Food is the very heart and soul of China. It’s at the centre of life and everything that surrounds it, and when you get to know the food, you’ll get to know the culture too.
Unfortunately, though, there’s a lot of misconceptions about Chinese food (and certain parts of the culture too), and if you’re not a Mandarin speaker, then trying to find authentic local eats will likely be one of the trickiest things to do when you’re travelling through the country.
I recently went back to Xi’an (where I was born) for the first time in over a decade, and with not a lot of memories left of the place, even I was astounded by how much choice there was when it came to eating out. Luckily though, we had my dad acting as our very own personal tour guide around the city, who knows this city very well being his hometown and still visits regularly.
Thanks to his knowledge, we truly ate to our heart’s content during our whole stay in China, and to help you do the same, here are some of the places and dishes you won’t want to miss when you’re in Xi’an.
What to eat in Xi’an China
Rou Jia Mo
Sometimes referred to as a ‘Chinese burger’, this dish is literally translated as ‘meat added to bread’.
It’s a traditional street food item that originated right here in Xi’an, and its creation might even be the world’s oldest sandwich or burger.
Usually made with pork, the meat is first stewed with a concoction of different spices until tender, then shredded and added between a thick round flatbread. Often topped with drizzles of very spicy chilli sauce, it’s one of the simplest but tastiest things you’ll ever eat.
Another simple but utterly delicious dish you should try is the ‘cold skin noodle’. This is one of my favourites (and a rare vegetarian-friendly option), though not one I can ever finish properly because I am terrible with spicy foods – even when I’ve asked them to tone down the chilli… I know.
Made from wheat or rice flour, the soft noodles are served cold with crunchy bean sprouts and other veggies, and mixed together with a perfect blend of chilli, sesame oil, and vinegar sauce that hits all the taste buds.
Yang Rou Pao Mo
Another Xi’an classic is lamb bread stew, a savoury dish that’s not only delicious but an experience to try too.
To order this dish, you first have to decide how hungry you are and many ‘mo’ you want (that’s flatbread, the same type from the burger mentioned earlier). This will then be brought out to you with an empty bowl, and it’s your task to tear the bread into pieces using your hands. The bread is tough so it’s a bit of a workout for your fingers, but don’t be lazy because the smaller the pieces you have, the tastier your finished dish will be.
Once you’re happy with your bread, your bowl will then be taken to the chef to cook in their lamb broth for around five or ten minutes. When it’s ready, the stew will be served back to you topped with vegetables, egg, and slices of lamb, with a side of sweet chilli and pickled garlic to help reduce the oiliness from the meat.
Yang Rou Chuan
Another classic street food item is the meat skewer. Found across the city, you’ll have a hard time walking past the sight and smell of these being sizzled up without being tempted to have a few.
Most commonly made with lamb, the skewered meat is grilled with a mixture of spices (primarily cumin) until tender and served straight from the flames. What is it about eating off a stick that makes street food so much better?
Zhēn Zhū Nǎi Chá
Better known as bubble tea, pearl tea or boba tea, this is actually a Taiwanese drink that’s now popular all around the world.
There are tea shops all around Xi’an serving dozens of flavours of the drink, and whenever we passed one I would treat myself to it. Tip: most restaurants don’t mind if you bring in your own drink, so I often bought a bubble tea to have with my food.
Still hungry? Here are some places you should check out for food in Xi’an…
Where to eat in Xi’an
SAGA Shopping Mall
Food courts in China are not the tacky brightly-lit halls you might find elsewhere. If you’re ever struggling to find somewhere good to eat on the street level, you can always count on your nearest shopping centre to provide a good feed.
One of the biggest and best in Xi’an is the SAGA shopping mall, where the whole top two floors are dedicated to a wide range of eateries. The best spot is located right in the corner on the top level where you’ll find almost a mini-food court inside the food court as over a dozen smaller vendors each sell a traditional type of food from their stalls here. To eat here, head to the cash counter located right outside first and load up a card which you’ll need to pay at each food stand you want to buy from – anything that’s unspent will be refunded to you when you give the card back.
I loved this place so much we went three times during our stay. But as with a lot of places in China, it can get really busy, so get there early as there’s limited seating. If the tables are all full, just keep your eyes peeled for people who are nearly finished eating and hover by their table until they’re done.
SAGA shopping centre is also home to a huge number of stores, and also has one of the longest escalators in Asia which you can ride to get to the food court at the top.
Muslim Food Quarter
Popular with both tourists and locals is the lively Muslim quarter in Xi’an.
There’s not only one street here but a maze of them all lined with food, drinks and shops for you to experience. With a busy and chaotic atmosphere just as you’d want from a popular market, you can find a lot of the foods I mentioned earlier on and plenty more, so make sure you go hungry.
We made the terrible mistake of coming here right before we’d booked to eat at…
De Fa Chang Restaurant
Considered to be one of the top dumpling houses in the city, you can have your fill of them in this restaurant that specialises in nothing but.
Go for one of the ‘taster’ menus and you’ll be treated to several courses of different dumpling flavours, from traditional meat ingredients to more adventurous fillings such as walnut, curried chicken, and duck. After the special tasters are finished, you’ll also get as many plates of the original flavour dumplings as you can eat.
You’ll need to book in advance or get there right when they open to get a table.
Haidilao Hot Pot
This is one of the most popular and famous hot pot restaurants in Asia, and maybe even the world, as they’ve recently started expanding to international cities – London is due to have one soon!
If you’re not familiar with hot pot cuisine, the concept is simple: you get a pan of flavoured broth – spicy, not spicy, or half and half – which is brought out and placed over flames in the middle of your dining table. You then order a number of different dishes to cook in this communal pot, and when it’s done, you fish it out onto your own plate to eat with your own personal mixture of dipping sauces.
Instead of everyone having one main plate in front of them, eating ‘family-style’ is the most common way to dine in China, and there’s no better way to do that than with the hot pot. From thin slices of meat to tofu, noodles, vegetables and seafood, there’s something for every taste in this traditional Sichuan dish.
Are you hungry yet?