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Xi’an Street Food – A Glutton’s Journey

OK I admit it, I ate every single item featured on this page, and it’s a very long page. If you hate street food, give up now and go make yourself a piece of pritikin toast. If you love it, read on and be prepared to feel very, very hungry by the end. All of this incredible food comes from Xi’an‘s fabled Muslim Quarter, home to a sizeable population of Hui Chinese muslims. To find it, just head north from the Drum Tower in the old city, and follow your nose down the small streets and alleys. The diversity of street food here is unparallelled to anything I’ve seen before in China, although I’ve since been told that Chengdu, in Sichuan province, is just as exciting in the street food department. Add that to the list of places to visit.

We ate dinner in the Muslim Quarter one night, and headed straight back for lunch the next day, and honestly, I could happily eat here every night for a year. Subsequently, as we sprinted through the crowded train station the following day to catch our train back to Shanghai (and almost missed it by a whisker), I was greatly consoled by the thought of two more meals in Xi’an if we had to stay another night……..

In addition to all the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants, there are also dozens of shops heaving with autumn’s splendid bounty – baskets of huge round Shaanxi walnuts, trays of dried persimmons, boxes of tamarind, baskets of red and black dates, and mountains of fresh local pomegranates. Like a squirrel I darted here and there, stocking up on things to take back to Shanghai and try later.

I have tried and mostly failed to give you the names of everything, in English and Chinese. Any Xi’an natives out there who can help out? I apologise for any errors and will try to rectify them as more information comes to hand.

Chao Liang Fen 炒凉粉 Stir Fried Bean Jelly. We started with a meal of this gelatinous mixture, scooped into our bowls from a gigantic steaming griddle. Fried flatbreads stuffed with a mildly spiced lamb mixture were offered alongside. The crispness of the flatbreads was a great contrast to the soft cubes of bean starch, gently fried with a fragrant and heavy mutton stock, bean sprouts and chili. 

Spiced peanuts, and toasted and spiced crisp broadbeans. The peanuts pack some kind of punch, roasted with chopped dried chillies. The fiery heat means you can eat only a few at a time, probably a good thing when there is so much else on offer…..

Feng Mi Liang Gao 蜂蜜凉糕 Honey Cold Glutinous Rice. The photos here don’t do this justice, and nor does the description, because it really is truly delicious – a slab of glutinous rice is spread with a dark sweet sauce made from dates and black sesame seeds, folded in half, and then ground nuts and white sesame seeds are pressed into the surface. It’s cut into small diamond shapes which you eat daintily with a toothpick. Cool and sweet. We wolfed down two boxes in no time at all.

Yang Rou Chuan 羊肉串 Spiced Lamb Kebabs. Available at every corner, these little lamb beauties are marinated with a dry spice mixture of cumin, chili, pepper and garlic and grilled over charcoal. The easiest way to eat them is with a flatbread, seen warming here next to the grill.

Grilled quail eggs, served five in a row on a stick, and brushed with sesame paste. Impossibly delicious.

Shi Zi Bing 柿子饼 Persimmon Cakes. Persimmons are everywhere in Xi’an – fresh, dried, crystallized, and cooked. Lin tong ‘fire crystal’ persimmons are the most famous local kind, small and spherical, they are ‘red like fire’ and ‘clear as crystal’, and indeed they do have a translucent skin when they are totally ripe. The skin is very astringent, so the easiest way to eat them is to pull off the stalk and squeeze the sweet pulp directly into your mouth. Or, if you’re more lady-like, use a spoon to scoop out the pulp….

These persimmon cakes were a tip-off from a reader – thanks Hilary! One of the most delicious things I ate whilst in Xi’an, and possible one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten, ever. The cakes are made from a persimmon dough, wrapped around a filling (choose from one flavoured with ground walnuts, osmanthus, or rose) and then flattened and gently fried. As you bite through the crisp exterior, the sweet syrupy filling oozes out. Totally addictive, but they don’t travel well at all so I’mid-way through a (so far fruitless ) search for the recipe, before persimmon season is over. 

Xi’an Guang Tang Baozi 灌汤包子 Dumplings Stuffed With Meat and Sauce. Not a little unlike Shanghai xiaolongbao, these dumplings are filled with a meat mixed with a savoury gravy, and eaten with a vinegar dipping sauce spiked with chili and Sichuan pepper. A new favourite!

Time for something sweet – Sesame Brittle, and Peanut Brittle, sold by weight.

Steamed coconut yeast cakes. Light, airy, and not too sweet. I’ve had no luck in tracking down a Chinese name for these.

Baked flatbreads, each with its own beautiful pattern, sprinkled with sesame seeds and baked on the inside of a charcoal-fired clay-pit oven.

Jing Gao 镜糕 Steamed Glutinous Rice Lollipops. Now these are intriguing. The unsweetened glutinous rice is steamed in individual wooden molds, with three pieces of dried fruit in the centre. The vendor places three skewers into one, levers it gently out of the mold, and spreads each side with a sweet gel, for example hami melon or strawberry, then dips one side in crushed nuts, and the other in a black sesame seed and sugar mixture. The result? Sweet, crunchy outside giving way to a gooey glutinous centre. Despite evrything else I’d consumed, I finished a whole one by myself, and half of someone else’s. What a pig.

Hua Sheng Gao –Peanut Cake. Last but not least. Flaky and sweet, a little like halva, but with a delightful peanut butter richness. You’ll be pleased to know I didn’t unwrap this in the middle of the street and devour it like some greedy glutton. I waited til I got back to Shanghai for that. 

And you know what?? Despite tasting all of these dishes, I barely scratched the surface of what was on offer, and I missed some of the most famous Xi’an dishes altogether. Next time I’m going to try the famous Yang Rou Pao Mo 羊肉泡馍 – Mutton Soup With Flatbreads, and Rou Jia Mo 肉夹馍 – Spiced Shredded Mutton in Wheat Bread. Next time. If only I’d missed that train…….

  • MFC

    This post made me SO happy that I'm moving to China (specifically Shanghai!) this summer! I've been to Xi'an before, and I've been as far west as Kashgar and reading back on my emails from those times I realize that they were mostly about food. Your blog is absolutely beautiful and it's making me so excited to get back to eating and living in China! I'm not familiar with some of these street foods and I'm really excited put on stretchy pants and get gluttonous! Thank you!

  • Mitchell

    Fiona, yes you made me hungry! That part of Shanghai is one of my favorites; I think you make me "homesick" for the street food area, as I haven't been there now for 3 years. I also like to go to the street markets in Taiwan, for the same reasons. And I eat pretty much everything in sight…

    I know, travelers from the U.S. are cautioned not to eat "street vendor" food. But no matter where I've been: Taiwan, China, Korea, Malaysia and more; I've never had a bad batch of food, nor any tummy troubles.

    The Chile Doctor

  • Kimberly Peterson

    I LOVE street food and I am so excited to see some real life experiences of someone going around eating street food in China!! Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

  • Fiona

    To MFC – how wonderful that you get to come back again to China after so long! I'm dying to go to Kashgar too, and just working out how long it will take by train……

  • Fiona

    To Mitchell the Chile Doctor – same for me – I eat street food everywhere I go, and really never had any problems – although sometimes I think….'this is it – I'll be sick as a dog for the next three days, but it will be WORTH it' as I sink my teeth into some delicious snack. So far, so good, fingers crossed 😉

  • Fiona

    To Kimberley
    Thanks! It's certainly how a lot of my time gets spent…;)

  • Louise

    What an astonishing diversity of food you found there. It all looks amazing. I'd love to try pretty much all of them. The persimmon cakes do sound intriguing.

  • Camille

    Wow. It all looks amazing. I think my favorites are the quail egg skewers, the persimmon doughnuts, and the steamed not-quite-xiaolongbao.

  • Jennifer-Adventuresome Kitchen

    Yet another city to put on my list of places to visit! Those food pictures look amazing!

  • shaz

    Wow, this is a fabulous post because I'd never eaten anything like these before (except possibly for that last biscuit which sounds familiar). I do hope you find a recipe for the persimmon cakes and share it. I love persimmon but it's a flavour that's hard to incorporate into "western" baked goods.

    I've eaten a lot of street food in my time too, so far so good. The one time I got sick from eating something on holiday, I suspect it was oysters from a multi-starred hotel buffet!

  • Fiona

    Those oysters….they'll get you every time…..

    Still hunting for a good recipe for the persimmon cakes, will keep you posted!

  • Jeff

    Found this while looking for a recipe for these cakes in google. Any luck?

  • Fiona

    Jeff, I found a basic Chinese recipe without quantities, and without a recipe for the centre filling. I'm just going to go ahead and try it later this week regardless because the presimmons are fat and ripe right now. If successful I'll post the recipe. Fingers crossed!