Wednesday, September 17, 2008
A Taste of the Silk Road
Xian is the start of the Silk Road from China and there's an area called Muslim Street or hui min jie west of the Drum and Bell Towers in the centre of the city.
And walking in there is almost like entering another world.
There are street markets lining the narrow roads, selling halal meats, piles of dried dates, apricots, kiwis, persimmons, walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, cookies, and fried dough cakes.
If you're daring, there's lots of street food to try. The naan bread (2RMB) is very fragrant. Like small pizzas, the middle is poked with circular designs, brushed with oil and a hint of onion flavour. When they're fresh out of the brick oven they are crunchy and hit the spot.
There's also lots of specialty dishes in Xian to try.
One is called yang rou pao mo. We went to one that served niu rou, or beef (9RMB).
You're given a big bowl and two quarter slices of a dense flat bread. Then you sit at your seat and for the next half an hour you're ripping the bread up into small pieces. Apparently the smaller the better. That's why it takes that long.
When you're done the labour intensive part of the dish, you bring the bowl back to the kitchen and they fill it with an oily broth with slices of beef, some vermicelli and diced spring onion.
You eat it with chopsticks and it's interesting for the first while, but then it loses its flavour and you also get filled up from all that carbo. I couldn't finish mine and it was also partly because gimmick of having to tear up your own bread had worn off.
On another day we wanted to try bian bian mian -- where noodle makers bang the noodles on the table as they make the dough turn into fine strings, hence the name bian bian. Shops advertising this dish should have a giant Chinese character with lots of strokes in it.
But apparently there isn't a shop like that in the Muslim district.
However, we did try noodles made from dough sliced with a knife and they were fantastic (5RMB). They were cooked in a slightly oily clear broth with thin slices of beef, with some vegetables, chopped coriander and spring onion and a touch of chilli to give it a subtle kick.
Aside from food, there lots to look at. We saw the carcass of an animal freshly cut up, leaving giant bones behind. Children ran around, saying, "Hello!" to us. Some vendors put out trinkets to sell, animal pelts, and a man made animals using warm liquid brown sugar, blowing into them like glass objects.
Most of the Muslims here are from the Hui minority. My friend told me they originally had their own language, but lost it and kept their religion instead, practiced precariously under Chinese Communist rule.
Nevertheless, they offer a colourful insight into their culture, and offer an interesting dimension to what is otherwise almost another Chinese city.