A Whirlwind of Noodles and More in Xi’an, China
How much do I love biang-biang noodles? So much that beyond writing extensively about them here in the past, I found myself planning a trip to Tokyo and thinking, “I’ll be pretty close to Xi’an (home of the noodles), so I should go.” I learned that China now waives the visa requirement for stays up to 72 hours, which I figured would be the perfect amount of time to experience the food scene there. (Not surprisingly, turns out I would have appreciated more time.)
I’d have to maximize my brief time in Xi’an, so I ambitiously scheduled a 6:00pm food tour to follow my scheduled landing at 4:30pm, with the airport an hour from the city. I was the first off the plane and to passport control, but as I anticipated from my research, the visa waiver scenario (it’s a bit complicated) took about 20 minutes to reconcile.
Now on to airport transportation: I’d heard nightmares about hiring a taxi, with drivers taking foreigners for a ride at ridiculously high prices and dumping them on the highway (unverified reports) for lack of funds. Out of concern for my sanity and well-being, my hotel arranged for a private car to pick me up. Thank you, Hilton Xi’an, for both that and the media discount for my stay! (Hotel photos at the end of this post.)
With no more than a “ni hao,” the driver took me on a 10-minute walk to his car. Tracking progress on Google Maps (which I was able to use—along with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—on my phone, but not my laptop) while fearing for my life upon suddenly remembering driving habits in China, I realized I’d get to the hotel just two minutes past the tour start time. I WeChat-ted my tour guide, got to the hotel, threw my bags in the room, and then greeted my guide as she got to the lobby.
Lost Plate Tours would provide a perfect introduction to a mysterious new city. I’m generally skeptical of food tours, but not knowing Xi’an and not knowing the language, this was a great way to spend the first night, getting slightly acclimated and getting fully stuffed with food I would not likely have found on my own. Lost Plate founders Ruixi Hu and Brian Bergey invited me as a guest on both the Evening Tour and the following day’s Morning Tour, and then generously spent a little extra time with me for a few extra bites.
Ruixi runs the tours, having moved recently from Chengdu to Xi’an. A true food lover, she ate her way around the city to pick out the best places to show off the regional cuisine. The tours are unique in that tuk-tuks are the transportation (they’ll pick you up at your hotel if within the city wall), racing through the back alleys to reach places where the locals eat. (The tuk-tuks are an exhilarating part of the experience, though perhaps not ideal for the faint-hearted or claustrophobic, as the space can be tight). I was impressed not only with how well-organized the tours are, but also the communication process leading up to and throughout the tours. Ruixi speaks English well, providing information about the food and food establishments, and answering other questions about Xi’an. And both she and Brian are incredibly friendly.
My Evening Tour made stops to visit a shao bing shop (one of my favorite bites of the night), a skewer-griller, a dumpling restaurant, a place for porridges, and an eatery serving bowls of spinach noodles—all before final festivities at a local brewery.
The next day’s Morning Tour was less formal than usual, as there was just one other guest—a colleague of Brian. We enjoyed a walk through the fascinating Xi Chang Market (also known as the Bird and Flower Market, held Thursdays and Sundays), where one can buy all kinds of food, along with birds, turtles, crickets and cricket “houses,” household products, possibly illegal teeth, “illegal” sexual products, and much more.
Breakfast-turned-lunch would be fried beef pancakes, spicy and numbing soup, sour soup dumplings and (finally) my beloved biang-biang noodles (though not the hot oil-seared version that I like best)—including a little “hands-on” lesson in making them. Ruixi, Brian, and I would then go on to try a couple of “hardcore” dishes (they have a nice write-up of these and others at the Lost Plate Tours website): goat blood with silk noodles, along with bang-bang meat.
Check out how they make the pancakes:
Absolutely stuffed, I’d have little time to recover before venturing out for the evening. On my own, I had to do what everyone does when visiting Xi’an: stroll the Muslim Quarter. It’s colorful and festive and full of amazing sights, smells, and sounds. Cooking fires flare, the scent of cumin pervades the air, cleavers meet meat on well-worn cutting boards, stuff on sticks make you ask “What is it?,” and young men (predominantly) perform acrobatic acts in stretching sugar and then pounding it into candy. And all that’s just your first minute into the market street.
Stomach full, I sampled judiciously, my favorite bite being some spicy fried potatoes. I negotiated a half-portion from the vendor while a young woman watched to see my reaction. “Tasty?” I smiled my answer, offering her a sample, and in exchange she gave me some of her spicy tofu. A reminder that food brings cultures and people together.
Here’s a short video clip showing how to make the potatoes:
I thought about the co-mingling of cultures in Xi’an—China’s former capital and the eastern end of the Silk Road—as I strolled the side streets and back alleys of the Muslim Quarter. This is where I found the true charm of the district and the city as a whole. Away from the hustle and bustle, people walked a little slower and smiled a bit more upon eye contact. Until, of course, a bunch of bicycles, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, cars, and buses suddenly screamed by.
I eventually made my way back to the shadow of the Drum Tower, and to a place I’d eyed at the start of the evening: the biang-biang noodle shop. Here, at last, I could have a bowl of hot oil-seared noodles. But not before voyeuristically watching preparation of bowl-after-bowl, taking notes on the noodle-stretching and thwacking, as well as the rest of the process. Finally, I placed an order and voraciously attacked my noodles. A delicious way to end the day!
Now you can be a voyeur and check out the short clip of the noodle-making:
My final day would start early with an expedition to see the Terracotta Army (aka Terracotta Warriors and Horses). It’s the obligatory thing to do when visiting Xi’an, but I eschewed the many organized trips, instead enjoying the adventure of being the only non-Chinese person on the #5 (306) bus. Many students take this cheap (about $1) bus to a university stop, but I took it to the end (about an hour) to the museum site.
The story about the discovery of the terracotta army (farmers were drilling a well) and the sight itself are both impressive, though as others have commented, in some ways magazine photos are more spectacular than the live view. As I anticipated, while I tried to appreciate the museum, my mind wandered to what bowl of noodles I would eat next. (And given the $25 entry fee, would it have instead been more satisfying to sample about 10 bowls of noodles?)
With a commitment back in town, I didn’t stay long, but still managed to sample a couple of bowls of noodles near the museum entrance. Perhaps defying some Chinese custom about hot and cold, I alternated between spicy slurps of goat blood with silk noodle soup and cooling bites of liangpi.
Then it was back to the hotel. As part of my stay, the Hilton offered a tasting of dishes at its China Club restaurant, as well as a hands-on lesson in making biang-biang noodles. I’m not normally a fan of hotel restaurants, but in eating a lot of street food, this would provide a contrasting (and, yes, a more comfortable) experience. Besides, China Club is not a typical hotel restaurant, as it has an extensive menu meant to appeal not only to hotel guests, but to locals who want to eat upscale versions of the local fare.
After quick introductions to the restaurant’s chefs (via translation), I was told to suit up for my biang-biang noodle lesson. Things moved quickly in the kitchen, and some details were lost in translation, but it seems like the dough recipe I’ve been using at home is spot-on, with the rest of the cooking process and preparation pretty much the same. What I’m not sure about is the flour for the dough. All I could learn is that they use a high-gluten flour (as do I), but their dough is far more stretchy than mine. It’s easier to work with, and creates silkier noodles.
Retiring to the dining room, I ate two different bowls of biang-biang noodles, as well as a sampling of other dishes (including more liangpi)—all fantastic. Again stuffed, they invited me back that evening to sample their version of Xi’an’s famous yang rou pao mo (crumbled flatbread in mutton stew). But not before a final evening walk through the city, including a stop at a department store to buy the one souvenir of my stay in Xi’an: a dowel-like rolling pin that I learned is a key to making better biang-biang noodles.
Here’s how the Hilton Xi’an makes biang-biang noodles: