One of the side trips that we made on our trip was to take the train from Beijing to Xi’an. Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province, and is located about 690 miles west of Beijing (12 hours on the overnight train). It is one of the oldest cities in China – the old city walls are still standing – and is home to approximately 8 million people. Walking around Xi’an during lunch and in our free time, I was struck at the cultural diversity in the city, both in people and in the food.
Minority Groups in Xi’an
One significant minority group in Xi’an is the Muslims. As one of the first cities on the Silk Road, Xi’an attracted many traders from the Middle East as early as 1st century BC. In addition to bringing their wares, they also brought their religion. According to our guide, Islam has been thriving in Xi’an for almost a thousand years, and was officially brought to China when an Islamic prophet was sent to teach Emperor Gaozong about Islam. The first Muslims in Xi’an were traders from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are about 60,000 Muslims today, mostly from the Hui minority. Most of them stay behind the main Drum Tower in Xi’an, in the Muslim Quarter (Islamic Street) and worship at the Great Mosque of Xi’an, which was built in the 7th century.
What impressed me was how well this group had integrated itself into the city. Walking down the street, many Muslim women were wearing headscarves, but were chatting happily to the other street vendors in Mandarin, who where non-Muslim. Many of these ladies were selling Islamic snacks, such as lamb skewers (a spicier version of our kebab), and flatbreads, which were enjoyed by locals and Muslims alike.
Food Culture in Xi’an
Eating in Xi’an was a completely different experience as compared to Beijing, in part because the cuisine was a blend of Chinese and other cultural influences. One dish that I found particularly interesting was Yang Rou Pao Mo (Mutton Stew with Bread). Served in many restaurants near the Muslim Quarter, this was a hearty mutton stew that was cooked with sweet garlic, spices, pieces of crumbled unleavened bread soaked in the stew, and some glass noodles. It tasted Chinese, and yet had influences from the Far East (unleavened flat bread).
Another street snack that I enjoyed was Jing Gao (Mirror Cake), which was a flat glutinous rice cake steamed in bamboo steamer. After the vendor tapped out the cake, it was dusted in sugar, peanut and sesame seeds and served on a bamboo skewer pierced on its side. The result: it looked like an edible handheld mirror, and was absolutely delicious. In addition to these, the entire neighborhood was packed with vendors selling Chinese and Islamic snacks – peanut candy, piles of bean pastries, spicy grilled rice cakes, and buckets of dried dates and persimmons.
If you ever think China is a culturally homogenous society, look again. China has had a rich history of trade with other countries: my two-hour experience in the Muslim Quarter was just a little peek into all the influences that have been mixed in over the centuries.