Not once while I was in China did I eat rice.

Perhaps I was ordering wrong but I also don’t remember seeing it on any menus. Instead, I was fed a steady diet of delicate dumplings and noodles so long it took me ten seconds to slurp a single spoonful.

Chinese food may have already conquered the world, but in China (particularly this part of China), the real spectrum of cuisine includes a much wider and colorful palate of flavors. There is no General Tso’s doughnut-fried chicken around here, but barbecued squid on a stick? Why, yes.

In Xi'an, a Chinese chef whips a length of dough into shape before pulling it into long noodles. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

My first real Chinese food in China was a simple bowl of noodles and Shaanxi beef. A single bite, lifted up with awkward chopsticks unveiled the soft doughy noodle and rich beef broth, swimming with aromatic cinnamon, star anise and dried mandarin orange peel.

Mine was but a small and simple bowl of noodles, yet inside that simple meal, I tasted the essence of the Silk Road- — the spices and history that reflects an era of exchange for China with the outside world. Long ago, Xi’an was the starting point for the trade route from Asia to Europe, and now, walking through the Muslim Market of the old city, I felt like I was surrounded by the sights and sounds of the Silk Road today.

Xi’an’s Muslim Market exudes all the exotic flair of old China, from the brilliant singing birds in reed cages to carefully-molded moon cakes and sizzling street food. Today, 9 million people live in this massive city marked by cranes, construction sites and grey high-rises, but within these medieval city walls on this single cobbled street, if only for a few minutes, I caught a glimpse of what Marco Polo saw as he traveled here so long ago.

And I’m guessing here, but I bet Marco Polo ate more noodles than he did rice.

In the Muslim Market of Xi'an, China, a merchant makes and sells savory, meat-filled pastries (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler).

Comments

  1. Richard Reynolds
    England, UK
    October 24, 2012, 10:30 am

    OMG, come Nat’ Geog’,, just look at the map, it shows both Xi’an and Chengdu in completly the wrong places from the real ones. As a person who has lived, worked and is married to a Chinese lady,, it is well known that wheat is the staple crop of China to the North of the Yangze River,, rice is too unsuited for the climate there,, mostly grown in the South or imported from Thailand,
    On a menu ‘fan’ is the pinyin word for rice and a well known greeting ask a person ‘chi wan fan’ ( have you eaten?,, xie xie ha,, xia hui jian Richard,

  2. lee
    Chengdu, China
    October 24, 2012, 11:30 am

    Love your blog, did you enjoy your meal?
    :)

  3. Real Chinese Food | The Inquisitive Eater
    October 24, 2012, 2:36 pm

    [...] Geographic Traveler writes about his time in Xi’an China.  Read the article here, on National Geographic! Share this:MoreLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  4. SOPHIE CARRERA
    BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
    October 24, 2012, 3:09 pm

    DEAR DREW, I ENJOY READING YOUR BLOGS SO MUCH AND THIS TIME, IT REMINDS ME OF MY TRIP TO X’IAN AND CHENGDU, I WISH I WERE THERE WITH YOU, SLURPING THESE NOODLES AND DUMPLINGS, MIAM MIAN – TAKE CARE ET BON VOYAGE – A BIENTOT

  5. Mark Munro 大海
    Beijing
    October 25, 2012, 5:36 am

    Why do you pronounce Xi’an “Xi’on”?

  6. Mark Munro 大海
    Beijing
    October 25, 2012, 5:38 am

    You should learn the language/pronunciation if you’re going to deem yourself a China travel expert.

  7. Real Chinese Food #RTW | Field Notes
    October 25, 2012, 5:42 pm

    [...] the rest of the story and watch a video on National Geographic’s Digital Nomad [...]

  8. The Last 100 Miles #RTW – Digital Nomad
    November 20, 2012, 10:13 am

    [...] very next day, watched the sun rise at Angkor Wat. I have walked the first steps of the enduring Silk Road, kissed a baby panda on the head in his bamboo-sheltered home, inhaled the incense of India, gawked [...]

  9. Christian Rene Friborg
    Germany
    December 4, 2012, 9:36 pm

    I love Chinese food! Me and my wife truly enjoyed our trip to China two years ago and was able to have a taste of authentic Chinese food. We’d definitely go back there again.