Xinjiang Cuisine

xinjiang-snacks

As the largest autonomous region in China, Xinjiang boasts substantial contingencies of different ethnic groups and is well-known for its Central Asian flair. Its cities are dominated by the Uyghur ethnic minority, as well as several other Muslim groups such as the Hui and Dongxiang people, meaning the food is predominantly halal and there is a marked lack of pork compared to other parts of China. In many ways, the cuisine in Xinjiang differs from the rest of the country and is distinctly non-Chinese. Roasted mutton, thickly fragrant spices, and sugary sweet desserts take centre stage when it comes to its signature dishes.

Since many of the cities within Xinjiang were once oasis towns along the Silk Road, they felt the influence of other ethnic groups most profoundly and have cherry-picked features of their cuisine, incorporating techniques and flavours from the Tibetans, Mongolians, Persians, Turkish, and numerous other nationalities. These have all come together to form a stunning mosaic of Chinese, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern qualities. Liberal use of seasonings like cumin, chilli powder, cinnamon, garlic, and saffron sets Xinjiang cuisine apart from other styles throughout China. So you might want to keep a glass of milk handy, because we’re heading into spicy territory!

Dapanji (大盘鸡)

大盘鸡“Dapanji” literally means “Big Plate Chicken”, so it goes without saying what the signature ingredient of this dish is! It rose to popularity in Xinjiang during the 1990s, although its origins aren’t entirely clear. Several ethnic groups, including the Uyghur and Hui people, lay claim to its conception but popular belief states that it was invented in Shawan County of northern Xinjiang by an immigrant from Sichuan province, who liberally mixed hot chilli peppers into the dish in an attempt to recreate his home cuisine. After all, there’s nothing quite like a home-cooked meal!

The dish itself consists primarily of bite-sized pieces of chicken (usually with the bone in) and potatoes, which have been sautéed in a medley of spices and coarsely chopped vegetables before being simmered in broth. The required ingredients are numerous, and include bell peppers, onions, garlic, ginger, chilli peppers, ground cumin, star anise, ground Sichuan peppers, cooking oil, and occasionally soy sauce and beer. Imagine how long the chef’s shopping list must be! The result is a hearty, savoury, and mildly spicy casserole-like dish that is bursting with flavour. It is typically served with hand-pulled noodles or naan bread and is the ideal comfort food when you’re feeling peckish!

Lamb Kawap or Chuanr (烤羊肉串儿)

Lamb Kawap or ChuanrThis distinctly Uyghur dish is classified as a type of kebab. Small, sumptuous slices of lamb and tiny chunks of lamb fat are seasoned with chilli powder, salt, black pepper, and cumin before being skewered and roasted over a charcoal fire. As the meat is gently roasted, it is further sprinkled with a fragrant mixture of cumin seeds, dried red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, and sesame. Be careful not to get too close while they’re cooking, or the spicy powder might bring on a bout of sneezing!

Lamb is the meat of choice, but nowadays popular variations include chicken, beef, seafood, steamed buns, and even insects. Crunchy spiders and salty scorpions may be a little too adventurous for the average palate, but the juicy strips of lamb are sure to get your mouth watering. Each kebab is made to order and is usually served with a soft naan bread, making it the perfect lunchtime treat or just a cheeky snack on the go.

Polo (手抓饭)

poloAlternately named polo, polu, or simply Uyghur pilaf, this is a type of pilaf rice that originated from the Uyghur ethnic minority and really attests to the influence Central Asia has had on Xinjiang’s cuisine. The dish is made by first frying chopped carrots, onions, and mutton (or chicken) in oil until the vegetables are perfectly caramelised and the mutton is thoroughly cooked. Rice and water are then added, and the whole dish is steamed until the rice is cooked through and gives off a tantalising aroma. Sometimes raisins and dried apricots are scattered on top to give the dish an extra sugary tang.

The locally grown yellow carrots provide its characteristic sweetness, while the rice is deliciously buttery and the tender mutton adds a pleasant smack of saltiness. It takes a notoriously long time to cook, so most vendors will only serve it at lunchtime. This dish is so important to the region’s culture that there are even whole restaurants in Xinjiang dedicated to perfecting it. And, after you’ve tried it, we’re sure you’ll never say rice is too plain again!

Laghman (拉条子)

拉条子Like the Lanzhou Beef Noodles or lamian of Gansu province, the main ingredient of laghman or lengmen is hand-pulled noodles that are undeniably scrumptious. The dough is made from a simple mixture of flour, water, and salt, and then stretched into noodles by hand in a laboriously long and skilful process. From the outset, they have a distinctly different flavour from those found in other parts of China since they are made from wheat flour rather than rice flour.

A heaping helping of noodles are boiled until they are perfectly soft, and then topped with a rustic vegetable ragout typically made from bell peppers, eggplant, onions, chilli peppers, garlic, tomato, and any other vegetable that happens to be in season. This rich topping is made by simmering the vegetables in a pot full of meat stock and, if you’re lucky, may include a few meaty titbits. The thick texture of the noodles is perfectly complemented by this hearty sauce, making for a meal that is both filling and comforting.

 

Taste some authentic Xinjiang Cuisine on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

 

Traditional Shanxi Dough Cuisine

There is an old saying in Shanxi province which states: “China has the best flour-based foods in the world, and Shanxi province has the best flour-based foods in China”. For over 2,000 years, the people of Shanxi have used their skill and imagination to develop more than 1,000 different kinds of flour-based dishes, so you’re bound to find something that suits your fancy! While noodles are regarded simply as a staple food in other parts of China, in Shanxi province they are the star attraction. The noodles can be pulled, torn, cut, rolled, or shaved to form a variety of shapes and sizes, which are in turn boiled, stir-fried, or quick-fried with a myriad of toppings and other ingredients. The signature dishes of Shanxi cuisine are characterised by their saltiness, with a touch of sourness endowed by the locally produced vinegar.

This special type of vinegar, known as Shanxi aged vinegar or Shanxi mature vinegar, is so integral to the local culture that there is even a Shanxi Vinegar Culture Museum located in Qingxu County! Although pork and chicken are used prolifically, lamb remains the most popular meat in the region and serves as a reminder of the strong cultural connections that the province has with the nomadic cultures of northwest Asia. For example, the most common dumpling filling in Shanxi is lamb mince with carrots, which you’ll struggle to find outside of the province. The signature dishes of Shanxi cuisine may not feature on any gourmet menus, but their traditional cooking methods and authentic flavours are sure to leave you in noodle heaven.

Knife-Cut Noodles (刀削)

The act of making Knife-Cut Noodles is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the stomach! The noodles are produced by mounting a giant block of dough either on a washboard or simply hoisted over the noodle-cutter’s shoulder. Skilled noodle-cutter’s will use a special knife to deftly shave beautifully tapered noodles straight off the block of dough and into a pot of boiling water. It takes years to master the art, and an experienced chef can supposedly shave off noodles at a rate of 200 per minute! This has given rise to the local saying: “One noodle in the boiling water, one flying in the air, and one just being cut”. Another variation, known as Scissor Cut Noodles (剪刀面), involves using a giant pair of scissors to cut the dough instead.

The noodles are typically served in a mild meat-based broth that has been seasoned with a dash of Shanxi aged vinegar. They are then topped with a plethora of tantalisingly fresh ingredients, including cucumber, leek, mung bean sprouts, soybean sprouts, pickled green beans, cubed tofu, and pork slices. In some restaurants, the noodles may be served with a thick sauce that resembles a ragout. In a province known for its excellent noodles, these are the most popular, so use your noodle and try a bowl!

Kaolaolao (栲栳)

If you want to try something oat-tilly different, Kaolaolao might be just the noodle for you! Unlike other popular types of noodle in Shanxi province, the dough used in Kaolaolao is made from oat flour instead of wheat flour. The dough is kneaded and moulded into tubular-shaped noodles, which are long, wafer thin, and slightly light yellow in colour. Their unusual name is derived from their circular shape, as a “kaolao” is a traditional type of bucket used by farmers and made from bamboo sticks or willow twigs. Speaking of buckets, sampling these delectable noodles is definitely something you want to cross off your bucket list!

The noodles are placed side-by-side in a steamer and, from above, they resemble a neat little honeycomb. Once they are thoroughly steamed, they are served with one or more dipping sauces. Rich tomato and garlic sauce, fabulously tart Shanxi aged vinegar based sauce, or spicy chilli sauce all form a perfect accompaniment to these delicate noodles. Some restaurants offer an alternative variety known as Ganbian or “Dry-Fried” Kaolaolao, where the noodles are quickly dry-fried with a mixture of garlic, onion, and fiery chillies.

Sorghum Fish (高粱面鱼鱼)

Much like Cat’s Ear Noodles, Sorghum Fish are named for their shape rather than their content. The short, fat noodles are thought to resemble a school of plump fish, and are made using sorghum flour. It’s really that simple! This dish is particularly popular in the region surrounding the city of Xinzhou, where sorghum is a major crop. The sorghum dough is cut and rolled by hand into its distinctive shape before being steamed. Once the noodles are cooked through, they are usually served with a simple sauce made from Shanxi mature vinegar, although they are sometimes stir-fried with lamb and a smattering of fresh vegetables. Even in a landlocked province, you can still make fish the dish of the day!

Cat’s Ear Noodles (猫耳朵)

Don’t worry; no cats were harmed in the making of these noodles! Cat’s Ear Noodles are named for their distinctive shape, which supposedly resembles tiny cat’s ears. According to local legend, one day the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) dressed himself in ordinary clothes and hired a boatman from Shanxi province to take him to West Lake in Hangzhou. They suddenly became caught in a violent storm and the rains were so heavy that they had to stop their journey. After some time, the weather did not improve, and the Emperor was racked by a painful hunger.

He asked the old boatman for some food, and the boatman replied: “All I have is some flour, but I don’t have a rolling pin to make noodles for you”. The boatman’s daughter looked down at the little kitten in her arms and swiftly thought of an idea. She began making the noodles by hand and used her fingers to create small indents in each noodle. Once they were finished, the old boatman cooked them and served them to the Emperor with a simple sauce. The Emperor was overwhelmed by how tasty the noodles were and, when he asked the boatman’s daughter what she wished to call the dish, she decided on “Cat’s Ear Noodles”. When the Emperor returned to his palace, he hired her to be his chef and, from that day onwards, her family wanted for nothing. What a purr-fect ending!

To this day, traditional Cat’s Ear Noodles are made by hand and their characteristic shape is produced by the chef pressing their thumb into the dough until it naturally rolls up. Much like Knife-Cut Noodles, they can be served with a wide variety of soups or sauces, although they reputedly taste best when sautéed with cabbage, soy sauce, and Shanxi aged vinegar. After all, as the old saying goes, less is more!

Taste Traditional Shanxi Dough Cuisine on our travel: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages