Eating in Xi’an, Where Wheat and Lamb Speak to China’s Varied Palate

Eating in Xi’an, Where Wheat and Lamb Speak to China’s Varied Palate

In the city’s Muslim Quarter, meals are a celebration of globalization and ethnic diversity — and a lasting defense against erasure.

IN THE VAST departure hall of Shanghai’s decade-old Hongqiao Railway Station, an epic writ in 80,000 tons of steel, everything looks new and tired at once, tinged with gray — even the October sunshine that filters down from skylights so high it can’t quite reach the floor. This is architecture meant to set the soul asoar, but I am conscious only of how far I am below, in the horde at the gates. Down the stairs, the bullet train waits, sleek-nosed and sealed in on itself, like a missile. A stoic janitor steers a Zamboni-like machine down the platform, buffing it to a gleam. When the train sets off, it feels like nothing: the slight give of a door unlatched. If I don’t look out the window, I can imagine myself absolutely still.

The Chinese government started laying intercity high-speed track in 2005, and today, its network is the longest and most heavily relied upon of any nation’s. Six hours are enough to devour the over 900 miles from Shanghai to Xi’an, the landlocked capital of Shaanxi Province in China’s central northwest, standing on the bones of the imperial city of Chang’an. In the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., this was the center of not only China but the globe — the eastern origin of the trade routes we call the Silk Road and the nexus of a cross-cultural traffic in ideas, technology, art and food that altered the course of history as decisively as the Columbian Exchange eight centuries later. A million people lived within Chang’an’s pounded-earth walls, including travelers and traders from Central, Southeast, South and Northeast Asia and followers of Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism. All the while, Shanghai was a mere fishing village, the jittery megapolis of the future not yet a ripple on the face of time.

When the train docks, I emerge from the metal cocoon into another hangar, swooping and skylit. Outside, Xi’an is at once grander and more prosaic than its distant ancestor, a grid of choked streets traversed by a population verging on 10 million. It takes an hour to drive 10 miles into the oldest part of the city, a rectangle marked off by a moat and defensive walls 40 feet tall and 45 feet wide, which today are popular as an exercise circuit. (Facebook’s C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, once posted photographs of himself jogging along the cobbled ramparts.) When the taxi driver can’t find the right alley, I continue on foot to my hotel, a converted house equipped with chic furniture and questionable plumbing, where a few days later the electricity will fail and the young staff, who have been busy icing cookies for Halloween — a holiday with roots among the Celts of Ireland two millenniums ago, as foreign to this country as Christmas — will scrounge up tiny Mickey Mouse-shaped candles for guests to light the way.

At night, I walk alone, down pitch-dark lanes that yield to pedestrian malls and broad boulevards, tracking the icon of myself on my phone’s maps app, one of the few unhindered by China’s formidable firewalls. It works everywhere, even underground, in the sea of life churning through the circular underpass below the 14th-century Bell Tower — a former military alert system turned tourist attraction, lit up in red and green LED. Skyscrapers are restricted in this part of town, but there are KFC franchises and fake Apple stores that look like the real thing: minimalist white boxes with products posed like relics on maple altars. (The products at least are genuine, as I discover to my relief when I have to buy an emergency power cord.)

The more we chase the past, the further it recedes.

I HAVE COME TO Xi’an, like many before me, to eat yangrou paomo in the old town’s Muslim Quarter, a warren of aged alleys measuring roughly a square mile. It has been home to generations of the city’s Hui, members of one of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups and the largest of the country’s 10 Muslim minority communities. (As of China’s last census, in 2010, there were 10.5 million Hui nationwide.) Hui is an inexact label for a people that comprises many sects, scattered across the country, with no language of their own. What they share is an ancestry often traced back to the first Muslim Arabs and Persians to enter China during the Tang dynasty, as merchants and, in the northwest, as mercenary warriors sent by the Abbasid Caliphate (A.D. 750-1258) to help quash the An Lushan Rebellion. In the early years of Islam, Muslim traders mostly bypassed the Silk Road in favor of crossing the Indian Ocean to the ports of southeastern China, where they were designated fan ke — “foreign guests” — a foreignness that persisted even for their children by Chinese wives: tusheng fan ke, “native-born foreign guests.” As the British Sinologist Michael Dillon has chronicled, Islam didn’t truly take root in the country until five centuries later, when the Mongol leader Genghis Khan and his successors conquered almost a quarter of the globe and forcibly marched as many as three million Muslim soldiers, along with untold numbers of Muslim artisans, scientists and scholars, from Central Asia to China. Under the rule of his grandson Kublai Khan, their descendants intermarried with the locals and were accepted as Chinese, becoming known as the Hui.

At Lao Liu Jia Paomo, a clattering, no-nonsense canteen, the meal begins with an empty bowl and a pale round of flatbread, steamed and crisped until it’s hard on the outside but still spongy within. All customers are enlisted as prep cooks: Before we can eat, we must tear the bread into a hundred tiny pieces to fill that bowl. The ideal size for each piece, I’m told, is that of a soybean — otherwise “they judge you,” says Hu Ruixi, who with her American-born husband, Brian Bergey, runs the Xi’an-based food-tour company Lost Plate. She sits across from me, wrists flicking in practiced gestures as she reduces the bread to rubble. The same task takes me longer, my fingers fumbling as I try to get the pieces small enough, twisting and pinching, and I imagine the chefs sneering at my scraps.

I end up with a coarse confetti that looks like popcorn dregs, which I return to the kitchen with a paper ticket dropped on top so the servers can remember whom it came from. Soon the bowl is thunked back down on the table, the bread now submerged — mo meaning “bread” and pao “soak” — in a fennel-laced broth of lamb bones simmered for half a day, with fatty cuts of yangrou (lamb) on top. There’s a side saucer of pickled garlic cloves, sharply sweet, to suck on as a respite from the lushness. The painstaking demolition makes sense: The smaller the nubs of bread, the better they absorb the soup. The drenched crumbs suggest a proto-noodle, as if knots of raw dough had been dropped directly into the broth to boil and set. It’s life-affirming; I can feel a plush new layer forming under my skin, protecting me from winter.

Yangrou paomo belongs wholly to China’s north. Lamb is a legacy of nomadic herding on the Eurasian Steppe that reaches from Mongolia to Hungary; Hu admits she isn’t fond of the meat, having grown up in the south, in neighboring Sichuan Province. The presence of bread, too, attests to a geographical rift, marked by the Qinling Mountains just outside of Xi’an, which run through the heart of the country from east to west, separating the cool north from the warm and humid south, the wheat fields from the rice paddies. It’s a division that endures to this day, in both eating habits and character, between the collaborative rice farmers of the south, who had to rely on irrigation systems that bound them to their neighbors’ fates, and the more independence-minded wheat farmers of the north, who tilled their fields alone.

While rice is native to China — and so essential to Chinese culture that the word for cooked rice also signifies food — wheat was once foreign. It thrives on dry summers and winter rain, the opposite of the climate in northern China, and its migration here in the third millennium B.C. from the Fertile Crescent, a sweep of land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, was an early example of ingredients crossing borders, as the archaeobotanist Robert N. Spengler III notes in “Fruit From the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat” (2019). For centuries, the Chinese ate wheat only out of necessity, and then only simply steamed, like millet, which did little to endear it to them. Wheat noodles appeared during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), but making them was laborious enough that they were reserved for the rich; milling technology, imported from Central Asia, did not become widely available until the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), when Persian merchants sold sesame-seed-studded cakes on the street corners of Chang’an. Today, wheat is unequivocally Chinese: The government devotes more land to its cultivation than any other nation, and the grain is the foundation of entire genres of dishes, from noodles and dumplings to bread steamed, baked or fried.

“We think of globalization as a uniquely modern phenomenon, yet 2,000 years ago too, it was a fact of life,” the British historian Peter Frankopan writes in “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” (2015). But arguably, globalization — the passage of goods, beliefs and peoples from one part of the world to another — began here, in this valley fed by the Wei River, in the lost splendor of Chang’an.

THERE WAS NO China, only a collection of squabbling states, before the short-lived but powerful Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.) brought terror and unity to the land. The Qin were the first to stake their capital here, on the Wei River, but the country’s Han majority — now the world’s biggest ethnic group, more than a billion strong, representing nearly one out of every six people on earth — take their name from the Qin’s successor, the Han dynasty, which raised a new capital nearby, Chang’an, in 202-200 B.C. Not long after, the emperor Wudi sent an envoy to the West: the dawn of China’s engagement with civilizations beyond its frontiers. Where the landing of Europeans in the Americas in the 15th century was sudden and calamitous, the Eurasian cultural exchange happened slowly, over centuries, between nations meeting as relative equals.

The trade routes — strengthened and expanded under the Tang dynasty in the seventh century — were never known as the Silk Road to the people who walked them. The German geographer Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen wielded the term in 1877, in support of 19th-century Western colonialism; the name tells us only what the West took from the East. Certainly the Roman Empire spent a fortune in its lust for Chinese silk, a scandalous cloth that some critics believed left women as good as naked and that was all the more desirable for being difficult to procure. But the Chinese had wants, too: horses from Central Asia for their armies. And as the Romans fantasized about a land beyond their horizons, the Chinese exalted the otherness of the countries to their west. In “The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics” (1963), the American Sinologist Edward H. Schafer writes of Chinese aristocrats enthralled by the customs of erstwhile “barbarians”; one moony prince set up a Turkish camp on palace grounds and sat there dressed like a khan, slicing boiled mutton with his sword. Soon, Western influence had become so pervasive that the early ninth-century poet Yuan Zhen warned about the risk of losing Chinese customs in the quest for crass novelties:

Ever since the Western horsemen began raising smut and dust,
Fur and fleece, rank and rancid, have filled Hsien [Chang’an] …
Women make themselves Western matrons by the study of Western makeup;
Entertainers present Western tunes, in their devotion to Western music.

Nostalgia for the Silk Road was, until the past decade, a Western indulgence. But in 2013, President Xi Jinping explicitly invoked the Silk Road as the inspiration for a multibillion-dollar, transcontinental investment in infrastructure, domestic and abroad, over land and sea — encompassing roads, railways, pipelines and ports — to tighten the connections between East and Central Asia, Europe and Africa, expanding China’s sphere of influence. Key to this new global dominion is boosting the laggard economies of western China, which have missed out on the boom of coastal cities like Shanghai. Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, “once dilapidated and little mentioned in any local brochure,” as the Chinese anthropologist Jing Wang has written, is now being promoted as “one of the living testimonies to the cosmopolitan spirit” of the Silk Road.

On a bright and chilly Sunday morning, the main street of the quarter is thronged by tourists, mostly Chinese, clutching skewers like neutered swords. Every other storefront seems to sell them, meat of all kinds (except pork) impaled and charred, even whole baby squid, which Hu, my guide, warns against: “Are we anywhere near the ocean?” Instead, we head for narrower alleys. In one shop, a young man yanks belts of dough back and forth, snapping them down on the steel counter with a biang biang, a sound so singular that the convoluted Chinese character for it — which doubles as the name of the resulting noodles, heaped with garlic and chile, and then glossed with hot oil and vinegar — doesn’t even appear in modern dictionaries. It’s a swirl of sub-characters, among them those for “moon,” “heart,” “speak,” “cave” and “horse,” requiring more than 50 strokes; cruel teachers have been known to assign the writing of it as a punishment for tardy students.

Down another lane, Jia Wu Youhuxian is mobbed, but by locals. Jia Yu Sheng, the 73-year-old owner, has been making the house specialty since he was 16: thick pancakes with shining layers as translucent as vellum, brimming with beef and spring onions. Now, he keeps vigil over his sons, Jia Yun Feng and Jia Yun Bo, as they pull the dough into kerchief-thin panels that stretch but do not break. Half of each panel is heaped with meat and gilded with sauce, then rolled into a rough ball, while the other half is left long and stretched further still, into a rippling ribbon, and then it, too, is furled and the ball is pressed flat and fried into a great gold coin. The layers multiply, flaking, perfumed with fennel and its faint smack of menthol, another gift of the Silk Road.

At Lao Liu Kaorou, Liu Xin Xian and his wife, Li Sai Xian, now in their 60s, have been selling beef skewers since 1987, out of what is essentially their living room. (They sleep upstairs.) The meat is dusted with salt, cumin and pulverized chile, but the secret, as with all barbecue, lies in the sauce, about which they will reveal nothing. ⁣⁣Outdoor charcoal grills were recently banned as part of a government effort to ease pollution, and Liu feared that going electric would ruin the flavor of the meat; fortunately, the skewers, turned over a long trough of glowing red bars that resemble a xylophone, still come out blackened and smoky, and, as his wife points out, “it’s better for the environment.” With retirement looming, they can only hope that their son — who borrowed their recipe for his own barbecue spot, which he runs with a friend a few blocks away — will keep the tradition alive. ⁣

AS WE WALK, we pass a man in a white skullcap standing on a ladder, daubing paint on a restaurant sign. I begin to notice other signs with little scars: a swath of paint or tape or otherwise improvised appliqué to hide the Arabic script and symbols that vouch for the cooking as halal — coverings mandated by the government as part of a crackdown on Islamic expression. The main targets of this campaign have been the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who are concentrated on China’s northwestern frontier in Xinjiang, a late and reluctant annexation to the Chinese Empire in the 18th century. Since the 1950s, the state has encouraged Han migration to the region, diluting the Uighur majority and overriding their culture. Unrest has been met with ever-increasing police controls and surveillance, and in the past few years, more than a million Uighurs have been detained in hundreds of re-education camps, which officials have characterized as correction facilities and job training centers. While news analysts have framed the conflict as primarily ethnic rather than religious — as well as geopolitical, intensified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Turkic Muslim republics bordering Xinjiang — in 2015, President Xi Jinping openly called for the “Sinicization” of Islam throughout the country, extending beyond the Uighurs to the Hui. In Xi’an, the hijab, gaitou in Mandarin, was banned at Shaanxi Normal University, and a Hui protest against the sale of alcohol in the Muslim Quarter — along with a nationwide call by the Hui for proper regulation of halal (qingzhen) food — was exploited on social media to provoke fears over the rise of Shariah, the legal code of Islam (jiaofa), as a threat to secular Chinese culture.

For centuries, the Hui have lived, for the most part, quietly alongside the Han, although the relationship has never been easy. The American anthropologist Dru C. Gladney has observed that the Hui often experience a degree of “physical and linguistic invisibility” alongside their Han neighbors and are sometimes identified dismissively as “Han who do not eat pork.” Still, that dietary distinction reveals a deeper schism: Pork is considered essential to China’s culinary heritage — Mao declared it a “national treasure,” and the character for jia, meaning “family” or “home,” depicts a pig under a roof, honoring the animal that over millenniums kept many Chinese alive in times of scarcity, surviving off scraps and requiring little land — and rejection of the meat can be read as rejection of China itself.

Little acknowledgment is given to Muslim contributions to Chinese civilization. After the decline of Chang’an and the Tang dynasty, when Baghdad, the seat of the Islamic empire, became the new cultural center of the world, Muslim scholars and artisans brought China advances in medicine, mathematics, astronomy and the arts, from metalwork and glassware to the cobalt pigments that would become the signature of Chinese porcelain. Under the Mongols, the Hui were privileged over the Han and revered as masters of finance, responsible for a new prosperity. But this holds no sway in more recent historical memory; as the American anthropologist Maris Boyd Gillette has written, Chinese officials tend to portray the Hui as “feudal” and “backward,” with “a racial predisposition to violence,” harking back to a Hui uprising in the northwest in the last half of the 19th century that was suppressed so savagely, it was reported that out of Shaanxi’s 700,000 Hui, no more than 60,000 survived.

Even as China is embracing internationalism, proposing partnerships with more than 60 countries as part of its New Silk Road initiative — which would effectively mean touching the lives of two-thirds of the world’s population, a neo-imperialist reach greater than even Genghis Khan’s — it still seeks to promote conformity within its borders, both ideologically and, increasingly, in the definition of what it means to be Chinese. Gladney has argued, controversially, that the elevation of the Han as the standard-bearer for Chinese culture is a relatively new construct, with roots in late 19th-century Japanese nationalistic ideology. It’s a rigid conception that, he believes, has displaced “more indigenous Chinese notions of identity” — ones that accepted and honored difference, rather than tried to subsume it.

KUBLAI KHAN consolidated power in 1279 as the self-declared Yuan emperor, head of the first non-Han dynasty to rule all of China. It lasted barely a century and is remembered for its brutality. But Yuan feasts, as documented in “Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink,” a dietary manual codified for the Chinese court in the 14th century, offer a more complicated picture of the tension between conquest and assimilation. The Mongol influence was clear, especially in dishes involving lamb, every part used, as described by the Chinese biochemist Hsiang Ju Lin in “Slippery Noodles: A Culinary History of China” (2015): deep-fried tendons, air-dried intestines, raw liver, ears, tongue and whole heads garlanded with kidneys, stomach and lungs. A number of ingredients, such as red currants and smartweed, were not cultivated but foraged from the wild, following the folk wisdom of the steppes. At the same time, imperial menus also reflected “a collective culinary heritage,” the American scholars Paul D. Buell and Eugene N. Anderson note in “A Soup for the Qan” (2010), and included Turkic noodles, Tibetan tsampa (roasted barley flour) and dishes from as far away as Baghdad and Kashmir. This was “a deliberate attempt to represent the Mongolian world order in visible, tangible, edible form” — the empire made manifest on the table, in a show of might.

The breadth of Chinese cuisine today is still testament to those disparate origins. Historically, scholars divided Chinese cooking into four major regional styles, a pantheon expanded to eight in the early 20th century, but both classifications left out much of the country, betraying a bias toward the eastern coastal provinces and the south. Chinese foodways are manifold, both hyper-regional and micro-regional; a recipe beloved in one part of the country may be unknown in another, or so altered to suit the local palate, it no longer counts as the same dish. Partisans will insist that the best Sichuan food — from a region in the country’s southwest famed for its juxtaposition of huajiao (Sichuan peppercorns), at once floral and numbing, and brazen chile — belongs to Chongqing, wholly committed to flame, while others champion Chengdu, ever so slightly gentler and sweeter; the cities lie less than 200 miles apart. Within Xi’an, Hui and Han alike eat roujiamo, the Chinese hamburger: meat tucked into flatbread that’s been crisped on the grill until it shows tiger skin on one side — shades of orange and black — and a chrysanthemum whorl on the other. The Han make it with long-braised pork, doused with a spoonful of its own broth, and the Hui with beef or lamb, stewed, then salted and dried.

But the triumphal Mongol table, stocked with delicacies from far-flung, hard-won territories, is long gone. For much of the 20th century, Chinese historians treated the Mongols as an aberration, a so-called alien dynasty that was inevitably doomed to collapse because they stayed mired in their “barbarian” ways and failed to adopt Han customs. Only in recent decades has the Communist Party begun to extol China’s status as a multiethnic state, not out of a desire to promote diversity but to underscore the idea that minority groups have always been part of China and thus owe their primary allegiance to the Chinese nation, legitimizing the government’s control over potentially restive populations. The cultural heritage of minorities can be tolerated and even celebrated, like the food in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, so long as the deeper rituals behind it remain hidden. One folk tale collected in the 1994 anthology “Mythology and Folklore of the Hui, a Muslim Chinese People” tells of Hui men who journey to Chang’an during the Tang dynasty and are permitted to take Han wives. When the wives’ parents ask what the Hui are like, the women confess that they can’t understand what their husbands are saying — but that “their food is good.” The concluding moral is almost flip: “Eat Hui food; there is no need to listen to Hui words.”

I think of this as I walk the knotted streets of the Muslim Quarter, trying to listen. Then, on my last day, I dutifully head northeast of the city to see what every tourist in Xi’an comes to see: the tomb of the first Qin emperor. He died while traveling in the east, reportedly in search of life-prolonging herbs, and his corpse was brought home in a convoy of carts loaded with salted fish, to disguise the stench and keep the news from the public until royal counselors had settled on a malleable successor. His subterranean necropolis, larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, is reportedly contoured with man-made rivers of liquid mercury — it has yet to be excavated — and houses the bodies of the craftsmen who built it, who were sealed in at the last moment so they would never reveal its secrets. Eight thousand terra-cotta statues of soldiers were posted at its gates to guard the emperor in death, only to be shattered by a vengeful warlord and lost to history until 1974, when shards were discovered by local farmers digging a well.

This is the past, forgotten, recovered and revised for each generation. Restorations here are still underway, although enough statues have been put back together to draw daily throngs, a living legion to face off with the dead. I steel myself for a nationalistic display of raw power, an overwhelming assembly poised to conquer. Instead, I feel a strange lightness, hemmed in by the crowd, gazing down into the great ashen pit. History belongs to the powerful, not those who serve them, but here the emperor is absent. How individual the soldiers are, six feet tall and dressed forever for battle, hair braided and wrapped in a tight bun tilted to the right or flattened beneath a cap or plated crown. I didn’t know we’d be so close that I could look them in the eye. Only from a distance are they an army; this near, each has a face entirely his own. Some seem caught midstride, cast down in thought, with a trace of a smile. Others brood and glower, or lie in parts on wheeled steel tables, as if in a makeshift hospital. They are beautiful, these broken sentinels, still half animated by the flesh-and-blood warriors who were their models, and by the invisible artisans who carved each knuckle, each puckered sleeve. Unmoored from their mission, they wait. Among them stand conscripts from minority peoples who were vanquished and swallowed up by empire. Their eyes and cheekbones are evidence: We, too, were here.

Ligaya Mishan is a writer at large for T. Emma Hardy is working on a monograph called “Homework” and is based in London. Production: PSN Production.

In Xi’an, a morning or evening food tour with Lost Plate will take you to the less trafficked parts of the Muslim Quarter, far from the carnivalesque main strip — places hidden so deep you might never be able to find your way back on your own. A local guide will shepherd you down sleepy alleys by tuk tuk and introduce you to shopkeepers and restaurateurs whose recipes go back generations.

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