Without a doubt, my most pleasurable moments in Xi’an have come, sitting on little plastic stools at less-than-entirely-sanitary tables, savoring a plate of noodles (5 yuan) and watching the whole madcap nighttime drama of the city unfold around me. I seldom feel more connected with my fellow city-dwellers than I do crowded around a chao bing cart, rummaging amid piles of vegetables, meats, and tofus for the perfect midnight meal combination.
Xi’an is highly regarded for its variety and selection of street food. Weather (and other factors) permitting, you can find vendors at any time of day. That said, the variety of food on offer shifts over the course of the day and there are definite differences between the food one can find in the morning, afternoon and night.
[Sadly, links no longer work, but a Facebook Album can be seen HERE]
As early as 7 in the morning, small carts line the streets. Most breakfast food involves either eggs, flour or a combination of the two. The most common morning treats are you bing and you tiao, fried dough. Bing is circular and tiao is long and stretched like a garlic stick; both have a taste reminiscent of a slightly salted donut and neither should cost more than 0.5 to 1 yuan. Typically Chinese will eat these with soymilk. Bing can be stuffed with shredded potato or spiced cabbage.
Another vast category of breakfast food is fried stuffed bread (bing). Unlike the simpler fried doughs, these are filled with chives (cong), eggs (jidan), or meat (niu rou) before they are cooked. Less unhealthy looking are the grilled versions of the same thing. None should cost more than 1-3 yuan.
If your preference is for something less artery-clogging first thing in the morning, options up your alley might include steamed bread (mantou) stuffed with veggies or any of the readily available spicy soups (hula tang). Also low fat is jian bing guozi—essentially a crepe filled with egg, chives, and onions.
Between morning and night a great many vendors either vanish or re-locate. Streets like Dongmu Toushi—at other times overflowing with food—become rather desolate save for men hawking pineapple on a stick (1-2 yuan).
There are notable exceptions. At lunchtime, along the backstreets, women pull out their large lunch carts full of meats, greens, rice, and noodles (kuai can). Most noticeable is along Luomashi Street. During midday, this main pedestrian boulevard, already crowded with shoppers, clothing sellers, and wedding planners, becomes full of food vendors as well.
Food unique to this time of day includes shredded pork sandwiches packed into steamed bread (fen zheng rou). Pancake sandwiches (tong luo shao) which can be filled with fruit jam, red beans, or the far-too-ubiquitous powdery-brown pork floss. My personal favorite are the Chinese Egg-McMuffins (like so much street food, their literal name, egg-meat, has no ring to it). These are nothing more than flour fried in something resembling a cupcake tray, filled with egg and meat. Delicious!
On many streets—especially in the Muslim Quarter—one can see fried starch tofu (chao liangfen). This and the non-fried variety are a gelatinous tofu made from water saturated with either flour, potato, or mung bean starch. This can be eaten cold, topped with sauce or it can be fried with spices. The process that creates these noodles produces excess material which is used for the common—and in my opinion rather off-putting—kao mian jin. Resembling pig-tails, these curly, spiced, barbequed doughs are, essentially, the detritus of cold noodle preparation.
At night time, the streets flood with options. The most common sights are carts loaded down with a selection of vegetables, meats, eggs, mushrooms, and tofu. Choose what you want (typically .5 to 1 yuan per item) and the cook will fry it, boil it, or grill it depending on your preference. The vegetables can then be covered in a spicy chili sauce or a smoother sesame sauce. Similar to these are the fried sandwich (chao bing) carts that will cram all your selections into a fried round of bread.
Nearby are the carts serving fried noodles (chao mian). The typical cart will have a variety of noodle choices—several dry, steamed options, several moist-looking boiled varieties and probably rice to boot. To this can be added either egg (jidan), meat (rou), or, quite commonly, large in-shell shrimp and snails (tianluo). All for around 5 yuan.
Grilled meat skewers (kao rou) are often a common sight. Thin strips of finely-spiced meat are usually served up on a simple metal plate without any addition. The version sold by Uighur people from eastern China, however, will come with a special flat bread to eat in combination.
Among the cheapest options are the carts serving up dumplings (baozi) and wonton soup (huntun tang) both for about 5 yuan. To add flavor, dumplings can be dipped in a flavorful vinegar-chili sauce (tiao liao zhi).
But, try as I may, this is only a partial list of the potential meals Xi’an offers up. The adventurous or ambitious ex-pat could spend a month of nights trying different dishes and still not taste them all. And herein lies the ultimate charm of Xi’an’s food scene, this superabundance of possibilities. It’s a food lover’s dream.