AS ITS NAME IMPLIES, MUSLIM SNACK STREET IS PACKED WITH VENDORS SELLING SNACK FOODS:
Xi’an has a large Muslim community with many of its members living around the Muslim Quarter which is in the vicinity of the Drum Tower. The vibrant Muslim Quarter is home to several mosques, the largest and oldest of which is the Great Mosque of Xi’an, and its many alleyways are lined with bazaar stalls where you can buy all kinds of souvenirs and fake branded goods.
Yet another attraction of the Muslim Quarter is its famous Muslim Street (Beiyuanmen Street). It is packed with an abundance of restaurants and street vendors selling all kinds of snack foods, earning it the name of Muslim Snack Street.
Xi’an’s Muslim Street has its origin from the time of the ancient Silk Road when merchants and students from Arabic countries and Persia used to come to Xi’an for business and studies. Some of these Arab merchants settled down in the area and married local women. The locals referred to them as the Hui people and many of the Muslims in Xi’an today are descendants of these Silk Road travellers.
Muslim Snack Street
Although Beiyuanmen Street has become popular with tourists like us, curious to experience a bit of the Muslim culture in Xi’an, the locals refer to the street as Muslim Snack Street and they come here to enjoy the food.
There’s no disputing the name of the street as the moment we step onto Beiyuanmen Street, we are met with stalls after stalls selling snack foods. There’s plenty of dried fruits as well as cooked snacks.
As our visit to Beiyuanmen Street is just after lunch, food is not uppermost in our minds, and we’re not tempted into buying any of the food on sale. It’s nevertheless interesting to see the range of foods available and to see them being prepared, such as this guy pulling and twisting dough to make a peanut dessert.
Another interesting aspect of the food vendors here is that they are mostly Muslims – the women are easily identifiable by their headscarves and the men wear a white hat. However, the Hui people are ethnically and linguistically similar to the Han people and most of the younger people of Hui ancestry (like the two young men in the picture below) are physically indistinguishable from Xi’an’s predominantly Han Chinese. Without their headgear you can’t tell them apart.
The stroll down the colourful Beiyuanmen Street is a real treat for photography. Peanut-based sweets and desserts seem to be popular and we see young men with large wooden mallets pounding the peanuts into a paste. This manual pounding is hard work but it appears that handmade peanut sweets is the go in the Muslim Quarter. China exports a lot of peanut brittle and other sweets and I’m sure they’re not manually produced like this. The young men seem to get a good workout and it probably saves them going to the gym.
Another stall that is interesting is this guy making pomegranate juice. Pomegranate is a common and popular fruit in Asia, but I never imagine that those tiny seeds can yield enough juice to make a business out of it. As a kid, we used to enjoy the time-consuming task of separating those tiny seeds from the pulp membrane, but one street vendor shows us how easy it is to do this – he cuts the pomegranate in half, holds it over a bowl and then smacks the rind with his big knife, sending all the seeds spilling out.
Although the Muslim Street that we’ve experienced during the day is colourful and interesting, apparently, it gets much livelier in the evenings when the locals come out to eat.
Xi’an’s Muslim Street is recommended as a place to enjoy local cuisine and is exciting in the range of food that it offers, however if your stomach is unaccustomed to such snack foods, it’s advisable not to feast on them, especially if you have a long way to go on your China vacation as we do.
Beiyuanmen Street is easily reached from the Drum Tower, however we’ve approached it from the opposite end. From Muslim Street, the Great Mosque of Xi’an is within easy walk.