new Things I Ate in Cambodia: eating in xinjiang

Thursday, October 18, 2007

eating in xinjiang

Why is this going here and not the China blog? Well, it's a food post, that I originally threw together for EGullet but thought might work here as well. So here you go.

Our trip to Xinjiang began with the flight from Xi'an to Urumqi. The sand-blasted landscape outside the window was fascinating to me, though I will always remember that moment where my dad said, "Wait, where are we going again?" He's entirely too trusting....

This is the view from the window of our rather luxe hotel. Urumqi reminds me of Salt Lake City in an alternate universe, where the inhabitants of the valley just happened to be Muslim instead of Mormon. In the summer, the air is fresh, clean, and sharp - very much unlike the majority of mainland China. It's a clean city with an impressive amount of energy, and a totally different feel from the Chinese cities I visited - because it isn't really a Chinese city. It's a mishmash of Uighur, Han Chinese, Kazakh, Russian, and probably about 15 other interesting ethnic groups. I loved it immediately.

The Uighur (or Uyghur) people are of Turkic extraction, and don't look anything like the Han Chinese. The majority are Muslim, and they speak their own language and even use their own written script. They want to be independent from mainland China, but lacking a charismatic figurehead like the Dali Lama, they're not having much luck - and the occasional bombing occurring in Urumqi over the matter hasn't helped, allowing the Chinese government to refer to them (unfairly) as "terrorists." I wish them luck. In any case, Urumqi is a quite safe city, and I never felt any particular "vibe" or animosity while I was there - in fact, the entire ambience seemed quite a bit more open and light then I encountered in other Han Chinese cities.

But I digress. This is about food.

Hungry as always when we arrived that evening, our guide directed us to a Uighur restaurant right next door to the Hoi Tak Urumqi hotel where we were staying for our dinner.

The restaurant, as is typical in China, had multiple levels - one fast food oriented, one more about the sit down dining experience. The place was packed with Han, Uyghur, and super-pale Russians, all chowing down on huge plates of mutton, noodles, and vegetables. We were seated, and then had to go through the long and arduous process of ordering - difficult, since our Mandarin was very rusty, and the waiters, of course, didn't speak much English. Thankfully, the glossy menus had pictures - and also thankfully, we're the kind of people that won't mind too much if we end up getting offal.

My dad confused them further by attempting to order a "local" red wine. Locavorism hasn't quite caught on here - it's more a matter of neccesity then something you sit dow and think about. They attempted to foist off a bottle of Great Wall red on us, but dad held his ground, and they rustled up a bottle of wine of Turpan origin. And: after pointing to a variety of items and miming eating, we received these yummy dishes:

This is a spicy mutton and carrot dish, with a delicious, oily sauce. The meat was falling off the bone and took on an almost osso-bucco like character. As you can imagine, this dish was totally irresistible, and my mother had to keep on thumping my dad and I to prevent us from sucking the bones. (We like meat.) You can also see a huge pot of flower tea on the table - it had a very subtle, floral flavor. This stuff is drunk constantly by almost everyone in Xinjiang, usually carried around in very trendy Coleman water bottles.

Continuing the mutton theme (go figure, being in Xinjiang) we have a dish of stir-fried celery root and mutton, with a substantial kick of chili. This was very tasty - sort of like a highly evolved and fresh version of a more usual Chinese stir-fry. I love dry stir-fries like this. If you have good fresh ingredients like these, you don't always need a sauce.

This is a big plate of lamian, the hand pulled noodles that are very common in both Xinjiang and Xi'an. Xinjiang style lamian is a variant on the theme: it's usually a delicious noodle dish comprised of mutton, tomato, cumin, chili, and green pepper, giving it an almost Italian sort of flavor. Communicating that we wanted lamian with meat was surprisingly hard - they were under the impression we just wanted plain noodles. People often order plain noodles to throw into the last remnants of their stir-fried dishes to make them "go" longer. Still, they finally bought out the plate, and we pronounced it yummy - though I would have better versions as the trip went on.

We also ended up with some sort of stir-fried green vegetable, which I of course neglected to photograph. The wine? Surprisingly drinkable.

That evening, we went to Urumqi's main square and watched the massive street gathering that takes place after 11, as the heat of the day dies down. One interesting fact about Xinjiang is that, despite the vast distance, everything runs on Beijing time. This means that people wake up well after the sun has come up, and conversely, stay up much later then you might expect. This becomes especially nice when you're contending with the 115 degree heat of a Xinjiang summer. As we walked around the square, we say that people were eating just about every street food under the sun, from home-made vanilla ice cream to thousand year eggs to rounds of nang bread...but we were stuffed.

Breakfast at the hotel was my first introduction to the absolutely amazing Xinjiang grapes. Our guide informed us we'd come at the right time: the grapes were just becoming ripe, and were at their tartest and juiciest. Was she ever right - I just had a couple of bunches and nothing more for breakfast, and was totally satisfied. Smaller and crunchier then any grapes I've had in the states, they instantly turned me into a huge grape fan. I dream of eating these again, someday.

After breakfast, we drove up to Tian Shan, or the Heavenly Lake - an interesting drive, as we passed through a burning desert filled with Bactrian camels and graveyards, up into a refreshing mountain environment, full of Kazakh herders and gaping Chinese tourists.

On the walk up, I spotted a variety of food stands catering to the healthy summer tourist population. Chinese tourists love to try every single "local" food they can get their hands on, as evidenced by the massive displays of "local" food packaged to take home to the folks that cover every airport.

Here's a nang stand. Our guide bought a couple just baked rounds for us to snack on as we walked up the hill. They were amazingly good - thin, crisp, and chewy, with a slight dusting of salt and sesame seeds. The name implies that they are similar to Indian naan, but this stuff is chewier and a little more robust. I happen to prefer it. It's also the absolute perfect travel food, whether you're traveling in a minibus or on the back of a Bactrian camel.

This is another food stand. Note the hanging lamb (or mutton?) carcass on the left. This is a very common and delicious sight. One thing I love about China is the totally lack of political correctness when it comes to eating and displaying meat. No shame here: we eat meat and we're not particularly morally conflicted about it. Kebabs gotta come from somewhere, after all.

Another impressive carcass. This is where all those delicious cumin drenched kebabs come from. Thanks, sheep!

These gentlemen are whipping up an impressive wok full of pilau, the Uighur version of pilaf (I guess.) Here, it's usually flavored with cumin, carrot, and lots and lots of lamb. It is incredibly good and available almost everywhere. Favorite condiments include shredded carrot salad and runny, tart yogurt. Our guide said people tend to make a lot of the "simpler" kind of pilau at home, although they prefer to go out for the "harder" version. I think this "harder" version also involves saffron.

These rounds were the most common nang shape I found, but I also encountered delicious and yeasty stars, twists, and even bagel-variants throughout my travels. All are delicious and all are worth sampling. I may have to return to do a "nang crawl."

And this is the Heavenly Lake itself. It's very pretty. Especially when viewed while eating nang and kebabs.

We drove down the hill back to Urumqi for lunch, where our guide promised to take us to her favorite pilau joint. We were not disappointed. After driving through a few back neighborhoods, past hordes of men manning kebab stalls and pulling huge rounds of nang out of street side brick ovens, we found this store front.

The restaurant was clean and rather opulent inside, at least by Urumqi standards.

But how about that food? We were started off with a wide variety of side dishes, which were constantly refilled - along with the pilau. Nice.

The carrot salad was yummy, with a sharp, vinegar kick. The yogurt was plain, unflavored, and a bit runny - just perfect when used as a pilau condiment. I wish we could get stuff like this easily in the USA. The watermelon, served with just about everything during an Xinjiang summer, was tasty as well.

And the main attraction! (Sorry for the photo...the restaurant's other patrons were looking at me like I was utterly insane for photographing my food, so I had to move quick.) The rice was sauteed with pine nuts, saffron, and some other flavorings I couldn't identify - but it was smoky, soulful, and rich, one of the most delicious things I ate during my time in China. The mutton chunks were a bit gamy, but I happen to love intensely flavored meats. Heaven. Our driver ate three servings.

Okay, that's all for now. I have a few more photos from Turfan and Urumqi I'll share sometime in the next few days. It was an amazing trip, and I'd definitely recommend taking the plunge and going if you ever get the chance. I don't think there's anywhere else quite like Xinjiang.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great descriptions of the grapes, lamian noodles (which I've had in Xian) and nang. Headed for Urumqi in September and can't wait to try them all.

You didn't get the street address of the restaurant in Urumqi that your guide took you to, did you? That Pilau dish looks great.