Uyghur Food: The Glutton Goes West

It was so much fun preparing the posts Xian: A Glutton's Journey and Xi'an: The Glutton Returns, and they got such great feedback, I decided to make a Glutton's Page a regular feature whenever I travel. Some meals are memorable enough for a whole post, like the Pulled Noodles, Lady Style, but I try so many new foods every day that by putting them together it gives an overall idea of the local cuisine of the area. And goes some way to explaining why I have to go on some sort of restriction diet when I get back to Shanghai.

Xinjiang food is quintessentially Muslim food. Lamb and mutton feature heavily, slow-cooked or smoke-grilled, and although noodles are common bread is the mainstay of every single meal. Unlike other parts of China, yoghurt, milk and cream are a regular part of the diet.

Arguably Xinjiang's most famous Uyghur dish, mutton polo is a rice pilaf coloured with shreds of sweet orange and yellow carrot and enriched with strands of caramelised onion, cooked over low heat until the rice absorbs all the stock and develops a buttery, muttony flavour. It's always served with a hunk of slow-cooked mutton on top, and a bowl of Kashgar tea, yellow with saffron and lightly spiced.

In street stalls enormous blackened pots are filled with enough polo to feed five hundred, gently warmed by a charcoal brazier beneath.

The breads of Xinjiang are one of the seven wonders of the culinary world, extraordinary in their variety and their rustic taste. And yet like creatures of ephemeral beauty - butterflies, or rare flowers for example - they last but one day, and then transmogrify into hard and inedible bread platters you could quite reasonably use in place of china plates. Eat it fresh out of the oven, or not at all.

At six every morning the bread vendors begin to appear in the streets and outside the entrance to the bazaar. Street side tandoors are fired up and the breadmaking begins for the day - rounds of dough are flattened onto a curved cushion, the edges curled, and a decorative pattern punched all over the surface. 

Then a sprinkling of black onion seeds, or sesame, or a flurry of chopped garlic and the breadmaker stretches down into the depths of the tandoor to roll the bread off its cushion and onto the tandoor's walls. A few minutes later the bread is nicely crisped and studded with tiny flecks of charcoal from its short fiery stay inside the oven. 

These small torture devices are for making the gorgeous circular patterns found in the breads.

Afternoon prayers have just finished in Turpan's mosque, and as the men leave many stop to drink tea at a small outdoor restauarant behind the bazaar. As I look on, the men are preparing an entire sheep, slathered with saffron yoghurt marinade before being lowered into a smoking tandoor oven with the lid tightly sealed. 

"How long will it take to cook?" I ask. 
"Just two hours" comes the reply. Aha!

Two hours later and I am feasting on a carnivore's delight, mutton juices dripping down my arms. The mutton, so tender it can be torn apart with chopsticks, has been shredded and placed on top of two rounds of garlic naan bread cut into pieces with huge black kitchen shears. The juices from the meat seep deeply onto the bread, softening it. The only accompaniment? Bowls of spiced black tea studded with rose petals, fennel seeds, cinnamon and saffron.

Every street in Xinjiang has a charcoal grill barbecuing lamb kebabs, metal skewers with chunks of lamb punctuated in the middle by a piece of fat for flavour (often from the fatty tail of the fat-tailed sheep). As the kebabs cook they can be sprinkled with a mix of chili, salt and cumin to taste, then served on top of a piece of flat bread.

Lamb samsas - crisp little parcels cooked inside the tandoor, filled with a juicy mixture of fatty lamb mince and wilted onions flavoured with a little cumin.

Noodle dishes are served both cold (serik ash, on the left, with chili, vinegar and strips of tofu skin) and hot (suoman, on the right, with peppers, mutton, tomato and beans). Both are good, but the serik ash I tried lacked oomph.

In Turpan, an oasis town along the Silk Road, I walked into the back of the busy bazaar  to find a vast dining hall filled with stall after stall selling variations on dumpling soups. The tiny dumplings, filled with lamb and onion or vegetable and spice, were added to a rich beef broth with black wood ear mushrooms, tiny beef meatballs, and black-eyed beans, topped with coriander and small cubes of tofu. The soup was a meal in a bowl, hearty and filling, but the real surprise was the lovey little black-eyed beans, cooked al dente.

Turpan is also very famous for its fruit, made possible by the use of underground water. It hardly ever rains. Here grow fat yellow figs, pomegranites so ripe they have split, watermelons, sweet orange Hami melona, plums, apricots and jujubes.

Locals claim Turpan's as the best grapes in China and the streets are covered with trelisses hanging heavy with purple and green grapes. Outside the town - back in the desert - special structures of latticed brick are built in which to dry grapes into raisins or sultanas (yimish).

Rising earlier than the rest of the family one morning in Turpan I could see three ladies in a row, heads covered with coloured scarves, selling little bowls of something white. Thinking it might be yoghurt I got dressed and went to investigate, finding instead fresh milk straight from the farm, and small bowls of warm cream intended to be drunk on the spot. It was the best cream you could imagine.

The centre of every town in Xinjiang is the bazaar, an open air embarrassment of riches crowded with meats, spices, dried goods, nuts, seeds, and sweets. I spent hours wandering, photographing and snacking.

And then at the end of the day, in the rather full-feeling hour after dinner and before bed, there is just enough time to visit the night market and find foods that don't come out in daylight.  

No vampire, but too ugly to be seen in the harsh sun, this huge put holds an artistic arrangement of sheep lungs, sheep heads, liver and kidneys, and sausage made from sheep intestines. Luckily I've already eaten a very satisfactory dinner so I can easily resist the more unattractive organs, but I'm curious enough to try the intestine sausages. The vendor fries them on the griddle cut into bite-size pieces, topped with vinegar and pickles. The sausage is stuffed with meal, blood and spices, a taste rich and foreign. 

I imagine this customer saying, in heavy Uighur, "I'll have one serve of chopped tripe, a slice of lung, and a little sausage. Go easy on the kidneys!" 
As I walk past the man in the next seat is scoffing his dinner hungrily from inside a plastic bag. It's a whole cooked sheep's head. Delicious.

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