At the Muslim Quarter in Shaaxi Province of China, Loong Wai Ting gets a taste of fried beef pancake and cold noodles
IT is almost daybreak and an enticing scent is hanging in the cold, crisp air of one late autumn morning at the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, China. Stepping out of a green and yellow taxi, I cross the fairly busy intersection in a few quick steps and arrive at the red painted gates of Xi Hua Men Fire Station.
The previous night, I received a message from my guide, Michelle of Lost Plate Food Tours — highly recommended if you’re into experiencing local food and culture — to meet outside the fire station.
“It’s hard to miss the building,” she said.
Indeed, it’s the brightest building in the Muslim Quarter or Hui Min Jie; a contrast to the usually low and grey stone and brick buildings in the area.
Shops and homes here are modelled after the styles of the Ming dynasty (1368- 644) and Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Huge trees provide shade during the hot summer months.
ZIPPING THROUGH THE MARKET
I rub my hands together to keep warm. The sun’s rays are just beginning to hit the roofs of the houses and peek through yellowed ginkgo trees. It is a magical sight indeed. It’s my favourite time of the day when the city has begun to stir. Elsewhere, vendors’ carts line the streets, ready to serve delicious breakfast on the go.
Women prepare to go to the nearby morning market to stock up on the day’s fresh produce — heaps of local fruit and vegetables, livestock and spices; you name it, they have it.
The Muslim Quarter used to be home to foreign diplomatic envoys from the West and rich merchants. I am told the Silk Road started from here.
It’s nine and Michelle arrives at our meeting point. She beckons me to follow her to a quiet alley where a tuktuk (the fastest and most convenient way to get around the Muslim Quarter) awaits us.
Covered in a clear sheet of plastic that acts as a window and protects us from the cold air, the tuktuk is driven by a cheerful Muslim woman, who I call Da Jie, an endearing term that means big sister in Mandarin.
Having grown up n the quarter, Da Jie is an expert at manoeuvering narrow ancient streets and the labyrinth of alleys.
Sweat begins to gather on my forehead as Big Sister squeezes into a tight alley, just enough for one tuktuk to pass through. Big Sister gathers speed on her motorised tuktuk and zips through the streets almost effortlessly. The five-seater tuktuk is super comfortable and riding it is fun. Despite its size, the tuktuk is perfectly safe and the most convenient way to get around.
Here in the Muslim Quarter, you can find good food and cheap souvenirs. Xi’an’s food scene has a rich tapestry due to its culture.
MEAT OR NO MEAT?
Our first stop is a shop that specialises in fried beef pancakes. On our way here, we pass by the Great Mosque on Huajue Lane. With over 20,000 Muslims living in this area, the mosque serves as the main congregation place for them. There are 10 mosques in this area alone.
The quarter covers several blocks that expand to the Drum Tower of Xi’an, a symbol of the ancient city.
A man in his early 40s is busy flipping beef and lamb pancakes on a large wok before covering them with another lid to lock in flavours. As I approach him, he beckons for me to sit next to his stall, a spot that gives me a good view of the kitchen and the street.
To order, I shout over the noise of the busy street. Once I place my order, the man takes a portion of pancake, slices it and serves me in no time. In between bites of the delicious, oily pancake, he explains that his family has been in the business for over four decades, with the recipe passed down from one generation to another.
It’s a wonder to watch the family in the kitchen. The women knead the flour, load it with lots of chopped scallions, leeks and garlic before topping it with a thick layer of meat. Then they seal the pancake, which resembles roti bom.
Each bite is flavourful, crispy, juicy and fragrant — all thanks to the spices. Locals en route to work or school stop by to buy pancakes. As the man hands them their orders, he acknowledges everyone like old friends.
And if you follow a strict diet (i.e. no beef for Buddhists), he’ll be more than happy to make a vegetarian option. I have one that is made of chopped spring onions and leeks. Even without the juicy meat, every mouthful is delicious.
Our next stop is a tiny restaurant which serves biang biang noodles. Grabbing a seat nearest to the kitchen at the front of the shop, I watch in amazement as a young man stretches a piece of dough in the air before slapping it down on the table. The dough hits the wooden table with a deafening “biang” sound. So, this is how this famous dish gets its name.
One of Xi’an’s best known dishes, the noodle is then cooked in a large pot of boiling water for three minutes. In every bowl, the noodle is topped with cooked meat marinated in spices, vegetable stew, chopped garlic and chilli oil.
At each table, there are jars of dried chilis, cloves of garlic and vinegar to add flavour. The noodles have a chewy texture, almost like our version of chilli pan mee but without the poached egg.
Touted as one of the Eight Strange Wonders of Shaaxi Province, where Xi’an is located, this thick noodle is usually handmade.
The Chinese character for biang has 58 strokes in its traditional form (42 in simplified Chinese). However, the origin of the character remains unclear. Some point to Premier Li Shi of the Qin dynasty while others allude it to a legend about a student creating a character for the noodle to avoid paying for his meal.
Whatever its origin, biang biang noodle has helped put Xi’an on the world map, along with the famous Terracotta Warriors and the majestic Huashan, well-known for its dangerous climb. Oh, instant, ready-made biang biang noodles are available in nice packaging at the airport.
In every oriental culture, there is almost always a cold noodle dish. For example, the Japanese love cold soba (buckwheat) noodle, while the Koreans adore mul naengmyeon, usually served with a thick slice of crunchy pear and sliced cucumber.
In Xi’an, the favourite cold noodle is liang pi (literally cold skin noodle). Not a dish to be missed when you’re in Xi’an, the noodle is made of rice flour. It is almost transparent in colour, chewy and is usually served with vinegar.
Hot chilli oil, garlic and ground sesame paste are added to the noodle before garnishing with julienned cucumber for crunch. Each stall has its own recipe, passed down from one generation to the next.
But in almost all the places that I’ve gone to, the sauce is the same: sweet, tangy, nutty and a little spicy. The noodle does a great job of soaking up the sauce and not one single drop remains at the end of the meal. And the best time for liang pi? During winter, sitting on a low stool outside a shop, slurping while watching the world go by.
With a bit of time left, Michelle suggests that we visit another local specialty store just around the corner of the liang pi stall. Jin Xiang Zhai sells delicious handmade pastry and biscuits. Scents of freshly baked goods fill the air as soon as I step into the tiny shop.
On one side of the shop is a glass cabinet, loaded with pastries of all shapes and sizes. We order a few, including the local favourite, pastry with stuffed rose buds and scented with rosewater.
The friendly storekeeper insists that I try a few more, which I happily oblige. In the end, I try eight different varieties of pastries. One of my favourites is the savoury one stuffed with spices and dried, crushed peppercorn.
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How to get there
AirAsia X flies daily from Kuala Lumpur to Xi’an, seven times a week. Guests can opt for the Quiet Zone, available on flights to Xi’an.
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