‘Let’s go to snack street’, she says. ‘It’s the only place to get real food’.
‘Snack street?’ I say.
‘Oh, you know, street food’, she says.
Layer upon layer of warnings tumble through my mind. Travel stories, official announcements, passing comments: ‘food poisoning …’, ‘unwashed food …’, ‘E coli …’, ‘Hepatitis A …’, ‘all the smells and diseases of Asia …’
Sensing my hesitation, she laughs. ‘You foreigners! You’ve got weak stomachs’.
I continue to imagine slabs of meat hanging in the sun with flies buzzing about, or fish that was last in the water the year before last, or one-toothed, crinkly-eyed women knowing they could ask the earth since I would still think it is cheap.
We turn a corner into a narrow alley, filled with the smoke and smells of freshly cooking food. I imagine that we are leaving behind the jumble of bicycles and motor scooters and people … not so. Here too they make their way past, around and even through people in a way that continues to amaze me.
And pushing them into the narrow space of the alley are all sorts of stalls. Looking more closely, I am amazed that the stall-holders have actually managed to get inside the structures. Only the most adept contortionist could manage such a task. No doubt, before first light the whole of snack street was a scene of grimaces, dislocated limbs, bodies twisted at impossible angles as they squeeze into their respective stalls, only to repeat the process in reverse when the day is done. Beats Tai Chi any day.
The stall holders are locals wherever one goes outside the megalopolises. In small towns and modest cities, you enter snack street knowing that no one speaks a word of any language other than the local dialect and Putonghua (Mandarin). And hope in vain for at least some pinyin on the signs – only Chinese characters here.
In Xi’an, however, the locals have a twist, for nearly all of the stall-holders have head-scarves (if women), or the white embroidered skull caps for the Muslim men.
Surprised, I ask: ‘When did Muslims come to Xian?’
‘Oh, during the Tang dynasty?’ she says.
‘You mean well over a millennium ago, in the seventh to ninth centuries?’ I say.
‘Yes, the Tang emperors encouraged Muslims to move here form further west’, she says.
Like Chinese dialects, which may be as far apart from one another as English is to French, the foods in snack streets vary hugely. Baskets of jumping river creatures in villages along the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) River; wheat noodles and buns in Shandong; wondrous varieties of goat’s yoghurt in the mountains of Hunan; stinky tofu in Chongqing; filets of snake in Nanjing; bowls of a creamy substance with multi-coloured blobs over the surface in Jining …
Back in Xi’an, my eye is drawn to a battered pot on a gas burner.
‘Would you like some?’ she asks. ‘They are a local favourite’.
Blobs of fat, with occasional pieces of meat attached, sail about in a steaming pot. I watch a capped man fish one out, deftly chop it in small pieces, insert it in a bun and add a curiously coloured mix of what I presume are spices.
‘Here’, she says, handing me one.
‘Ah, no thanks’, I say. ‘You eat it’.
‘Oh, come on’, she says. ‘Be brave’.
Anticipating a lifetime of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), I tentatively take a bite.
‘Not bad’, I say, trying not to let too much fat drip down my chin. ‘Not bad at all’. I finish it with a relish that surprises me.
We saunter past persimmon cakes, rice and red-bean pate in vine leaves, flatbreads, lamb broth (yáng ròu pào mó), peanut and walnut cake, saffron flavoured glutinous rice cake, red dates, dragon beard sweets, fried quail eggs, spiced nuts and broadbeans …
‘Now these are really good’, she says at another stall.
A row of narrow sticks skewer curled ribbons of a firm creamy white substance.
‘Tofu, local style’, she says in reply to my quizzical look. ‘You can add your own spices’.
‘That’s my food!’ I say.
‘You take a stick, and then use this brush to paint the spice you like on it’, she says. ‘These are very hot; those not so much’.
I daub one stick with a mild spice mix and the other with the fiery one – worth trying, at least once. All the while my companion and the woman in the stall engage in the banter and laughter one expects in these parts. All about a western fool, about to burn his stomach out, I guess.
At the first bite my mouth really waters, for the chewy tofu and the spices seem like they have come together over the centuries, knowing each other intimately, true comrades of taste. The taste is enhanced by the charcoal cooking smoke in the air, with hints of cumin, chili and lamb, the feel of an alley at night, the constant sound of the local dialect in my ears, the company.
The curly sticks are gone too quickly, so I ask for two more. I assume the woman’s smile is one that shares my own pleasure.
On a corner is a platter of fresh food, each type in its own compartment. I determine that there are basically four types of food: long things, round things, dangly things and green things.
‘Take this’, she says, handing me a small paper plate. ‘Choose how many you want and he will cook it for you’.
I pile my plate with all of the four categories and hand it over.
‘Don’t forget the spices’, she says. ‘This is Xi’an!’
I point to the metal pots with green and red in them and the stall holders pours in a spoonful of each as he briefly fries my collection. Soon they are returned on the same, now sagging plate, along with a couple of basic chopsticks.
By now I am a convert, totally absorbed in the tastes entering my mouth at the ends of the chopsticks, breathing in the aroma on the air, dodging the used items on the street, wondering why ever I was so wary of snack streets.
Now I understand the question I was asked back in Beijing: ‘Are you going to Xi’an for the food?’ Who would travel somewhere for the sake of the food? I wondered. What a strange way to make travel plans. But now I had a small insight as to why.
But did my stomach get irritated, my bowels over-active – ‘traveller’s tummy’ as it is called back home?
Yes, it did. But not as a result of snack street. Back in Australia and on the last leg of my long journey home, I felt the hunger pangs and grabbed some greasy pasties and a sausage roll. That stuff really makes one crook.