Here are ten mouth-watering foods from our travels through Xinjiang, all of them Uyghur foods. There are five savory and five sweet ones for your enjoyment!
1. Laghman 拉面
Hand-pulled noodles, Uyghur style, are rustic and delicious. The noodles are stretched, stretched, then stretched some more (you may be able to just see the young boy behind the old man, just starting out with a batch), boiled quickly then turned out onto a big enamel platter to cool a little before being portioned out by hand.
Laghman are usually topped with a rich rustic vegetable ragout simmered in the pot from peppers, eggplant, onion, garlic and tomato, with or without a few pieces of lamb. If there are extra vegetables in season (celery, spinach, beans) these often make their way in too. It’s a filling and very satisfying dish.
Want to make your own? Instructions here
from my last visit to Kashgar.
2. Kawap 烤羊肉串
The smell of charcoal, spice and grilling meat is a vivid memory for travelers to Xinjiang, with outdoor barbecues smoking up a storm on every street. Lamb kawap (known to us as kebabs and to the Chinese as yang rou chuanr) are the quintessential street food of Xinjiang – succulent pieces of fatty lamb threaded onto long metal skewers, with a nice juicy chunk of lamb fat in the centre to keep the meat tender. Sometimes there’s a piece of lamb’s liver in there for variety, if you like.
The kawap are grilled to order over a long, narrow waist-high charcoal brazier, sprinkled as they cook with that magical mixture of spices that gives incredible flavour – usually cumin, white pepper, chili and salt – and when ready are served with nan bread. Grilled meat, soft bread – a perfect taste combination.
3. Carrot salad 胡萝卜色拉
If you order kawap in a restaurant rather than on the street, the other great accompaniment to them is this cold, spiced salad. It cuts through the fat in meat dishes perfectly. Western Xinjiang has both orange and bright yellow carrots, and both are shredded together with white radish and some fine rice vermicelli noodles in this salad, dressed with dark vinegar, salt and chili.
4. Samsas 烤包子
There are constant food and linguistic reminders that Xinjiang shares much more in common with central Asia, including the name of these spiced lamb parcels wrapped in dough and cooked in the tall tonur outdoor pit oven. Known as samosa in India, sambosa in Afghanistan, sambusa in Iran, and samsa in Pakistan, they are perfect as a snack in their smaller version, while the larger ones, kumach, are a meal in themselves.
What I loved as I travelled through Xinjiang was the regional variations in shape – some like parcels, some like large balls, some like crescents, some flat and square like envelopes. All delicious.
5. Polo 手抓饭
Polo is a rich and satisfying rice pilaf, made in a large deep curved pot like a wok, with shreds of carrot that cook to a caramelised loveliness, pieces of onion that brown and crisp on the bottom, and mutton on the bone. The entire dish is all buttery rice, with the sweetness of the carrots and the saltiness of the tender, tender meat. In Xinjiang, whole restaurants are devoted to the perfection of polo, but you can also find slightly less perfect (but no less tasty) versions in markets and truckstops.
6. Zongza 粽扎
I know what you’re thinking, those parcels being unwrapped in the picture below look mighty like zongzi
– sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves – and hang on, isn’t that a Chinese dish? Well, you’d be right, up to a point.
In a marvelous Uyghur take on a Chinese classic, these zongza are made with a sticky red date in the tip. To serve, the zongza are unwrapped, pressed flat on a saucer, then covered in rich, creamy cold yoghurt curd and drizzled all over with brown sugar syrup and eaten with a tiny teaspoon. One word: divine.
7. Matang 麻糖
Matang refers to a whole group of slightly different sweet treats made with locally grown nuts as one of the main ingredients – usually walnuts or almonds, made into a giant block of sweet, chewy nut brittle.
Some matang is very crunchy with a toffee base, and some is soft, chewy, and creamy, like nougat. You just tell the vendor how much you would like in weight, and he will slice off a hunk with a very sharp knife, chop it into bite-size pieces and weigh it on scales.
For more details there’s a great description of the treat and how it’s made here
8. Fresh figs 新鲜无花果
It’s impossible to travel through Xinjiang during fig season (July to October) and not eat your own body weight in sweet, fresh figs – enjur. Just take a fig leaf, and choose your own from the pile to take away, usually 1 yuan each. The best and sweetest are reported to come from the town of Atash near Kashgar, and Beshkirem, but you will find fig vendors everywhere.
9. Summer Snow kar dogh 夏季刨冰
A street food miracle, this delightful summer treat is made from snow harvested in the depths of winter and kept frozen until the heat of summer arrives in underground rooms filled with blocks of ice. A pre-electric freezer.
The vendors keep their own blocks of snow cold with blankets, and when you order a bowl of kar dogh he will scoop snow from the block and top it with freshly made yoghurt, brown sugar syrup and some rich, creamy yoghurt curd.
I sat in the Hotan Bazaar next to a very ancient Uyghur man, both of us grinning and slurping on our bowls of kar dogh like kids tasting icecream for the first time. Fantastic.
10. Sweet Samsas 烤甜包
In a few restaurants, notably the wonderful Altun Orda restaurant in Kashgar, you can end your meal with a sweet samsa filled with a spiced mixture of sultanas and crushed nuts in crisp, flaky pastry. A perfect way to finish a round-up of sweet Uyghur treats!