EVERYTHING TOURISTS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT XI’AN, CHINA! (PART 3/3)
Alright, most recently, I made a trip over to Xi’An in China because I’ve always wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors and that’s where you go to see them. The predecessor to the article is TOP 10 THINGS TO DO IN XI’AN, which you can check out as well to get the whole Xi’An experience.
I LOVED XI’AN! And one of the major reasons why was because of the food – I absolutely loved the food. Now, there is a caveat. It is spicy and heavy in taste. Think opposite of what they call bland British food (sorry, Brits, just saying the ol’ generalization here). Xi’An is located in the province of Shaanxi and is very close to Sichuan. Sichuan’s cuisine is very spicy and Xi’An takes a lot of influence from there, and Shaanxi’s cuisine uses a lot of lamb and mutton. Noodles are more common than rice and generally speaking, they like their noodles wider, thicker and longer than the Beijing noodle style. And did I mention they love their spice? In particular, they love using the red chilli so if you can, make sure you buy some chilli oil from Xi’An.
I do extensive research before traveling to a new place because I’m a huge bucket list person, so I want to be able to eat or see all the things I’m supposed to see; however, I also want to do things that are authentic and off the beaten path for an “exclusive” experience so to speak. Because of this, the must eat foods and the corresponding places to eat them were researched by using an all Chinese website (akin to Yelp and Open Rice) that is the equivalent of Yelp in China.
Top things to eat in Xi’An coming atcha! … and also some foods we tried, but perhaps didn’t like (sorry Xi’An)…
ONE A. ROU JIA MO – SPICY (肉夾饃).
We’re starting off with one of the best things we’ve tried in Xi’An and that’s a rou jia mo (Chinese Hamburger). In western terms, it’s a thick pita bread with braised pork meat inside and lots of chilli oil. The chilli oil is optional, depending on the restaurant. When we arrived at Muslim Quarter, we were starving, so I did the most Hongkie thing ever. I saw a long queue, and I just stood at the end of it, my heart set in eating whatever everybody was lining up for. Turns out, it was the best decision EVER.
Here’s a look at the secret sauce – the chilli oil!
Here’s a video of them making it:
It’s really good and the chilli oil (me thinks) is what makes it so delicious. The pork is really juicy, tender and succulent add the really fragrant taste and aroma of the chilli oil ties everything together. Major yums.
I went to (only average reviews from the locals):
RESTAURANT NAME: 孙家老铺肉夹馍 Sunjia Laopu Chinese Hamburger.
ADDRESS: 北院门街道北院门21号东(近北院门). 21 Beiyuanmen, Muslim Quarters. It’s the the first one on the left hand side with a long queue right on the main street of the Muslim Quarters.
The local favourite is:
RESTAURANT NAME: 秦豫肉夹馍(东木头市店) Qinyu Chinese Hamburger.
ADDRESS: 东木头市19号 19 E Mutoushi.
ONE B. ROU JIA MO – NOT SPICY (肉夾饃).
We love rou jia mo so much so that we had to give the spicy and non spicy rou jia mo each its own category. The vibe of this store looks to be serving purely locals and located in a rather residential area. Lots of people didn’t actually dine at the restaurant – instead, the restaurant sells the braised meat and lots of the patrons just came in to buy the meat or the rou jia mo to go.
The meat was very soft, juicy and tender – but I preferred the spicy one because I’m all about the spice. My friend liked this one better because the meat here is done better. This is definitely a local favourite and even though we went at 10:30am, most of the tables were full of people.
GETTING YOUR UTENSILS: It’s self-serve, and the utensils and cutlery are at the front of the store near the wall.
RESTAURANT: 樊记腊汁肉夹馍(竹笆市店) Fan Ji La Zhi Chinese Hamburger.
ADDRESS: 竹笆市街53号(近阿房宫电影院) 53 Zhubashi.
TWO. LAMB MEAT SOUP DUMPLINGS (汤包子).
These are soup dumplings/xiao long baos/小籠包 and the Chinese 汤包子 literally translates to soup dumplings. This is because these little morsels of heaven are packed with a ton of delicious broth inside. To get the broth inside, they mix gelatin in with the broth so the broth becomes a jelly and then they mix this jelly in with the filling so when you steam the dumplings, the jelly will become liquid again.
A normal soup dumpling has a pork filling, and you dip it in vinegar with slice ginger but the store in Xi’An is famous for their lamb meat soup dumplings. The best part about these bad boys are that even though the skin is very thin, you can still pick up the dumpling without the skin breaking and there is a lot of broth inside the dumplings! The sauce of these dumplings is vinegar mixed in with chilli oil and it is the best thing ever! This was my favourite food from Xi’An, hands down. We went to the famous place to eat these dumplings and I wouldn’t recommend you to go anywhere else but here.
HOW TO ORDER: The ordering is confusing here. You order at the cashier and get a ticket. You then find a table, sit down, place the ticket on the table and do nothing. Someone will come around, then look at your ticket and get your order.
RESTAURANT NAME: 贾三灌汤包子(回民街店) Jia San Stuffed With Juicy Pork Baoziguan (Beiyuanmen).
ADDRESS: 碑林区西羊市回民街北院门93号(近鼓楼) 93 Beiyuanmen.
Biang biang noodles. Biang the character is officially the Chinese character with the most strokes at 58 strokes for Traditional Chinese and 43 strokes for Simplified Chinese. The noodles are described as one of the ten strange wonders of Shaanxi (陕西十大怪) and they’re really long, fat, thick and wide… sort of like a belt. We went to this hole in the wall place that was ranked very highly on China’s local Yelp site and we thought it was interesting. The noodles have a chewy texture like knife cut noodles, which I love; however, the sauce is quite thick and gloopy (it’s got no real distinct taste, sort of like a condensed stew version of a beef noodle soup). I prefer my noodles to be either in soup or fried, so this half in between wasn’t really my cup of tea.
These noodles are a specialty in this region so it’s a must try! We loved the family vibe of the restaurant, but if you’re looking for something a little more established, you can also visit a place called 天下第一面 which is famous for the biang biang noodles. We saw from the reviews that people tended to prefer the more established place.
RESTAURANT NAME: biang biang 面 Biangbiang Noodles.
ADDRESS: 南院门80号 180 Nanyuanmen.
FOUR. LIANG PI (凉皮).
The literal translation of liang pi is cold skin… LOL. Liang pi is made from wheat or rice flour and I think it’s called cold skin from the way it’s made – the soft dough is placed in a bowl and water is added, then the dough is “rinsed” so the starch from the dough makes the surrounding water milky. That starchy water is left in the bowl overnight and after, the starch and liquid will separate, resulting with liquid on the top and starch paste on the bottom of the bowl. That starch paste is poured thinly into a long flat tray, steamed and then cut to resemble noodles.
The texture of the liangpi is slightly different from regular noodles; the noodles are more rough in texture and less slippery, and I find it not to be as filling or heavy as Shanghai noodles (上海面). The type we ate were called Majiang Liang Pi (麻酱凉皮) which is sesame peanut sauce liang pi. They used a sesame peanut sauce mixed in with a lot of chilli oil and it was delicious! The store that was recommended turned out to be a fast food store; we literally saw this dish everywhere so I say, try it at a random hole in the wall place because it’ll be much more authentic.
RESTAURANT:魏家凉皮 Weijia Cold Noodle. Lot of locations.
ADDRESS: 南大街3号(中大国际对面) 3 South St, Beilin.
FIVE. PAOMO – LAMB IN SOUP WITH BREAD PIECES (泡馍).
Paomo is very interesting of a concept. It is a lamb soup with lamb meat and vermicelli with broken bits of hard bread in it soaking up the soup. The concept of the dish has an interesting origin: it’s said to have dated back to the Song Dynasty when the first emperor of the Song Dynasty, Zhao Kuangyin was returning to his hometown and had very little money and food with him. In fact, he only had 2 pieces of hard and inedible bread with him and so when he and his team went to a small shop to buy lamb soup, he also threw his bread into the soup. When he became emperor, he revisited the small shop and asked the owner to remake the dish for him and consequently named it pao mo.
The shop I went to had the pieces of hard bread pre-cut into the soup already, but looking at the photos online, there are other locations of the same restaurant that let you rip the pieces of bread into the soup yourself. OR, perhaps we went to a store with the same name as one of the famous restaurants but it was an imitator restaurant (I don’t know).
If you prefer to be able to rip the bread into the bowl yourself, please make sure you ask before you order. There are two well known restaurants for paomo and there are several stores of these restaurants around the Muslim Quarters.
We ate a lot of lamb in Xi’An and I think that the pao mo was the most gamey of them all, so if you’re not a lamb fan, opt for the beef paomo instead. The paomo comes with a small dish of pickled garlic and really compliments the paomo, just make sure you have gum on standby. There’s really no way of eating the paomo than just digging in. If you like spice, pour chilli oil into it and then dig in! Try some of the bread with soup, then the vermicelli with meat and then however you want to eat it. It’s a very hearty and comforting dish so I can see how it would be great for the winter.
Also, for a very cheap price, you can order a plate of chilled side dishes with whatever you want on it. All the side dishes are out in the open, and you can just point to the dishes and let the staff know which dishes you fancy.
Don’t go to the location I went to. Check this one out instead as they give you the bread to rip yourself so you get the full experience.
RESTAURANT: 米大雨泡馍(西羊市店) Laomijia Diced Pancake In Beef Side Dish. Lots of locations.
ADDRESS: 碑林区西羊市127号 127 W Yangshi.
SIX. LAMB SKEWERS.
These are everywhere. I liked to pick the stores where they actually had someone carving out the meat from a whole lamb because it’s quite entertaining. If you go early evening, you’ll see full plump lambs and in the late evening, all that will be left will be carcasses. Do what the locals do, order a few skewers and then bring them into the pao mo or soup dumpling restaurants (see 2 & 5) to enjoy it with the rest of your meal.
Usually, if there’s a big queue full of locals, you’re probably in the right line.
SEVEN. POMEGRANATE JUICE.
There are a ton of places selling pomegranate juice; however, they’re all prepackaged and looks much too artificially red. I would advise you to only buy from the ones that have a juicer and are actually freshly juicing the pomegranate juice. We weren’t even going to buy one because they all looked much too koolaid like; however, we walked by a vendor that was in mid-juice and you can totally tell the difference between the freshly juiced and artificial ones.
The pomegranates in Xi’An look slightly different to the pomegranates in Canada and HK – they’re not really pink on the outside, but more greenish pink. The juice was sweet and refreshing. If you’ve had pomegranate before, this isn’t going to blow your mind away, but it was nice anyway.
EIGHT. OSMANTHUS FLOWER JELLY/CAKE.
I totally thought I wasn’t going to like this. First of all, I don’t like cakes or super sweet things and this looked like it was going to be super sweet, but I decided to try it anyways. The reason was because I heard several people at various places and times in the day say they were craving for this osmanthus flower jelly, which could indicate good things about this jelly right?
It was very interesting and it tasted exactly like white sugar sponge cake (白糖糕) infused with osmanthus flower. The texture is very chewy, akin to eating glutinous rice, and it’s got a flowery taste to it due to the osmanthus flower. It gets a must try from me due to the popularity and love it gets from the locals.
All the osmanthus jellies look the same, regardless of vendor so I’m thinking maybe they get it from the same vendor? I just bought mine while waiting for my lamb skewers to finish cooking.
NINE. PEANUT CANDY & CHILLI OIL.
Peanut candy and chilli oil make for great souvenirs!
The peanut candy makers will be performing their craft all over the streets at the Muslim Quarters so make sure to nab a sample. Also make sure to nab a sample of the chilli oil and the peanuts with chilli. All so very yummy and they’re the best if you’re looking to bring back souvenirs for the office. I usually get peanut candy for the office, and then the chilli oil for myself or avid spice lovers. The chilli oil in Xi’An is to die for!
TEN. DUMPLING BANQUET.
So, I didn’t have a chance to try this because I was too busy eating all the authentic eats in Xi’An. This dumpling banquet can be said to be a tourist trap and the price will also reflect that. It’s around $30 USD, which isn’t expensive for foreigners but will be very expensive compared to how little you can pay for a good meal in Xi’An.
The famous dumpling banquet is at De Fa Chang near the Bell Tower and it’s a very fancy restaurant, serving you a 18 course dumpling banquet (or something similarly outrageous like that). Each course is a dumpling and they’re all different. I’ve read reviews ranging from “fantastic” to “horrible”; however, where else can you find a dumpling banquet? If I had more time, I definitely would have tried it out. Here is a photo I’ve found on the internet.
RESTAURANT: 德发长(钟楼店) De Fa Chang Restaurant.
ADDRESS: 钟鼓楼广场西大街3号德发长饺子馆2楼(近世纪金花) 3 Xi Dajie, north side of Bell Tower Square.
THINGS WE TRIED OR SAW BUT THINK YOU CAN SAVE THE CALORIES FOR OTHER STUFF…
WU MEI (烏梅).
They (the vendors) call them “wu mei” and I call them grapes… They tasted exactly like a grape. So when I got back to HK, my friend and I did some research. Turns out, they are grapes, BUT they purposely give them a different name and say they’re a specialty from Wuzhen, China; hence the name wu mei. This makes grapes sound more exotic and desirable. Basically a scam. They look slightly darker than grapes because they add a little oil on the outside to give it that shiny, glistening look. Do not buy.
If you understand Mandarin, you can watch this news piece on it where other vendors will admit that wu mei is just a type of grape…
LIAN PENG SACRED LOTUS (蓮蓬).
I was told it was a fruit and so I decided to try it. Apparently, you pop out each individual seed and when you peel away the skin, it’s white inside and then you just eat it raw. Doesn’t it kind of look like a loofah?
After some googling, I found that it’s actually a lotus and you usually use it like how you would a ginkgo, in soups and stir fries. When you eat it raw, it’s got no juice or taste to it… So it really wasn’t my cup of tea at all, in fact, I was joking that it would work better as an exfoliator…
My friend, who is actually from Xi’An says she loves to eat it raw, so maybe it’s an acquired taste (think durian) and I’ve got to try it for a few more times…?
Don’t get me wrong, I love this yogurt stuff; however, it’s not a specialty of Xi’An, it’s everywhere in China and I believe (don’t kill me if I’m wrong) that it’s most famous in Beijing and the famous one is the one in blue and white. What it is is basically yogurt, but more liquidy so you can sip it through a straw so it turns into a yogurt drink. If you’ve eaten something super spicy and you’re trying to deal with it, then yes, get one of these to help you out.
Note: You can’t take the drink with you because they reuse the bottles. You drink it on the spot and give back the bottle to the owner when you’re done. My first time in Beijing the owner didn’t realize I took it until I was half a block away and chased me down… opps.
IF I HAD MORE TIME, I WOULD DEFINITELY TRY CATEGORY:
SKEWERED HOTPOT (烫锅).
This is almost like hotpot, except instead of having plates of raw food that you can put into the hot pot, everything is skewered. There’s usually an area for you to grab the food that you want and you pay per skewer. The skewer then goes into the hotpot and then when it’s done, you grab what you want! Why I didn’t put this as priority because it is very similar to hotpot and you can have hotpot everywhere but you can’t have biang biang noodles everywhere. However, you should definitely try this if 1) you love the chilli in Xi’An because you can get the “spicy mala” soup base 2) Chinese hotpot is not accessible to you where you live 3) you love hotpot.
This is definitely a local favourite (then again, hotpot is a local favourite everywhere in China and HK) and if you’re going to have this, make sure you try their spicy soup base for half of your pot. The local favourite seems to be this place called 老回坊麻辣燙. Here is a photo:
RESTAURANT: 老回坊麻辣燙 Huifangren Spicy Hot Pot.
ADDRESS: 80 大皮院中段(近老乌家小炒) 80 Dapiyuan.
AND JUST GO WITH THE FLOW!
That’s it. Top 3 eats in Xi’An: 1) Rou Jia Mo 2) Paomo 3) Lamb Soup Dumplings!
Lots of eating, but you’ll soon burn off all these calories and more if you’re combining it with our Top 10 Must Dos in Xi’An, which you can read here. Interested in photos? If you search the hashtag #smoogoesxian on Instagram, you’ll be able to find all our Xi’An photos there.
Now, if there’s anything else I’m missing or you need to know about Xi’An, let me know in the comments below!