A man cannot live without eating. It is natural that a person would concern himself with food whenever arriving at a strange place. A satisfactory meal can brighten anyone’s day.
This is particularly true when people go to Xinjiang. There have been rumors that Xinjiang produces millions of tons of beef and mutton but no vegetables at all. It makes Xinjiang people sound like they are still primitives.
Actually the rumors used to be partly true, because the nomads had to eat meat as their staple food, due to their special way of living, and vegetables were rare in these oases, due to the long winters.
However these winters remain in the past.
Today, Xinjiang cuisine has become a major flavor in China. On the menu are meat and vegetables, cold dishes and hot dishes, pasta, tea and alcohol, and of course the barbecue. Cumin is the very special seasoning that distinguishes Xinjiang cuisine from Chinese.
A local cuisine is always related to local agricultural productions and local cultures.
The vast grasslands in Xinjiang breed millions of cattle, sheep and horses, and produce plenty of fresh milk. The oases yield an abundance of wheat, corn and fruits, as well as various kinds of vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, onions and fennel. These local products dictate that Xinjiang cuisine is mainly about meat and pasta.
Xinjiang people are very practical about their food. For them, the taste is more important than appearance. The “shouzhuafan”, or “mutton with rice that you eat with your fingers”, has been popular for nearly thousands of years. The plain-looking “Banmian”, or “seasoned cold noodles”, never gets old. And there is the “Dapanji”, or “spicy chicken served on a huge plate”, the best-known Xinjiang dish throughout China.
Many Xinjiang people are Muslim. They are forbidden to eat pork, donkey meat, dog meat or meat of large-sized predators. Nor do they eat peculiar stuff. Most Xinjiang dishes are prepared strictly according to Muslim traditions.
A roasted whole lamb
Beef and mutton are the two major kinds of meat used in Xinjiang cuisine, and they are usually prepared in very simple ways – water-boiled or shallow-fried - to preserve their original meaty tastes.
It can be hard for many people to imagine that mutton is cooked in pure water with no condiment at all. Eaters season the meat with salt and eat it with raw onion. The simple and original taste is what this dish all about.
Flour is traditional staple food of the Xinjiang people. There are a many manifestations: “lamian” (stretched noodle), “ganmian” (rolling noodle), “ximian”, “naren”, “baked nang”, “cold noodles”, “baoershake” (a fried snack) and a type of Russian-style bread. Famous dishes made of pasta include “latiaozi”, “youtazi”, “liangpizi”, “michangzi”, “mianfeizi” and “thin-crust stuffed buns”.
The “nang” is part of Xinjiang people’s every meal. It looks like an average baked pancake, but is actually made with special procedures, and tastes different. A good nang is made with water, egg and milk. The dough is baked attached to the inner surface of a clay-made stove. The nang is shaped like a plate, but is thicker on the rim and thinner in the center, with a beautiful texture on the surface. The thick part tastes tender and the thin part is crispy. The mixed taste of tenderness and crispiness is the charm of a nang. As a symbol of Xinjiang cuisine, nangs are various – the nang stuffed with meat in Hetian; the thin nang in Keping; the crispy and soft “oil nang”; as well as the fresh-smelling nang made of corn flour.
Another popular Xinjiang snack is “liangpizi”. It is different from the “liangfen” and “mianpi” from central China. “Liangpizi” is made out of steamed flour water. It is chewier than “liangfen” and looks more transparent than “mianpi”. It’s served with a kind of special sauce and tastes simply unforgettable.
The Xinjiang barbecue is characteristic. When a distinguished guest comes visiting, the locals will roast a lamb as a greeting. Kebabs are a decent, economic choice of food for a friends’ reunion. There are also other items excellent for charcoal grilling - such as beef, sheep’s kidney, sheep’s liver, fish, sausage and stuffed buns.
If you are still not full after a barbeque banquet, try some “shouzhuafan”, in which there are not only mutton and rice, but also carrot, onion, raisin and dry apricots. It’s not compulsory to eat “shouzhuafan” with your hands. Eaten with a wooden scoop, this dish still tastes yummy.
Dairy accounts for a great part of Xinjiang cuisine. Milk is in nearly all kinds of Xinjiang drinks and desserts, such as pure milk, milk tea, milk wine and yogurt, and cheese, “naipi” (milk skin), “naigeda” (milk candy) and butter. Horse milk and camel milk are also drinks made in Xinjiang.
It may be a treat to your taste buds and your brain to sit under a grape tree in the oasis, chewing newly-baked nang, smelling the tempting smoke from the barbecue, learning how to eat “shouzhuafan” with your fingers, and inquiring into how to cook the yummiest mutton.
It may also be an unforgettable moment when you first drink genuine milk tea, eat fresh horse meat and seasoned sausages, make a toast to your hospitable nomad hosts, and sing along with them in their yurts on the grassland.
Of course, if your stomach is too stubborn to accept the Xinjiang food, you can always find your familiar dishes there too. In Urumqi and many other towns and cities in Xinjiang, there are many restaurants serving Sichuan cuisine, Guangdong cuisine, Hunan cuisine, Shandong cuisine, Huaiyang Cuisine and Northeastern cuisine. Guangdong-styled seafood, Chongqing-styled spicy hotpot, Beijing-style boiled mutton, Chengdu-style snacks, Yunnan-style rice noodles, Yangzhou-style stirred rice, Lanzhou-style beef noodles, Inner Mongolia-style boiled lamb, Xi’an-styled buns soaked in mutton soup, pickles and roasted fillets from South Korea, sashimi from Japan, flying pie from India, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other bona fide Western cuisines are all available in major cities in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang also boasts quite a few specialties that are unique – “Kunlun snow crabs” from Xiaohaizi, cold water salmon from the Sayram Lake, “dog fish” from the Erqis River, snakehead fish from Wulungu Lake, “white fish” from the Arctic Ocean, yak meat from the Pamirs, mushrooms from Qinghe, “desert mushroom” from Bachu, “sheep stomach mushroom” from the spa, the honey brewed by the black bees from Nileke, the wild fruit juice from Xinyuan, the wild celery from Gongliu and the armeniaca from Kashi. They’re all precious foods with great nutrition and yummy tastes.
As long as you’re not a peculiar eater, Xinjiang should be a gastronomic paradise for you.