Article by Tim King
While the Xi’an foreign community has gotten more and more diverse in recent years, one thing still unites most of us: a love for a good night out on the town. A hectic evening of partying—whether that includes dancing at a club or playing pub games or just trying to yell over the crappy house band at the bar—can work up a big appetite, and your inebriated brain just has to get something in your belly before you find sleep. If this sounds like you, you’re in luck. Firstly, because Xi’an has a robust offering of delectable street-side treats; secondly, because you’re reading this article by me, Tim King, a certified “zhongguotong” (中国通, a foreign person well-versed in the ways of living in China, often translated as “China Hand”). I will now bring to bear my years of in-depth experience in China and show you how you too can build a body by street food.
STEP 1 FIND SOME STREET FOOD
A few years ago it used to be that you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a street food cart but, with city management officials making their presence felt again, these late night eatery shanty towns have recently become a bit more scarce. However, that’s not to say it’s all gone. You could try checking outside of nightclubs, first and foremost; if you live in a heavily populated area like, for example, Caochangpo or nearby one of the universities, you might be able to catch something on your way home; or if you want a more China Hand-worthy experience, you can try my favorite area for after-midnight eats, Ma Er Li, by the West Gate. Wherever you end up, peak time is generally between 10pm and 1am. If you’re too early, the vendors might not be set up. If you’re too late, they might be shutting down or, even worse, out of some particularly delicious dishes.
STEP 2 CHOOSE A CART
Depending on the size of your chosen street food corral, you’ll have anywhere from a handful to a cornucopia of options. There are a few staples you can usually count on though: fried noodles, fried dumplings, something called zha bing (deep fried bread that you fill with deep fried meat and vegetables), xun rou da bing (熏肉大饼, smoked pork and spring onions rolled up in a fried pancake shell) and are you starting to see a pattern here? While there are sometimes soups and maocai skewers as well, your choice to get street food is almost guaranteed to be heart-stoppingly good, so really go for the gusto. Trying to eat healthy street food is like getting a Cuba Libre with Diet Coke—useless. You’re bringing a healthy knife to a cholesterol gun fight, and it doesn’t take a nutritionist to figure out who’s going to win that battle. Just lean into it and stop worrying.
STEP 3 ARRANGE YOUR MEAL
Due to the nature of street food in China, getting yourself a late-night meal is often rather easy. On the painfully easy side, there’s stuff like xun rou da bing, where you can just waltz up to the cart and toss off an “yi ge!” and you’re good to go (unless you planned on kissing someone that night—xun rou da bing is an infamous breath-ruiner). On the other end of the spectrum, it doesn’t really ever get more complicated than zha bing, with its dozens, if not hundreds of choices and combinations, but even then the street-side chef will just toss you a plate and tell you to arrange everything yourself before it’s cooked. As a general rule, everything can be pointed at and, if you see a bowl of chili flakes (I believe you wussbags call it “the devil’s powder”), there’s always an opportunity for you to BOO LAH DUH (you coward).
STEP 3B DARING, QUESTION MARK?
Eating at a street food cart can be an opportunity to try things you can’t get anywhere else, but that’s a double-edged sword. You might find something mind-blowingly delicious, or you might get a bit too big for your britches and end up with something you hate. This is one of those rare moments I will stop judging you and say that it’s okay to stay relatively within your comfort zone. However, there are still opportunities to mix it up a bit. Instead of fried noodles, maybe try fried mashi (麻食, a local gnocchi-like pasta). Another idea would be, if you’re into zha bing, instead of just haphazardly filling it with everything and having it taste like a greasy mess, try recreating some dishes, like green beans and eggplant. Just a suggestion—you do you.
STEP 4 BE PATIENT
Street food, by design, is quick to make, but if the place you’re eating at is busy, take a chill pill. Each cart is usually a one- or two-person show, so they’re just doing the best they can. There’s nothing to be gained by being the hundredth drunk a-hole badgering them about how your food isn’t ready yet, so just sit down and relax. This step also has a double meaning, in that if you choose to eat at one of the tiny tables that always accompany street food markets (as you should!), your food is probably going to be radioactively hot when it finally arrives. Chat with your dining companions, do some people watching, craft that 1am post for your WeChat Moments that will finally show the world that you’re not an alcoholic, just the life of the party and that this was the best Tuesday night ever in the history of Tuesdays. Eating street food certainly isn’t a marathon, but it’s only going to be unpleasant if you try to make it a sprint. Think of it like a 5K instead.
STEP 5 PANIC
Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaay. Ishn’t thish supposh to be the playsh with the noodlesh? WHERE ISH EVERYONE?! What’sh taaaaaaaaaaking so looooooooooooooong? Whosh jacket is thish? SHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! I’M LEAVING.
STEP 6 GIVE UP
You won’t be the first laowai in Xi’an’s thousands of years of history to scream “MAI DONG LAO!” at a taxi driver, and you certainly won’t be the last. When you get there, be sure to keep screaming “BIG MAAAAAAC, POP POP!” at the cashier. It’s why he or she got into the graveyard-shift-at-McDonald’s business and that cashier will really, really love you for helping to realize their childhood dream of taking guff from a foreigner at 2am over a hamburger. This is why we all came to China in the first place: for true cultural exchange and exotic foods in exotic locations.
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease and can thank late night eating for his worsening dad bod. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org