Perched on a bench in a hazardous ‘Tuk Tuk’ tricycle we hung on for dear life as a tiny, toothless grandmother pedalled her way through the traffic. Swerving impudently between fancy limousines and screeching taxis she dodged a red light, took a sharp left turn and stopped abruptly. Accepting her fare of ten yuan, one pound, she sped off. Standing at the edge of a busy highway with no idea where we were we felt slightly vulnerable.
The ancient city of Xi’an in the heart of central China is crowded and congested. Ancient temples and ramshackle buildings contest for space and light in the shadows of futuristic skyscrapers. Home of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army it is one of China’s top tourist attractions.
We were visiting Olivia, our twenty-year-old daughter, who was on a study year in China. She had left Edinburgh months before, alone and terrified, leaving us in the same predicament. It was wonderful to be together again. She had fallen in love with the country and its people and was already conversing in Mandarin.
Not sure of our bearings, we headed uncertainly down a dimly lit street. Our misgivings were assuaged by the tantalizing aroma of meat roasting, and the appetising fragrance of toasted cumin, sumac and chilli. Encouraged, we quickened our pace.
Turning a corner, our fears evaporated. Stretching ahead of us was a long narrow street of ancient low buildings, lined with vibrant bright lights, overhanging lanterns and street decorations. Lively music and the strong beat of drums created a celebratory atmosphere. In the distance, hovering above the skyline, a massive ancient Bell tower sparkled with gold, red and green lights, like an oversized flying saucer.
Lining the street were innumerable makeshift kitchens with family groups preparing mouth-watering sizzling food. Flames licked from braziers of smouldering ashes; red glowing coals fashioned necklaces of irresistible attractions. The air was thick with smoke; the street packed with Chinese people eating.
‘This is it!’ Olivia was relieved and excited ‘The Muslim Food Street.’
Positioned at the end of the exotic silk route, merchants and travellers from Persia, Arabia and Central China had settled in Xi’an over a thousand years ago. Today the population in this small enclave in the heart of the ancient city are almost entirely descendent of those original Muslim settlers. In the labyrinths around their Great Mosque, they trade traditional halal dishes handed down through generations. As descendants of an Italian immigrant family in Scotland ourselves, we felt an immediate kindred spirit with these Muslim settlers in their adopted land. We too prepare food in the tradition of our forebears and make a living sharing it with our own customers.
We were excited and ravenous. The extreme pleasure of street food is the immediacy, a smile and exchange of a little money gives instant access to anything that entices. We didn’t hesitate.
Bowls of warming lamb soup, paomo, thickened with torn bread and filled with slithers of sweet tender lamb were delightful. From braziers with enormous metal fryers, sizzling pastries, roujiamo, stuffed juicily with marinated beef and chilli pickle were delectable. Was this the original burger?
Young boysslapped and kneaded enormous pieces of soft dough, transforming them until glossy and smooth. Then with two or three flips of the wrist and ‘bangs’ on the table they magically stretched them into thick noodles, called lamian. Boiled in huge cauldrons then dropped into a bowl with spring onions, tender lamb and hot broth we felt we had arrived home. Could this then be where pasta originated?
A stripped carcass of a lamb hung as if vultures had devoured every morsel of flesh. We didn’t hesitate to try the niurouchuan, lamb skewers arranged like rows of warriors, marinated in sumac and cumin and grilled to sublime deliciousness on an open fire.
Two young boys, dressed in black uniform with caps perched on their jet black hair, chanted in rhythm as they banged thick wooden mallets on a high pile of sesame seeds thrown onto a worn wooden table. With good humoured effort they transformed them into sesame snacks, sweet, crunchy and deliciously warm.
Another pulled a thick white coil of sugar, attached to a hook on a pole, throwing it back over the width of the street, twisting it and pulling it repeatedly. The result: spicy ginger flavoured sugar rock made before our very eyes.
Bicycles passed between the crowds laden with baskets of golden green apples and giant strawberries. A wizened, bearded man roasted giant chestnuts, the aroma pervading the air.
Sweet offerings abounded; toffee crab apples arranged on sticks, pink pomegranate juice freshly squeezed or piping hot apple juice punch with cinnamon and cloves. Sweet glutinous rice cakes, meigui jinggao, flavoured with rose jam tipped from charming terracotta bowls.
Obvious in the crowd as the only Caucasians there we were stared at, smiled at and treated like celebrities. People asked to take our photos, innocently intrigued by strangers. They enjoyed our appetites and laughed as we relished the traditional Chinese Muslim food; we felt like emperors.
They asked us continuously where we were from. The response was always enthusiastic.
‘Ah! Sugelan! Sean Connery!’
We returned the next morning to visit the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the largest and oldest in China. Inside its ancient boundaries, the noise and clamour of the modern metropolis and the exuberance of the food street faded in a peaceful welcoming oasis of prayer. The call to prayer summoned the men and boys from the stalls the previous night, who came in groups, quietly and respectfully to pray.
On ancient posts around the beautiful courtyard, instructions from the Qur’an were inscribed in Arabic, Asian languages and English. The messages were of peace, fairness and harmony and rang true to our own beliefs. Rather than the many differences; we felt a lot in common with these gentle people. We had been welcomed, nourished and included.
Feeling happy and content, we headed back to the Muslim food street for lunch; you can never get too much of a good thing, after all.