Hui locals in Xi’an seek to save traditional cuisine from rampant over-commercialization

By Zhang Yuchen in Xi'an Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/10 18:43:39

Tourists visit Hui Fang in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province on December 31, 2016. Photo: IC


After a full day of sightseeing in Xi'an, I was starving and ready to eat.

But my guide Tie Qiang, a Hui local born and raised in Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, told me to wait.

Tie works as a tour guide who introduces the city's culture and history to visitors.

When talking about the famous food culture in Xi'an, Tie had stopped and said he had to introduce a friend to me. It was 7 pm on April 1 at the time, but since his friend, a member of China's predominantly Muslim Hui ethnic minority group, was carrying out his daily prayers, we had to wait for a bit.

"We can go to Yongxing Lane first [a region famous for Shaanxi desserts]. But don't eat too much, leave some room in your stomach for Huimin Street," Tie told me.

Huimin Street is a landmark location that rose to fame for its local food. Its official name is Hui Fang (meaning Hui community). An old locale in Xi'an for the Hui and other Muslims, it boasts seven mosques and 13 small neighborhoods. Many locals also prefer calling it Fang Shang, the area's traditional name during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Selling out

The Hui community has become something of a brand for Xi'an local food. Every holiday Huimin Street is sure to be filled with visitors from all over the world.

We met with Tie's friend Liu Qiang, the founder of Hui Fang's official website, at the entrance to Huimin Street.

Liu led me into the crowd, where countless passers-by crushed against us.

"Tonight is the eve of the Qingming Festival. If you come here tomorrow night, you won't be able to even move," Liu said, raising his voice to be heard above the crowd.

The smell of roasting skewers of mutton filled the air as dazzling stalls decorated with neon lights lured tourists to dive mouth first into a food feast.

But Liu seemed unmoved by the bustling sight. He pointed randomly to some skewer stalls - in one a bunch of grilled squid had just been placed on the grill - and said, "This, this and this here are not our representative dishes."

According to Liu, the area's rising fame and resulting tourist development has led over-commercialization, a problem that has proved very vexing for locals in recent years.

"Rent keeps rising, which means that many local peddlers have had to start selling food which caters to the taste of visitors, roast squid for example. This has led some of us to abandon the sale of our traditional food," Liu said.

Both Tie and Liu grew up in Hui Fang. As such, they've witnessed the popularization of the region and its transformation into a tourism-oriented area.

Tie told the Global Times that there are still authentic eating houses which specialize in certain traditional dishes, one just needs to know where to go.

Searching for a breakthrough

Realizing the conflict that was taking place between the developing tourism industry and traditional food culture, Liu set up an official website (http://www.xahmj.com/) for Hui Fang in 2015 in order to introduce the area's authentic food and culture to visitors.

"We collaborate with travel agencies since most tour guides don't fully understand our culture. They bring tour groups to the entrance to Huimin Street and we take them around," Liu explained.

At first, Liu employed four to five employees, but soon found that they lacked motivation. He later mentioned his ambitions to his friends and, to his surprise, they all showed interest in his plans and decided to work with him.

"We haven't turned a profit yet, but won't give up. We are currently looking for other collaborators," Liu said.

"We used to rely on the website along to introduce local food, but website promotion costs too much. Now I'm looking to break out by working with online celebrities to shoot food videos and bring these videos to their platforms."

Expanding variety

Liu turned to buy two cups of plum syrup from a nearby stall.

"Our plum juice is the best," he said.

A day before, two of Liu's friends from Taiwan brought him Winter Melon Tea, a representative drink of Taiwan, and bragged about how good it was. Not convinced after trying some, Liu asked them to try some local plum juice.

They were amazed by how good it was.

Aside from his food promotion work, Liu has also established a brick and mortar store to sell desserts. He also works with local shop owners to introduce Halal food in their stores.

Liu isn't just focused on introducing local Hui food.

"Turn right at the crossing ahead and you will find a stall selling spicy fried noodle and rice, which I brought in from [Northwest China's] Xinjiang [Uyghur Autonomous Region]," Liu pointed out. 

Liu explained that while the flavor of Hui food from Xi'an and Xinjiang are similar, most Xi'an locals find the Xinjiang food far too spicy.

"So I am working on ways to adapt these dishes to fit local taste," Liu told the Global Times.


Newspaper headline: Food fight


Posted in: FOOD

blog comments powered by Disqus