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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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