After a fitful night’s sleep on the World’s hardest mattress, I woke , barely able to walk, peered out into the dense smog, and contemplated returning for another few hour’s sleep.
The mattress served as a stark disincentive to do so, so I showered and got dressed.
After a masterclass on international time zones with Nick, we managed to work out between us that the breakfast service was going to close in 30 minutes, so we went down to eat as we were starving.
As a bit of a foodie, I have read some pretty obscure books – one of which is Kenneth Lo’s “Cheap Chow”
It is a fascinating read on Chinese cuisine for those on a budget.
One of the early chapters deals with something called “Congee” or rice porridge, its main purpose being to add bulk to a poor diet to fill people up. It is flavoured with anything to hand, which is added later, prior to serving – not a million miles away from our own porridge.
Now here it was,the first thing to greet me as I entered the breakfast room,steaming away in a huge cauldron, looking quite ghastly – like something Mark Lester may have eaten during a shoot of Oliver Twist . Additions ranged from sweet to savoury -jam,honey, chilli sauce, tomatoes, ham and chopped spring onions, but I really didn’t feel like trying it.
Beside it were huge tureens of fried rice, shirred eggs, steamed vegetables and noodles.. some mornings there were the sweet sausages as well, quite like frankfurters in texture, but with that distinct sweetness that so many dishes have.
Not feeling like that either, I settled for rolls, butter, jam and coffee. The butter was almost definitely made in a food processor, as it was piled into a huge basin with fork marks smoothing down the top – it was the only place we saw butter while on holiday – it tasted fresh and very good indeed.
The jams were for a European palette and the rolls were made with cake flour, as western bread cookery is not yet in the canon of Chinese cooking.
Bread is everywhere, the sliced version is not unlike its French cousin..far too sweet, and the rolls were a delight to behold until you bit into them. They were mealy and dry, very much as you might expect from bread made from “soft” flour.. but, as my motto is “A buen hambre, no hay pan duro” (for a good hunger there is no hard bread) I soldiered on using the milky coffee to wash them down.
We stuck to base until midday when Eve came back from classes with lunch time treats from the street markets.. we had our first steamed buns which by contrast to the bread rolls were made light an airy by the steaming, plus some of the aforementioned sweet sausages.
We decided to go out to look around the Muslim Quarter, where there were markets, stalls and many things to see.
It is situated at the back of the Drum Tower, so we paid a short visit en route allowing Nick to bang the drums and take a few shots into the smog.
Like so many ancient monuments, it has been totally restored,painted and lit up at night-time. However, it is hard to see what was left of the original tower , if anything at all.
This was to be the theme of many of the monuments we went to see.. total restorations, often obliterating any vestige of the past , save one’s own imagination, and what the tourist leaflets tell you.
The Muslim Quarter, as the name suggests is a quarter of Xi’an inhabited by Chinese Hui Muslims – facially they seemed so different to the myriad of faces we had already seen, and dress became more colourful and traditional.
Yet, on the “our” side of the Tower they were wearing high fashion from top to toe – here, they were desperately clinging on to their cultural heritage as best they could.
The exception seemed to be the children who were sporting all the latest gear and were cute as buttons.
Eve was asked to pose for a photo with one little child whose parents wanted the chance to have a photo opportunity with a fair-haired westerner for good luck. She took it in her stride as they snapped away, shook her hand, touched her curiously and smiled effusively at her, and of course stared at us too at very close quarters.
Arriving eventually in the Muslim Quarter, I saw that street food abounded, and Eve as a long-standing fan, started to get stuck in at every stall she came across.
Both Nick and I noticed the stalls started just a few metres from, yes you’ve guessed…..McDonalds!
I first saw flat breads, decorated with hand carved stampers, and cooked in a coal-fired tandoor oven out in the street, something I have only ever seen in cook books until that point.
The bread is used torn up in a mutton broth that is one of the culinary hallmarks of the area.
The smell from the huge vats of it cooking outside was, for me at least, too strong so I opted for the coward’s way out to introduce myself to street food, and I stuck exclusively to sweet items.
I indulged in a cup of pomegranate juice, a string of acid sharp tiny apples dipped in toffee, plus what seemed to be a rice pudding on a stick.
There was nut brittle, made from boiling nuts and sugar syrup pounded , again in the street with huge wooden mallets – the taste was divine, doubtless due to its calorie density.
All were delicious, and the toffee apples became a regular daily indulgence from that point onwards.
There was a long covered market which sold a varied range of items – for tourist and tenant alike, so we decided to wander along it, to allow Eve to flex her bargaining skills.
I was amazed at how many people spoke good English here, as Xi’an is not exactly on the tourist trail. They used oversized calculators strewn across every counter to show the prices they wanted – haggling it seemed in essence, was a huge game that all seem to enjoy as part of every transaction.
I somehow ended up with two sets of playing cards – one with images of Chairman Mao, and others of various Chinese emperors, both of which were decidedly tacky but seemed very àpropos for a first sortie into the market area.
Needing a bit of a rest, I was amused to see the “Cafe de la Tour” inside the covered area, where they served everything from Chrysanthemum tea to Cafe Latte with Oreo Cookies.
We tried all three, and left the jury out on the chrysanthemum tea, noting it had a bouquet like cheap floral furniture polish, and a taste to match.
Our evening meal was to be at one of the many “Hot Pot” venues – Another firm favourite with Eve, we booked to go to one of the better known in Xi’an, and were whisked there early evening, and were quickly seated in a noisy area where smoking during food service was the norm, and noodles were made in huge looping circles in front of your table before being steeped into your hot pot.
Unlike its Lancashire cousin, Hotpot is a huge cauldron sunk into your table..it consisted for us at least of two distinct liquors in two tin bain marie type pots atop a vicious gas burner, making the entire eating experience synonymous to stoking the fires of Hades.
One pot had a fish fumet type stock with shiitake mushrooms added for delicate flavouring, the other was poured, direct from its newly opened vacuüm pack, of a dark red oily spice liquid, that had an acrid smell of raw spices.
To this point, I was none too impressed, and left Eve to order (direct on to an ipad app I might add) the additions to each pot, consisting mainly of raw veg, assorted noodles and meat.
I gingerly picked out some sweetcorn cobs and large cauliflower florets from the fumet side of the hot pot, along with some noodles, and having decided that the meat that went in was not for me, leaving the rest to those who were brave enough to eat it.
My second day had encapsulated a myriad of foods, not all of them to my tastes, and by the time I settled in for another night of pain on the mattress from Hell, I had been catapulted well and truly into the realms of the notion of “foreign food”. There was no evidence of a number 43, 27 and 67 with a pack of prawn crackers to be seen here.
Having a 21-year-old daughter as my guide had buffeted me into every “go on – I dare you” taste she could cram into just one short day. She tucked in to everything with great gusto, hoovering up anything I politely passed over.
As I dozed off, I was still hungry, and my packet of Polo mints in my handbag took on an alluring fantasy in my tired brain.
I knew I just needed to soldier on, get a decent night’s sleep and tomorrow’s menu would taste so much better than today’s…hopefully.
Clearly my taste buds needed a fair bit of adjustment to enjoy some of the more discerning flavours of China.