Xi'an

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For many Chinese tourists, it seems the highlight of a trip to Xi'an is less likely the Terracotta Warriors than a visit to one of the city's numerous snack shops or small ethnic restaurants. If you're new to the breadth and depth of China's various cuisines, expect some pleasant surprises. Xi'an's centuries-old Muslim culture has made great contributions to the local food scene, and excellent Islamic restaurants abound, with an especially large concentration on Damaishi Jie (Dàmàishì Jiē, 大麦市街). It need not be a sit-down experience, however; some of the tastiest dishes are to be found in streetside stalls and small restaurants (you can always snack on a cumin-spiced kabab of halal beef or mutton). If you do want a table in a nicer restaurant, you'll find many of them situated around the Bell Tower and down Dong Dajie (Dōng Dàjiē, 东大街) just off the Bell Tower square.

Mutton and bread soup (yángròu pàomó, 羊肉泡馍) is a favorite throughout Shaanxi, but is especially well loved in Xi'an. Consisting of rich mutton broth served with a stiff and crispy flatbread broken into pieces over it, the result is a rich version of the age-old winning combo of soup and bread. Another must-try local specialty is the Xi'an dumpling, long a festival food and now a commonly served delicacy. Stuffed with mutton, shrimp, and sweet bean paste, a well-made dumpling can be a revelation.

Another delicious variation on a Chinese standard is the guantang baozi (guàntāng bāozi, 灌汤包子), a steamed bun surrounding a juicy center. (Hot! Be careful!). The soupy filling inside is typically either beef, lamb or a three-flavor combo of lamb, prawn and mushroom. A great place to sample the baozi is the Jia Brothers' Restaurant along Damaishi Jie. Look for a large blue arch over the entrance and a wall papered with photographs of Chinese celebrities (a testament to a well-earned reputation). Wash it down with a bowl of babao xifan (bābǎo xīfàn, 八宝稀饭), a bowl of sweet rice porridge flavored with peanuts and hawthorn.

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