By evening, it was dry again, so I ventured to my final stop – the Muslim Quarter.
You cannot – I repeat, cannot – go to Xi’An without going to the Muslim Quarter. The food alone is worth any jostling and elbow-throwing you have to do to work through the intense crowds.
I started with a bowl of niurou biang biang mien – lamb big noodles. The noodles are thick, flat, and long – sometimes up to a meter long! They are handmade and put into a clear broth with some spice, meat (lamb or beef), cilantro, tomatoes, and maybe potato. Again, it was a local place, and the people thought I was plain strange eating in there. But, since it was packed, I figured it was a good a place as any to try out the other famous Xianese dish.
While I was full, I had to make room for lamb skewers with Xinjiang spices, spicy potato cubes, spiced hot pear drink, and the hard candies. The lamb skewers emit the most mouth-watering and delicious scent you can imagine. Huge chunks of lamb are shoved onto wooden skewers and grilled to juicy perfection over a large fire. The grillmasters are constantly drinking water and sweating it out just as quickly.
The potatoes are tiny little toes of potato and cooked in a massive vat of broth, red chillies, and spices. The vendor drains them with a scoop and puts them into a paper bowl for you to enjoy with toothpicks. I opted for a little cooling peppery mayo sauce over the top.
Hard candies – oh my. Men pull the gigantic sticky candy like toffee and knead it into submission. Then, they put it on a barrel and pound it down with wooden hammers like something out of a cartoon. Back and forth they hammer the candy until it has flattened out. Then, it’s cut into small squares and sold for 10 or 15 kuai a small package. The candy features white or black sesame seeds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, or other nut. They range in color and texture depending on the flavor. All of them are absolutely fabulous. You can’t go wrong bringing back some of the packages for gifts, either. Everyone will love them – unless you’re allergic, of course.
The corn cake on a stick – not to be missed. A good starter. I did not try the UGOs (unidentifiable gelatinous objects) bobbing merrily in some kind of hot water/sauce. I make it a point not to try gelatinous objects. I had a gelatinous substances once, the kind you buy in bulk at Carrefour in the little containers, and it promised to be kiwi-flavored. I tried to dump it out of the container so I could try it, but it would only be removed from the plastic container by inhaling it into your mouth. I did. I was not expecting that texture. So not expecting it. I danced around the kitchen for a bit, then spotted the sink. The gelatinous thing was no more.
On to happier foods – oh, the spiced pear drink. A massive container holds hot pear tea, with fresh cut pears, star anise, cinnamon bark, and cracked nutmeg floating and bubbling in it. The vendor pours out a generous serving into a cup and wraps a thick bit of newspaper around it to keep from burning your hand. I’m so full by now I feel like I’m going to burst, but the tea is fantastic. The spices are perfect for fall, and the pear adds a nice sweetness to the drink.
Of course, since this is the beginning of the Silk Road (sorry, Suzhou), there are dried nuts and fruits galore. You have to buy a few bags of the dried fruit – especially the dates – to take with you. They lasted for ages and were the best I’d ever tried. Yums.
I bought a few local handicrafts to bring back and decided it was time to waddle back to my hostel, stuffed beyond belief but indescribably happy at having discovered this delicious part of Xi’An.