Kashgar. It’s a city that will never cease to be intriguing, beautiful, and complicated, sitting close to China’s far west border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. I visited the city again at the end of last year and despite recent upheavals
the city remains safe for travellers. Even solo female travellers like myself. Importantly, the rich human landscape of Kashgar survives unchanged – welcoming, friendly, and above all hospitable.
And the food? The food is as glorious as ever. Smoky lamb kebabs, great flat rounds of crisp nan bread, mounds of buttery rice polo, and browned pockets of samsas – Kashgar remains one of the best cities in China, if not the world, for street food.
Although English and Chinese are of limited use in Kashgar, within a day or so, I had learned the only two phrases a food-loving traveller needs:
rahkmet – thank you
tamak bake orshepto – that meal was delicious
These two used in combination with a lot of charades and pointing brought delighted smiles to these street food vendors.
Should you make it to Kashgar in the next little while (and as an ancient Silk road city it’s on many travellers’ lifelong lists) here’s a guide for eating street foods in Kashgar. Some I’ve written of before, many are new after my most recent visit, all delicious.
For up-to-date travel information on the region from a local expert I suggest reading Josh Summers’ excellent blog Far West China.
1. Kawap – Lamb Kebab
The smell of charcoal, spice and grilling meat is a vivid memory for travellers 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 liver in there for variety.
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, or on, flat rounds of nan bread. Grilled meat, soft bread, and tea – a perfect taste combination.
2. Hoshan – Fried Mutton Dumplings
These simple fried dumplings are the very best kind of street food – a one man, one griddle affair. The vendor makes a single dish, but makes it so very perfectly you don’t wish for anything else. The crowd at the Sunday Bazaar in Kashgar agreed. They stood, watching patiently as he made one, ten, fifty, soft bread dough dumplings, filled with mutton. These he placed cheek by jowl in a deep oiled pan. The crowd waited, and watched as the dough gradually browned and crisped. As the fried hoshan came close to being done, the crowd elongated into a spontaneous queue, and within seconds of being taken off the griddle all fifty were sold.
Being the only woman customer, seated between three elderly bearded Uyghurs to my right, and two small boys to my left, the vendor and the men made sure they reserved the two hoshan I had ‘ordered’ (by earlier holding up two fingers and pointing to the griddle).
The dumplings, with their fried top and tail and soft, bready waist, are filled with chunky hand-chopped fatty mutton. They’re eaten with a dab of dark vinegar and a steaming bowl of freshly brewed tea.
3. Laghman – Uyghur Hand-pulled Noodles
Hand-pulled noodles, Uyghur style, are rustic and delicious. The noodles are pulled and stretched like skeins of wool, boiled quickly then topped with a rich rustic vegetable ragout simmered in the pot from peppers, eggplant, onion, garlic and tomato, with 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.
4. Seshorpa – Mutton soup with torn bread
This is a working man’s breakfast, simple, filling, and very hearty. Enamel mugs filled with mutton broth (flavoured with a tomato or two and finely sliced onion with black pepper), are topped with a hunk of boiled mutton on the bone. The lidded soup is kept warm on the stove outside the restaurant. When you order, you will also receive a gizhder nan, a bagel-shaped crusty sesame roll. Tear it into small pieces in your bowl and pour the broth over the top. Eat your mutton separately.
5. Apke – Stuffed Lamb Intestines
I admit it took three trips to Kashgar to build up enough courage to try this dish. Lamb intestines and lung are stuffed with a flour and water mixture, much like making sausage, then cooked and served sliced in a lamb broth with chilli. I think it was the intestine tower built on a base of lungs and topped with lamb hearts that put me off initially. Honestly, I don’t know what I was worried about – if anything, the ‘sausage’ in the dish is a little bland.
Find it at the night market opposite Id Kah Mosque.
6. Polo – Rice Pilaf
Hands down my favourite Uyghur dish, polo shares much with the rice pilaf dishes of central Asia and the Middle East.
Polo is 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 fruits (apricot, dried jujubes, apple or quince), with 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 street markets and truck stops.
7. Samsa – Lamb Pastries
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.
8. Nan – Fresh-Baked Bread
Bread is the currency of daily life in Kashgar, taken with every meal. Nan is respected, never wasted, and how a visitor eats their bread says much about them and their upbringing. Leftover bread is never discarded, but torn up into soups, or used to soak up the savoury juices from stews and braises. Every street has its own bakery, with an outdoor pit oven or tonur, inside which the nan broad is cooked. Each round is rolled carefully onto the walls where it browns and blisters in the heat from the wood coals, giving it a lovely smoky wood-fired aroma.
9. Manti – Steamed Dumplings
Manti are steamed dumplings made with yeast dough, soft and bready. They are filled with seasoned mutton mixed with mutton fat (hence the row of fat-tailed sheep above) or a mixture of vegetables. They are steamed over a small stove placed on the pavement, so you can readily identify a manti vendor by the tower of steamer baskets.
10. Crispy Fried Fish
Surprising indeed, in one of the most land-locked parts of the world, that a popular street food in Kashgar’s night market is fried fish. The fish are freshwater, from the local river, and are so fresh you could swear they are still twitching as they’re filleted and then double-fried in hot oil. The final touch is a sprinkling of cumin and salt.
11. Pomegranate Juice
As autumn eases into winter, it’s the season for Kashgar’s garnet-red pomegranates with their spiked crowns and leathery skins filled with jewelled rubies. It’s one of the area’s most famous crops. Locals eat them straight from the skin, but prefer to juice them. Sweet pomegranate juice is made to order on the street with a hand-cranked pomegranate juice press.
12. Maho – Figure of Eight Sugar Pastry
I don’t believe this is a typically Uyghur dish, but then again, I haven’t seen it anywhere else but the markets in Kashgar. Perhaps some of you have experienced it elsewhere? It’s unsweetened yeast dough, deep fried and pressed with sugar once cooked. A crunchy but not-too-sweet treat to eat as you walk.
13. Matang – Walnut Nougat
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 sweetened with concentrated grape juice.
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.
14. Maroji – Hand-Churned Ice Cream
Cream, milk, sugar, the simplest recipe for ice-cream. A deep copper churn with a wooden paddle, keeping the mixture velvety smooth as it freezes. The ice-cream is soft and delightful, each batch selling out well before it has a chance to melt. You buy by the yuan – a one yuan ice-cream is perfect for a taste, and splashing out with five yuan will see you with an sundae-sized serve in a fancy glass dish with a spoon.
15. Kashi Chai – Kashgar Tea
Tea is the common thread through every meal, every gathering and every social interaction in Kashgar. Delicately flavoured with rose petals and crocus stamens, the black tea is served in small china bowls. It’s a perfect match for the occasional rich oiliness of the street food.
Across Xinjiang there are regional variations in what is added (or not) to the tea, meaning that this delicate rose saffron tea is something you will experience only in Kashgar. Unless, of course, you buy a kilo at the market to take home, like I did.
Where to Eat Street Food in Kashgar
The short answer to this question is everywhere. Kashgar exemplifies street food at its best, with vendors on every busy corner, and most of the quiet corners too. Just look for the waft of smoke or follow your nose.
Id Kah Mosque, Jiefang Bei Lu, Wusitang Boyi Lu, Aigezi Airike Lu
The streets beside and behind the mosque are full of small street food stalls. The busiest time is Friday afternoon after Friday prayers, when additional itinerant vendors set up to capture the crowds of men leaving the mosque.
The Night Market, Corner Jiefang Bei Lu and Ou’er Daxike Lu
There is a concentration of vendors opposite the Id Kah Mosque, where things get much busier at night but there are always vendors open from early morning too. At the north wall of the small square where the night market sets up are three maroji or ice cream vendors who are open all day.
The Sunday Bazaar, Corner Binhe Bei Lu and Azirete Lu
As with all markets, street food vendors tend to be clustered around the outer perimeters. The Sunday Bazaar boasts at least one hundred different street food vendors each week, all in the uncovered outdoor areas of the bazaar.
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