollution and filth that hang in the air of most Chinese towns. But while the regular highways and byways of Xian offer a very modern take on Chinese progress, with the aforementioned pollution inescapable, the Muslim quarter rises above everything thanks to truly stunning street food.
Ducking down a bustling back alley, the smells of aromatic spices, meat being cooked over white hot coals and pans bubbling over truly terrifying open flames are more reminiscent of the Arab world than the Chinese interior. And the food is a world apart from the grease laden meals of Guilin and Chengdu too.
Having decided to eschew regular restaurants, we dived into an open fronted family-run joint selling gorgeous roujiamo, a beef filled pancake, deep-fried in front of us and costing just ten yuan. After a quick breather and tour of the area’s endless souvenir stalls, we ordered rouchuan, kebabs coated in a spice mix of cumin and coriander and cooked over the coals as we waited. Then it was round the corner for dapanji, a truly bizarre dish of gelatinous noodles stewed with potatoes, mouthwatering chillies, garlic and cardamom. The texture was a trial initially, but after a few bites, it was truly magical, a world apart from greens soggy with sunflower oil.
Yet it was the main event that really had me convinced that Xian’s Muslim Quarter offered the very best food we’d had in China. Piping hot bowls of Yangrou Paono were delivered to the table with a nonchalant throw, but this was unquestionably the culinary highlight of China so far. This dish, of paper thin noodles, covered in broth, crumbled flatbread and melt-in-the-mouth mutton was a sheer delight. Nowhere else in this vast country have I tasted anything so good.
After a fortnight of truly average cuisine, it was great to discover that hidden in Xian is one of China’s finest culinary destinations.