We spent three days in Xi’an, checking out the top tourist attractions which included the famous Terracotta Warriors, Goose Pagoda, and the Bell Tower. Being obsessed with food, I was very keen to explore Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter which is the best place to hit for a variety of street foods. As the name suggests, the Muslim Quarter is the hub for Muslims within Xi’an city but is also where both tourists and locals head to for a tasty street food dinner.
Covering a few blocks, the Muslim Quarter is HUGE. Lined with food stalls, it took us a good 20 minutes to walk up and down each street, making sure we knew exactly which foods we wanted for our dinner! Visually, it’s not the best place for vegans and vegetarians. There are multiple carcasses strung up along the outskirts of the streets, with meat being cut straight from the animal for the meaty dishes being prepared on the roadside. However, vegetarian and vegan food IS available and we found plenty of dishes to choose from.Knowing a little bit of Mandarin definitely helps when travelling China with dietary requirements. I was able to chat to stall owners and check that dishes definitely didn’t contain any meat. We found it pretty easy to eat vegan in China but they do tend to try and put meat in everything! So it’s always good to be able to specify no meat/eggs/butter etc.
I thought it would be useful to compile a list of foods we enjoyed, so here’s a list of vegetarian and vegan food at Xian’s Muslim Quarter!
Our favourite find was a simple one: fried potatoes sprinkled with spring onion, pepper, herbs and sesame seeds. We’re big potato fans and these were lovely and crispy. We accidentally chose Chinese (Sichuan) pepper as a topping, which has an unappetising numbing effect so I’d recommend avoiding that! The sign above was also in English and you could also opt for plain or spicy.
Set up in massive blocks, this chilli tofu is loaded with onion, chilli peppers and spring onion and packs a punch! When you ask for a portion, the lady on the stall separates a block for you, and chops it up into bite sized pieces ready to take away.
Translating to ‘cold skin’, Liangpi is a popular noodle dish made from wheat or rice flour and are served cold. A staple dish throughout Xi’an, these chewy noodles are often served with bean sprouts, cucumbers, coriander and a bunch of sauces, such as soy sauce, black vinegar, garlic, and chilli oil. We never actually got to try the Liangpi noodles at the Muslim Quarter in the end as we’d eaten too much of everything else by that point! I tried a similar dish from a restaurant a few days later and we’ve heard from friends and other travellers that it’s a flavour sensation that shouldn’t be missed if travelling through Xi’an!
Pick n Mix Veggies & Tofu
These ‘things on sticks’ stalls are all over China and Xi’an is no exception. Each stall is covered in different veggies, tofu and meats, all skewered on to wooden sticks. Most sticks are 1RMB each (£0.12) and you choose as many as you like to create your dish. You can either have your veggies boiled in a (meaty) broth or fried in a pan, with or without chilli oil. I just pointed to the frying pan and the lady got the idea! I had a range of different mushrooms, some greens and some tofu.
Top Tip: If you are not sure whether something is tofu or not, the word for ‘tofu’ is very similar in Mandarin (I’m sure the English probably stems from this!) – dòufu. Phonetically it would be ‘dough foo’. Point to the food and say ‘dòufu?’ and they’ll either nod or shake their head!
More tofu… once again covered in chilli! This time with a different texture. The strips are slightly chewier and much thinner that the softer variety mentioned above.
An obvious one, but there’s plenty of fruit on offer at the Muslim Quarter. Especially popular is Durian, which is a very stinky fruit with an ever-changing taste! This strange fruit has a soft texture and, when you get a good batch, tastes like sweet, creamy custard. However, it’s very hit or miss whether you get a good batch or not, and it can end up tasting more like onion/ garlic! I was lucky and had some great Durian here – smooth, creamy and delicious. I had a couple of bad batches after this and subsequently gave up trying!
Juices / Coconut Milk
Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is very popular here, and is delicious! You can also find other fruit juices, super sweet sugarcane juice and fresh coconut milk.
Dried Fruit & Nuts
Another fairly obvious one, there is a lot of different dried fruit and nut stalls selling individual packets of fruits and nuts which are all vegan friendly. In particular, there were a lot of HUGE walnuts on offer! You can also pick up flavoured nuts – we tried some great chilli roasted peanuts.
Stretched Sugar Candy
I have no idea what to call this particular food item, but it involves stretching hot sugar up to a metre or so, before repeatedly hammering it with a large mallet then dipping it into nuts! The daring vendors wrap the hot sugar around a pole and pull until the candy is stretched out for a metre or so, then fold it back around the pole and repeat. Once stretched enough, it’s spread on to a table and hammered before being dipped into nuts to create a kind of nut brittle. It’s pretty fascinating to watch as the sugar is pulled and dips towards the ground, being rescued a mere few inches away from touching the floor! There are lots of samples of this kind of candy on offer at stalls, so you don’t have to buy some to be able to try some.
Note: Although I’m told the candy does not contain animal ingredients, I don’t know 100% whether Chinese sugar is processed with animal bone char or not.
Eight Treasure Rose Mirror Cakes
For dessert we found some sweet sticky rice sticks, with the fancy name of ‘eight treasure rose mirror cakes’ or ‘Jing Gao’. Steamed in individual moulds to create a circular shape, the glutinous rice is skewered onto a wooden stick or two and topped with whatever you like. I had mine dipped into sweet jam, black sesame and crunchy peanuts… yum! Different stalls will offer different jams and toppings.
Sticky Rice & Jujube Cake
This sweet dessert is made by layering yellow glutinous rice, kidney beans and Chinese dates (jujuba) before sealing in a special ancient steaming pot called a ‘zeng’. Due to the effort that goes into making these cakes, most places will create a batch or two for the day, and that’s it. It’s an impressive, spongy looking cake which, like many other foods here, is served (cold) on a wooden stick! I’ve heard mixed things about whether the cakes contain honey or not, so although vegetarian, they may not always be vegan. You’ll need to ask if the cake has ‘蜂蜜).
I’m sure there are probably more options than those I’ve mentioned, but hopefully this gives you an idea of the number of vegan and vegetarian options that are on offer in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter!