On the “Muslim Street” in the Chinese city of Xian stands a bronze tableau in honor of street food. There, on a crowded lane packed with stalls selling Islamic-Chinese cuisine — lamb dumplings, mutton soup, pancakes and mung bean noodles — tourists can pose with statues of a soup seller and his customers. It’s a photo opportunity that brings together Xian’s two most famous tourist drawing cards: life-size human replicas and superb dumplings.
Each year, thousands of tour groups swing through Xian in the central part of the country, one of the four ancient capitals of China. The main draw is the site housing 8,000 buried terra-cotta warriors, the life-size standing figures that Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China, ordered to be created and buried to guard his tomb and fight his battles in the imperial afterlife. It’s perfectly possible to zoom in and out of Xian, stopping only to see the warriors in their open-air museum, and be served the characteristic “dumpling feast”: a high-end celebration of local dumpling culture that can include dozens of morsels, savory and sweet; fried, steamed and boiled; some shaped like leaves, others like flowers and frogs.
But Xian, with its millenniums of Chinese history on display, is a remarkable place to spend more than a couple of days. Sights range from two splendid imperial tombs to the syncretic architecture of Chinese Islam at its finest, to an elegant Buddhist pagoda, all in the modern Chinese urban context of a city of about eight million people, replete with aggressive traffic, plentiful construction and bustling luxury shopping malls.
One cold winter evening, my husband, our teenage son and I took the overnight “soft sleeper” train from Beijing to Xian. Our aim was a trip that would build on the warriors — and the dumplings — and let us explore the past and present of the city. The tiny train compartment was cozy, with comforters and pillows, and grassy cups of hot tea brought to us in the morning, shortly before the train pulled into the Xian station right up against the largely intact 14th-century city walls.
We stayed at a residence hotel with small self-contained apartments in the historic center, near the Muslim quarter, and close to two famous 14th-century towers, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, both of which were completely covered in scaffolding. We quickly discovered that though we were just a short walk away from the famous delicacies of the Muslim Street (its formal name is Beiyuanmen Street), we were even closer to the rich possibilities of another small food street across from the hotel, which we quickly came to regard as our own. This street, completely lacking in historic character — or statues — had street vendors with steamers full of dumplings stuffed with glutinous rice, a man who hacked huge grilled scallion-flecked flatbreads into squares, and barbecuers with small grills on which marinated shredded pork and chicken sizzled.
On the Muslim Street, we sampled Islamic Chinese food, which completely eschews pork and relies instead on lamb and mutton, as well as glutinous noodles made from mung bean flour. Women made scallion-filled pancakes to order on griddles (you could also get your pancake filled with yellow chives or with spiced ground meat). We stepped into a storefront to eat our first bowls of paomo, perhaps the most characteristic Xian dish of all: flatbread crumbled into a rich mutton soup.
Xian, the eastern end of the old Silk Road, has long been important for Muslims and Buddhists, emperors and traders. The Great Mosque of Xian was founded in 742, not so long after Islam took root in China. The mosque, rebuilt over the centuries, is notable for its Chinese architecture — a minaret that strongly resembles a pagoda, and pavilions decorated in bright ornamental ceramics. As we explored, afternoon prayers let out, and the courtyard filled with men in skullcaps.