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.
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.