Chinese city of Xi'an is best known for its terra cotta warriors, the archaeological marvels located on the outskirts of the city that visitors from around the globe come to view. The awe-inspiring display of warrior statues are not to be missed; however, there is a lot more to Xi'an than its main attraction. Often referred to as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, Xi'an’s streets are full of sights, sounds, colors and flavors that speak of the rich and diverse history of China.
The history of China and its culture is not a brief or simple one. For example, many people are unaware of the role that Chinese Muslims, or Hui people, have played in the country’s history. For a glimpse into the side of China’s history that is not told as often, visitors can explore the winding streets and alleys of Xi'an’s Muslim Quarter, and enjoy food with ancient roots that tell the story of this people.
Get a glimpse into the history of the Muslim Quarter through architecture
The Muslim Quarter of Xi'an is not difficult to find: the famous and easy-to-spot Drum Tower marks the entrance of the area. The Muslim Quarter is composed of a main, narrow street with meandering alleyways that branch off of it like roots from a tree. Visitors can pass an entire afternoon or evening strolling around the area, taking in the rich aromas, unusual sights and unique flavors of the area, and discovering the wonders to which the winding streets lead them.
The best way to experience this area of Xi'an is to wander. Simply roaming around the labyrinthine streets of the Muslim Quarter will keep any visitor entertained for an hour or two at the least. However, there are certain attractions in the Muslim Quarter that some guests might find interesting to round out their trip to this historic sector. There are almost a dozen mosques in the neighborhood, including the Great Mosque of Xi'an, which is the oldest mosque in China, built in 742. Just 25 RMB (3.95 USD) will grant non-Muslims access to the serene mosque grounds as a respite from the busy bazaar streets of the Muslim Quarter.
The Muslim Quarter is the adventurous foodie's paradise!
The mosques and other architectural monuments in the area such as the Drum Tower are lovely to see. However, the heart of the Muslim Quarter is best discovered with the senses of smell and taste. The narrow streets of the district are lined with vendors who sell a plethora of unique and astonishing snacks and treats. This area of Xi'an has been home to a largely Muslim population since the 7th century, and many of the foods sold there today have a history that dates back just as far.
There is something for everyone to eat in the Muslim Quarter. Vendors sell everything from meat, seafood, or quail eggs on a stick, dehydrated fruit, nuts, unusual meats, fresh dumplings, sweet date cakes, Shaanxi sandwiches of finely chopped stewed meats, spicy fingerling potatoes (pictured above), fresh pomegranate juice, and endless other interesting and delicious treats.
One of Xi’an’s oldest and most famous dishes comes from the Muslim Quarter
One famous dish that has grown out of the Muslim Quarter to represent Xi'an as a city is pao mo, a beef or lamb soup into which each person crumbles two hard discs of bread. In the furthest reaches of the alleyways of the Muslim Quarter in shops dedicated solely to this dish, Chinese families and old couples can be spotted spending up to an hour leisurely crumbling their bread to the perfect size before adding the soup itself. With the addition of the flavorful broth, the bread bits become soft as dumplings.
The origins of this now-famous soup can be traced back to the Silk Road days, when the hard unleavened bread was used by travelers as food on long journeys. Today, the bread is sold in enormous discs from many different vendors in and beyond the Muslim Quarter. However, perhaps its most delicious application is in pao mo shops as the tastiest part of this classic Xi'an meal.
Enjoy watching the locals at work
The Muslim quarter is home to some delicious treats that guests won’t find anywhere else. However, it’s not just your taste buds that will be delighted by a visit to this district. Most of the fresh food sold there is made right before the eyes of wandering visitors, and it is often a show. Hui men can be seen hand-stretching dough for noodles, or hammering nuts into soft hot candy. Hui women can be seen shelling nuts or cooking fingerling potatoes with tongue-numbing spices in tiny woks atop small carts. Other vendors fresh-squeeze pomegranates into juice and steam dumplings in enormous quantities.
Make sure you bring pocket money, about 40 - 60 RMB (6.33 - 9.49 USD) to be able to taste several different dishes, because it’s impossible to walk through the this area and not feel hungry! Both adults and children will delight in all there is to see and taste in the Muslim Quarter, and a nighttime stroll in the area is just as enjoyable because the winding streets are ablaze with colorful lights. Food is the main focus of the area, but adults and children will also enjoy the various stands and shops selling souvenirs and trinkets. The only word of caution is, as with any crowded city area, to be mindful of your belongings, as pickpockets are always at work!
The terra cotta warriors are not Xi’an’s only attraction: the Muslim Quarter is not to be missed!
Xi'an’s Muslim Quarter is a feast for the senses. The architecture will transport you back to the days of the Silk Road, and the food and the people making it will give you a sense of the modern Hui people and the history that they come from. The sights, sounds and smells of the Muslim Quarter will satisfy any visitor’s appetite for food as well as for a deeper sense of Chinese culture and history. Make your trip to Xi'an a well-rounded one by enjoying a steaming hot bowl of pao mo after a long day of visiting the terra cotta warriors!
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