Although Xi’an’s older, low rise buildings are relentlessly being pulled down and replaced by hideous skyscrapers, there are still plenty of “villages” left and long may they last. These are narrow, dark streets bustling with life from early morning until late at night where ordinary people can afford to eat and shop for daily necessities. There is one just near where I live and I love it. The streets are lined with small, open-fronted eating places offering all sorts of culinary delights for no more than 50 to 90 pence. I usually eat lunch here, wrapped in coat and scarf, as none of these places have heating or doors for that matter. Specialities in this area are:
- home made noodles, where the cooks skilfully manipulate skeins of fresh dough, banging them onto floured boards and serving them in a spicy soup. This dish has the onomatopoeic name of “biang biang mian” – bang bang noodles.
- thick strap-like noodles eaten in a cold sauce
- crusty rice, served in little wicker baskets and eaten with a long spoon
- dumplings or jaozi with various fillings and cooked by boiling or steaming
- cold vegetables like lotus root and shredded potatoes served in a delicious sauce with plenty of chillies
The smoke from the coal fired stoves mixes with the steam from the cooking pots and woks whilst people shout out their orders and take their seats. There’s always something interesting to watch over lunch and when I return at night, I buy smoked tofu from a little cart for 30p and that’s supper. Outside the food shops are the street traders selling skewers of meat, pancakes and stuffed bread rolls from their stalls. You can eat standing up from these places in the freezing cold. Health and Safety wouldn’t know where to begin! Fruit and vegetable stalls sell really good produce which I prefer to the supermarket packaged offerings. Of course there is a lot of talk about over fertilisation of produce but I don’t have any means of growing my own organic veges and just hope that I’m not being slowly poisoned!
In amongst the multitude of food stalls, there are little shops selling cheap everyday items and clothes. You can get printing done quickly, buy electrical goods and have your hair cut for less than a pound. Vendors come and go at different times of the day depending on the season or the latest availability of a new fake product. Whole families live their lives on the streets. In one area there are ancient pool tables set out on the pavement where teenagers play at lunchtime and younger children do their homework at little improvised cardboard tables, whilst their parents scratch a meagre living from their stalls.
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