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A Food Tour of Hui Min Jie

Xi'an Metro entrance

A station on the new Xi'an Metro line

It’s a cold, wet November day in Xi’an, and my culinary experience begins with a stop at a Taiwanese bakery in the Mingde Men area near my apartment building.  I pick up two lemon rolls, which are best described as Chinese Twinkies and don’t really taste like lemon.  They’re still a good breakfast in a pinch, and at 5 yuan (less than $1) apiece, they’re a steal.  I wash it down with a soda from a roadside stand and head toward the nearest Metro station.  Xi’an is home to a newly-opened subway system.  There’s

Xi'an Metro Zhong Lou station sign

Each station on the Xi'an Metro has a picture of what's above it.

currently only one line, but there are five more planned.  It’s clean, fast, and relatively cheap.  By bus, it takes around 40 minutes, and more if there’s traffic, to get from Mingde Men to the old, walled city.  On the Xi’an Metro, it takes about 20, traffic or no traffic.

I go back aboveground at Zhong Lou station, right by the Bell Tower in the center of the city.  I’m going to meet my friend at Starbucks and head over past the Drum Tower to Hui Min Jie, the Muslim Quarter, for a food tour of Xi’an.  We’re looking

Starbucks and McDonald's

No one can resist the advance of the west.

for three traditional foods in particular, and we’ll find all three before the day is out.  Hui Min Jie is truly an old section of the city.  You can tell because the buildings look old and are not tall, and because the place simply smells of culture.  It’s impossible to explain the smells of China to someone who hasn’t been here, especially if we’re talking about fresh sheep’s liver or an ostensibly delicious tofu snack that absolutely reeks, even according to the locals who love to eat it.  Today, in the Muslim Quarter, culture smells like

Dates on display at a fruit stand

So, wanna date?

food.

We pass by shops selling dried dates and persimmons, plastic cups of what my friend tells me is hawthorn juice (sealed for your health, just pop in a straw!), and the ever-important naan, a tasty flatbread covered in sesame seeds.

Our first stop is at a small shop that sells what kind of looks like a hamburger.  The cook uses a sharp knife to shave meat off a rotating vertical skewer.  He combines it with cilantro and a few other goodies and stuffs it into bread that’s a cross between

Boy next to a table of naan flatbread

Naan is a staple of Muslim cultural food in China.

a burger bun and a pita pocket.  It must be good, judging by the huge line at the stall.  We have to move on without trying any.

The three rules of good Chinese food are as follows:  1. Don’t worry about getting sick from street vendors.  The adventurous-looking eateries often have better food.  2. Don’t buy from the first shop you come to, no matter how good it looks.  Some food is more greasy (the “hamburgers” come to mind) and it’s best to shop around and come back if you have

Vendor slicing meat off a skewer.

A vendor slices meat off a rotating skewer to make a traditional Muslim "hamburger."

to rather than immediately filling your stomach and finding a better option later.  3. Spicy is your friend, but if you insist on having something tame, say “bu la,” which means “not spicy.”

After walking a while, my friend and I run across a vendor selling sticky rice cakes.  The rice has been ground to a gummy paste, and is dipped in a flavored sauce, sugar, and sesame seeds before being skewered on two sticks and served.  2 yuan (20 cents) for a single cake.  Sticky and

A street vendor makes sticky rice cake snacks.

These snacks are made of rice paste coated in sugar and sweet jelly.

delicious!

Our actual meal turns out to be Pao Mo.  The Chinese term literally means “soaked pancake.”  It’s a soupy dish made out of small chunks of a dense flatbread, plus vegetables and your choice of meat.  Beef is cheaper than lamb, at 15 yuan a bowl (about $3).  Pao Mo is a distinctively Xi’an dish, and you can order it with either pre-cut bread or you can tear the bread up yourself.  Either way, expect to leave with a full stomach.  The bread is very filling.

Bowl of pao mo

This bowl of beef pao mo cost less than a Big Mac and tasted a whole lot better.

If you visit Hui Min Jie, don’t forget to go east past the South Gate to the art street, where you can buy musical instruments and art of both the two- and three-dimensional sorts.

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