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Street Foods of Kashgar

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.

Continue reading “Street Foods of Kashgar”

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.

Seeing Red

A full twenty four hours from Kashgar by rollicking train across the northern edge of the Taklamikan Desert lies the green oasis of Turpan, home to China’s best grapes, and our destination for the next few days. Except that, thanks to my thorough reading of the guidebook, I discover too late that the train isn’t actually arriving in Turpan, but in the rough and ready transit point of Daheyan, 60 km away and smack-bang in the middle of a dusty desert wasteland. It’s definitely not an oasis.
The road between Turapn and Daheyan threatens to be one long hour of monotonous flat grey gravel, broken only by the vicarious excitement of our driver overtaking trucks on the wrong side of the road while the truck is overtaking something slower, like a bus. Then back to gravel, lots and lots of gravel. 
Then all of a sudden, the entire horizon changes from grey to red, and as far as the eye can see in every direction are acres and acres of long red chilies drying on the hot dry ground. I cajole the driver into pulling over so I can get a closer look, and as soon as I open the car door the pungent chili in the air makes my eyes smart and my nose sting just a little. 
Nothing, and I mean nothing grows out here – not a blade of grass or a stunted tree, nothing – so I wonder where the trucks delivering the bags of fresh chilies have come from. Each truckload of chilies (and in a sweep of the horizon I count fifty or sixty trucks) is being tended by a small work group of four or five men with pitchforks. The chilies are poured out of sacks onto the ground and spread evenly by the men to a depth of about two inches. The men tell me it will take three days for them to dry, then they will be packed back into sacks and driven away again.
As we chat the men tell me they are non-local labourers, Han Chinese not Uighurs, from far afield. Despite the heat and the pungency they are enjoying the camaraderie and passing around cigarettes as they wait for the next truck’s arrival. 

This is what I really get out of travelling across China – a better understanding of food, where it grows, how it’s processed, and how completely simple and unmechanised many of these processes still are, albeit on a massive scale. 
So next time you buy a packet of dried chilies here in China and there’s a bit of grit in the bottom of the bag, and the chilies are on the dusty side, think of this post. That packet holds not just any old dirt but a little bit of the Taklamakan Desert, free of charge.  
Travels on the Silk Road

Pulled Noodles, Lady Style

Have you ever watched hand-pulled noodles being made? An enormous leaden lump of dough, pulled and stretched with the use of sheer brute strength, is then twirled, pulled and stretched again and again until an armful of fine, evenly sized noodles appears like magic, ready to be immediately boiled in a cauldron of steaming broth.
The Herculean muscular strength required for those first few pulls has always put me off trying it for myself, until I discovered a technique requiring much less…er…grunt. The ‘Lady Style’ method of hand-pulled noodles is practised by the ladies of Kashgar, and thanks to our wonderful guide, Waheed, it had been arranged that I would learn to make hand-pulled noodles in the home of a local family living in Kashgar’s Old City.
I love to learn a bit of cooking while I’m on holiday, but Kashgar doesn’t have anything to offer the non-Uighur-speaking non-local in the way of classes, so it was very lucky Waheed was able to enlist the help of local friends. Waheed, as it turned out, could arrange practically anything, from impossible-to-buy train tickets, to tea in a traditional Uighur teahouse, to trips to an out of the way cemetery that caught my inquisitive eye. 
And so it was that one afternoon he arranged for us to meet Aygul, our host and reportedly an excellent cook, who greeted us at the door of her traditional house, hidden down a dusty laneway in the Old City. She was going to teach us to make laghman, Uighur hand-pulled noodles, made the way ladies make them at home.
The house was wonderful – built from honey-coloured bricks placed in decorative patterns. As you walked from the lane outside you passed through a colourful curtain into the double-story light-filled atrium. On the ground level were many of the functional rooms for washing and cooking, and upstairs the reception rooms for guests, the sleeping quarters, and a raised eating platform covered with carpets and furnished with a low table.
Aygul led us to the tiny narrow upstairs kitchen, which had a deep red dresser covered with brightly coloured paper doubling as a work bench. Next to it, a double burner hotplate occupied the corner and beside that stood a tall dresser filled with plates and bowls. There was a large pot filled with clean water in the corner, above which windows looked back out onto the house’s atrium.

Aygul got straight to work, making a simple wheat flour dough from three cups of wheat flour, a cup of water, and 2 teaspoons of salt, mixed and kneaded. Then she flattened the dough into a slab and sliced it into 12 inch lengths.

Each length was gently rolled, with hands slightly oiled, into lengths of dough the thickness of your little finger.
As the dough was rolled, Aygul coiled it inside a silver Uighur bread tin, covering each layer with a little oil and sealing it with a lid. It went back into the dresser at this stage to rest for an hour.

In the meantime, we prepared the sauce for the noodles, a simple meat and vegetable mixture using available local vegetables. 1 cup of diced potato, 1 cup of sliced peppers, I cup of sliced eggplant, 1/2 cup chopped mutton, half a cup of sliced  onion, 1/2 cup of beans chopped into short lengths were fried in a wok with 2 tablespoons of oil. Once softened, two chopped ripe tomatoes, a teaspoon of salt and a little hot water were added and reduced into a thick vegetable sauce, and kept warm to one side while a large pot of salted water came to the boil and we finally got down to the business of pulling some noodles.

Taking the tin back out of the dresser, Aygul took thick coils of dough from the pan, one at a time, and stretched them between her two hands, twisting her fingers slightly as she pulled the dough into a small pile of noodles with the thickness of twine.
Well-practised, Aygul could chat away as she did this, and still the strands were even and unbroken in her hands.
Once she had made two small noodle piles, Aygul took both thick strands and wrapped them cleverly around her hands, like skeins of wool.

Then a stretch, a slap onto the board…..

And a second wide-armed stretch…..

And the noodles went straight into the boiling water for about three minutes, as Aygul let me take a turn twisting, coiling and pulling the next batch of noodles. Amazingly simple!  
Once cooked the noodles were drained and spooned into a bowl topped with the vegetable sauce.
Aygul’s sister prepared our side-dishes of small bowls of unsweetened yoghurt, and cucumber with black vinegar.
We washed our hands using the beautiful silver washbasin and jug reserved for guests in every Uighur house, and then tucked in, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted eating platform of the house. The noodles had a perfect bite and consistency – firm yet yielding, smooth and slippery. The rustic mutton vegetable sauce had a rich tomato flavour and was surprisingly spicy thanks to the hot local peppers. 
I suspect that the secret of Lady Style Pulled Noodles lies not so much in the techniques of stretching and pulling, as in starting with the perfect dough with exactly the right amount of salt. Too much salt, and the noodles will break easily when stretched, too little and they will lack bite. Waheed told me, as we ate, that his own mother makes these noodles every single day of the year. It will take me a long time to build up that kind of practice!  I can’t wait to try making my own back in Shanghai.
Waheed can offer a guide service for Kashgar and its surrounds including camping and mountaineering adventures in the local mountains.
Contact him at waheedtour@gmail.com
Travels on the Silk Road

Yaks, Goats and Fat-Tailed Sheep: The Sunday Animal Market, Kashgar

Need a yak? Want to know the going rate for a donkey? Got a few spare goats you’d like to get off your hands because they keep eating your shoes?
Then get yourself to Kashgar’s weekly animal market, held every Sunday just outside town. In the past the animal market was part of the regular Sunday Market in Kashgar, until I guess it got too messy and rowdy and they decided to give the animals their own purpose-built venue. And don’t go worrying that you’re going to see puppies and kittens in cages, this is an agricultural market, strictly for farmer types. The main business is in cows, yaks, goats and fat-tailed sheep, with a few donkeys and horses and the occasional camel thrown in once a month on camel trading day.
The market is held in a large open field, bordered with walls and entered through a wide gate. Early in the morning the livestock begins to arrive by whatever means is available.
By tricycle…
By tractor….

By truck…
By trailer…

Or on foot.
Once inside the animals are lined up neatly and tethered together, cheek-to-cheek. Goats with goats, sheep with sheep and so on.

Not everyone is happy to be at the market, of course. For some, it’s unbearable being in such close proximity to other animals.
Occasionally on-the-spot pre-sale repairs need to be carried out, like trimming the dirty wool from the extraordinary tails of these local fat-tailed sheep.
Now they look the business. 
Like traders in any part of the world, the farmers walk around, mobile phones pressed to ears, inspecting stock.

At a point, after teeth, hoofs, testicles and overall sheep-ness are inspected, a deal is done. Hands are shaken. Money presumably changes hands, but it’s invisible to the naked eye.

Like stockbrokers working the stock exchange I’m told that some buyers spend the whole day at the markets buying and selling repeatedly in order to make a margin on the sale – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The busines of livestock selling is conducted exclusively by Uighur men – Chinese animal traders are not admitted to the market.Women appear to be welcome but don’t participate in the trading, at least not obviously.

Once everyone is happy with the price, it’s time for breakfast. Around the perimeter of the market food stalls are already feeding dozens with mutton polo, soups, noodles, and samsas.
Diced lamb is ready for wrapping into tasty little pastry envelopes – samsas – cooked inside the smoking tandoor oven.

The tasty soup is kept steaming hot, seasoned by the chief taster after a sip from his ladle.
After watching this expert butcher for ages I decide to buy a beautiful handmade Uighur knife – not because I’m planning to do my own butchering, but as a fruit knife. 

The knives, with exquisite copper-inlaid bone, horn, wood or metal handles are beautifully crafted. They come with their own leather holster so you can wear them on your belt Uighur style. 
I buy one with a smooth black handle inlaid with brass and copper diamonds, but it causes me no end of trouble over the next few days as it becomes clear I can’t take it back to Shanghai on the train, and China Post won’t allow it to be sent. 
Eventually a private courier company comes to my hotel room to tell me that for double the cost of the knife’s purchase price, it can be returned to Shanghai by bus accompanied by a police declaration, and will take one month. I’ll let you know if it ever gets here. To be honest, it would have been less hassle and a lot cheaper to buy a yak. Next time I’ll know better!

Kashgar Animal Market
Every Sunday from dawn
The market has moved three times in the last year alone, so it’s worth checking the current location before you go.

Travels on the Silk Road

Kashgar: The Sunday Market, The Old City – A Dream Realized

I have a little story to tell you about Kashgar and how pivotal it was in my eventual move to China.

Kashgar, market town smack in the middle of the Silk Road, with hundreds of years of traveller and trader history. I don’t think I was even consciously aware that it was in China. Four years ago my husband began coming to China for work, visits that became more frequent and more prolonged. He could obviously see the writing on the wall that I couldn’t – our whole family was going to need to relocate to China within the year. I had listened with rapt attention to his stories about Shanghai, but China was a huge unknown quantity, and only the previous year I had turned down a trip to the Beijing Olympics on ‘ethical humanitarian grounds’. I was so full of shit.

Realising I may need a bit more convincing before a relocation was proposed, after one particular trip he bought a book for me called ‘Kashgar – Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road’. It was full of incredible photographs of a city that had lived only in my imagination – dusty adobe houses, cool courtyards shaded by trellised grapevines, mosques, deserts, camels, brass and copper  (you can read an interview with the photographer John Gollings here).

In particular the images of the Sunday Market in Kashgar captured me completely. The men in embroidered caps, faces like oiled walnuts, surrounded by richly coloured carpets and donkey carts. The rows of brass teapots and oil lamps. It became a burning obsession.
“Kashgar’s in China you know” my husband said. “We might get to visit if we lived there.”
So there you have it. A promise to visit Kashgar became part of the decision to move to China, all based on a book of photographs of a place I’d never been but longed to see. Once here, I was in no rush – Kashgar wasn’t going anywhere. Then I heard about the attempted destruction of the Old City, narrow lanes full of traditional adobe houses, quiet and mysterious, and I knew the time had come to see before it was too late.

Kashgar didn’t disappoint. It’s all you imagine of an ancient silk road city and more. I think I won’t write any more, and let you see for yourself the beauty of fascination of the place. Smell the spices, taste the juicy pomegranates and the char-grilled meats, feel the smooth cool dusty adobe walls of the quiet alleys of the old city and hear the hawker cries of the busy, bustling Sunday Market. You must go.

To Kashgar: China Traversed East to West

Traders along the fabled ancient Silk Road between Xi’an and Kashgar travelled only a tiny portion of the journey I’ve done today. From Shanghai to Kashgar, via Wulumuqi is over 4000 km, much further than, say, Shanghai to Calcutta or Shanghai to Singapore. For the next ten days I’m exploring Xinjiang, China’s western frontier, then planning to travel slowly back to Shanghai, west to east, by train.
I often forget how vast China is, sitting neatly over on the crowded east coast and imagining the rest of China to be largish, in a vague sort of way. It’s only when you fly over that expansive distance in one continuous arc that some perspective appears. I expected the flight to be long (some seven hours, plus an hours’ stop in Wulumuqi to refuel), but what I hadn’t expected was to see such sudden and precipitous changes in the landscape on the ground, like a catalogue of topography rolling out below, each page suddenly torn violently away to reveal a new and completely different landscape beneath. 
 For two hours though, I flew in a featureless vacuum of endless grey cloud above and below, without a glimpse of ground or blue sky. Then finally we crossed the mountain range that separates the east coast from the rest of china, north-south, and the moiture-laden air disappeared. Below, I could see green valleys and wide rivers, the valleys crowded with towns.
Then mountain ranges capped with snows pushed through the low clouds filling the valleys.
The clouds and mountains disappeared altogether to reveal the loess hills near Xi’an, millennia of compressed desert dust now terraced up and down the length of every ridge like stacks of pancakes.

Then dry, featureless desert scored with the tracks of long dead rivers, dried tears on a dirty face.
In the far south, the mountains of northern Tibet appear, permanently covered with snow.

And now brown folds of low hills, some dusted with dry vegetation as we reach the edge of the Qaidam Basin, Mongolia to our north. 

Then the desert dust swirls around us as we fly through a sandstorm, buffeted by strong head winds. The sands clear for a moment to reveal a pale grey landscape, scoured to flatness, baked with salt. It looks uninhabitable from the air and yet there are roads, and patches of farmed land, and I wonder at the extreme limits of human habitation.
And then that limit reveals itself – no sign of life, just vast salt plains. A second sandstorm comes and the ground is lost to view again for almost an hour.

When the dust clears, it seems miraculous – a true oasis of lush green criss-crossed by rows of grapevines, fields of corn, tall trees and low clay houses. This, at last, is Kashgar, a jewel in the desert sought by travellers for thousands of years. Now I see why. Imagine crossing those interminable mountains, then deserts, then salt plains in a camel train, month after endless month, to eventually arrive in far-off Kashgar to a Uighur welcome.
We step out of the taxi to Kashgar smells of char-grilled meat, coal fires and dust, and tastes of peaches, melons and figs. The sounds of car horns mix with the beating drum and wailing horns of a Uighur wedding party, circumnavigating the city in an open back truck, the bride and groom following behind in a car completely encrusted with coloured silk flowers. They drive round and round, the music now further, now nearer, always wailing, always drumming. 
I can’t wait to explore the city, but Kashgar is not our stop tonight – we are heading immediately further west along the Karakoram Highway through a high mountain pass to Lake Karakul, and we need to be there before dark where I hope we’ll find a soft bed in a yurt. Kashgar will have to wait.
Travels on the Silk Road

Going to the Wild, Wild West – Travels in Xinjiang

I’m on an adventure. Again. This time to Xinjiang (the ‘new frontier’) in China’s far northwest, taking in the Uighur heartland of Kashgar, Tashkurgan and Turpan on the way. I’m travelling as far west as it’s possible to go in China without accidentally running into trouble in one of the ‘stans’ – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan – because they all meet closely and uncomfortably together in the corner of the world I’m off to. 
“What on earth would possess her to go that far-flung corner of China??” I hear you ask, “and drag her whole family and guile-less parents-in-law along too?” Well, it’s the October National Holiday, a whole three days of public holidays which I have creatively extended to eleven or twelve, and I think it’s time we all visited China’s western frontier. This photograph is probably proof enough of the incredible landscape that awaits us, and having arrived yesterday I can tell you it’s even more amazing and beautiful than I had imagined. 
Prepare to be enchanted by Xinjiang.
Travels on the Silk Road