Xinjiang food: One laowai's favorites from the far west of China's Silk Road

Culture, Travel | by Miller Wey
Posted: April 26th, 2011 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
Xinjiang travel: roast goat Any Miller Wey recounts one such experience before tucking into a few of his recommended Xinjiang dishes. >>> In 2005, I traveled the Silk Road as a student, my group bussing across the seemingly endless Taklamakan Desert to Tian Shan, a mountain range rising up out of the desert. In the middle of the mountains, the desert landscape transformed into green alpine slopes around a deep, glacial lake: Tian Chi (Heavenly Lake). At our lakeside camp, locals presented us with a goat, still mewing and tugging on its rope. By the time we returned from climbing one of the nearby mountainsides, dinner was ready. There lay our goat: barbequed, spiced and ready to eat. Each bite of meat, pulled from the bone by hand over paper plates, was succulence itself, accented by sharp flavors of hot pepper and cumin. I haven't had the opportunity to return to China's far northwestern Xinjiang province, but luckily, like a Silk Road trader, Xinjiang food gets around. From street-corner chuàn (skewers, 串) to actual Xinjiang restaurants, my stomach returns far quicker and cheaper than the rest of me can. The flavors of Xinjiang are quite a bit different than those of eastern Chinese fare. Instead of rice as a staple, there is naan (náng, 馕) flat bread, which can be ordered by itself or as part of a dish. Located farther from an ocean than any place in the world (the provincial capital of Urumqi is, anyway), Xinjiang menus obviously lack the seafood so prevalent in coastal China. Being that Xinjiang's different ethnic groups are mostly Muslim, and thus halal (hālālēi, 哈拉勒 ), you also aren't likely to encounter pork (so common in other Chinese cuisines that "meat" is often understood to mean "pork"). Instead, mutton takes center stage. While you probably won't find a place that lets you pick a live sheep (or goat, as in some regions the two are interchangeable), many Xinjiang restaurants in China actually offer a whole roast lamb (kǎo quán yáng, 烤全羊 )... but don't expect it to come cheap. Other more affordable fare like ribs and chuan may not be as decadent, but are just as delicious. Both come roasted and seasoned with cumin and pepper. Similarly seasoned, but off the bone, stir fried mutton with nang (náng chǎo ròu, 囊炒肉) is delicious and filling. Mutton meat pie (yángròu xiànbǐng, 羊肉馅饼), however, is always the first thing I order. It was a favorite dish among my friends and I, which we favorably compared to Mexican "pizza." It can be prepared in slightly different ways, but my favorite is when the chopped or ground mutton is fried within a thin, flat pie-shaped crust and sliced into triangular pieces best eaten by hand. Giving a little non-mutton variety to the table is the ever-popular dà pán jī (大盘鸡), "big plate chicken." A whole chicken (more or less) is diced (bones included), cooked with a mix of chopped peppers, onions and garlic, and served in a shallow pool of savory sauce. Matching robust drinks to its zesty eats, Xinjiang's local beer Sinkiang Black Beer (Xīnjiāng Hēi Píjiǔ, 新疆黑啤酒)—confusingly spelled using Qing Dynasty Postal Map Romanization—is full-bodied, smooth and rings in at 4.3 percent alcohol. For religious reasons, some Xinjiang restaurants may not serve alcohol, but they often serve a drink that is packaged remarkably like beer. Géwǎ Qí (格瓦奇) is a sweet, fruity, carbonated beverage that comes in a green-tinted bottle with a logo featuring a bearded fellow sporting a stout, frothy mug in his hand. Hot, and better shared, Xinjiang milk tea (Xīnjiāng nǎichá, 新疆奶茶) is also good with a meal and can be ordered sweet (tiánde, 甜的) or salty (xiánde, 咸的). As the region's people move to different cities along the coast and inland, they bring their food with them. In most Chinese cities and towns, it isn't difficult to find the ubiquitous chuan grilled on the street corner or not-exactly-Xinjiang-but-close Lanzhou Pulled Noodles (Lánzhōu lāmiàn, 兰州拉面) restaurant. But Xinjiang food comes in a greater variety (including restaurants specializing in the cuisine of a specific Xinjiang minority, like Xibo in Shanghai) worth exploring in whatever town, city or province it shows up in.
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