Whether an exchange student studying for a year or a tourist visiting for a few weeks, one of the first things about Chinese culture that foreigners dive into is the food. China is known around the world for its cuisine, and many countries have their own versions of Chinese food. However, nothing compares to the authentic dishes found along the local streets of China. Each region and province has made its own special contribution to the collection of Chinese cuisines, and the city of Xi’an is no exception.
For Westerners, navigating through this new world—exciting as it is—can also be challenging. Even on the days when you really want a taste of food from home, I encourage you to constantly try new foods and restaurants. Be a food explorer!
I’ve lived in Xi’an for nearly four months now, and to get you started on your new exploration, I want to take you on a short tour of some of the local foods and my own favorite snacks found in this beautiful city!
Cold Noodles (liángpí)
This dish originated in the Shaanxi province, near what is now Hangzhou. As one local legend tells it, during Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s reign, the farmers were commanded to pay a grain tax to the government. One year, the wheat crop was excellent, but the rice crop was not. People shuddered with fear as they approached the ruler with their meager offerings. Luckily, one enterprising man named Li Shier mashed up his rice, spread it into a thin layer and steamed it, creating sheets of rice that were cut into noodles. Li Shier gave this creation to the emperor, and, to Li Shier’s surprise, everyone escaped punishment.
The first time I tried liángpí, I was surprised to find that it was served cold. This is the signature of the dish. While some varieties use rice flour, in Xi’an it is normally made with wheat. The dish consists of noodles with garlic, chili oil, sugar, vinegar, sesame oil, cucumber and bean sprouts. I would describe the taste as simultaneously chewy and crunchy, as well as being hot and sour. Eating liángpí is truly an adventure of the tastebuds!
Chinese Hamburger (ròujiāmó)
The conveniently packaged sandwich is a must-have for any hungry foreigner in Xi’an. During the Warring States Period of China, a special preparation of pork was invented in what is now Korea, and the recipe was later spread to present-day Xi’an. To prepare the fatty pork meat, they used top-grade rib meat and cooked it in a soup with more than 20 kinds of seasonings, such as salt, ginger, onion, wolfberry, and cinnamon. The red pork is juicy, soft, and not too greasy. The meat was combined with mó, a bread that is a staple to Shaanxi locals, and behold, the famous “Chinese Hamburger” was born.
My first impression of this hamburger was that it tastes nothing like a hamburger, but more so resembles a pulled pork sandwich and its flavor. I instantly fell in love with the rich flavor and amazing texture. When I want a food that doesn’t require chopsticks or a fork, my go-to is ròujiāmó. It’s always good, readily available, and cheap!
Steamed Dumpling (bāozi)
Bāozi is widespread across China. According to legend, it was invented by Chinese military strategist Zhuge Liang during the Three Kingdoms Period. This crowd favorite is a version of mántou, or steamed bun, which is also said to have been invented by Zhuge Liang.
The classic Chinese snack comes in a variety of sizes and a huge number of flavors and fillings. My favorite fillings are the beef and pork. The beef bāozi usually includes clear rice noodles inside, while the pork is more like a big meatball in the middle. There are also many vegetarian options.
I usually eat these tasty treats in the morning, as they are fresh, cheap, and fast to pick up. However, they are served at all times of the day. I encourage trying all of the different varieties and going to lots of restaurants to find your favorite!
Ice Peak (bīngfēng)
Bīngfēng, meaning “ice peak,” is a soda made here in the Shaanxi province. It’s a crowd favorite for students coming to study in this city and can really add a refreshing fizz to any meal—especially when trying something that’s a little too spicy. You could compare its taste to the Fanta or Sunkist orange sodas, with a slightly more “mandarine orange” flavor. Sold for two or three RMB, you can’t beat the price.
Naan Bread (náng)
Not to be confused with the Indian bread of the same name, this bread is made by the Muslim people of China and is a truly different experience from the usual Chinese food. Originating in the West, it was brought to Xi’an during the time of the Silk Road by nomadic traders from the Middle East. The local flatbread has a semi-sweet glaze, is topped with poppy seeds, and is baked to a light brown color on the outside. The bread is usually eaten with other dishes, such as dàpánjī. When you see someone selling náng, do yourself a favor and pick some up! You might just be surprised at the fresh taste.
Xi’an is host to a multitude of great foods, and I wish I had time to talk about all of them. Still, I hope this little window into the local cuisine makes you hungry to try something new, and I hope you decide to come to Xi’an yourself and enjoy what this city has to offer!
— David, Student