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A Xinjiang affair: Restaurant offers refined ethnic experience

The dining room at the Tulufan Restaurant remains lively and crowded long after the kitchen closes. (Photo:CRIENGLISH.com)

By Angela Pruszenski

The Tulufan (Turpan) Restaurant in Beijing's Xuanwu District is possibly the swankiest Xinjiang restaurant in the city. The dining room overflows with customers seeking it's refined ethnic food and service.

Owner and manager, Chen Liansheng, has some well-developed ideas about how to run a restaurant. Now 75 years old, he got into the restaurant business at age 12, helping out in a local restaurant to earn money. He founded the Tulufan Restaurant in Beijing's Muslim neighborhood's Niu Jie (Cow Street) in 1985, making it the first privately-owned Xinjiang-style restaurant in the city.

After Chen's retirement in 1996, the restaurant succumbed to mismanagement and closed in 1999. At the request of local residents, he came out of retirement to re-open the restaurant in 2002, and has since turned the restaurant into a successful establishment making millions of yuan in profit each year. The secret, he says, is honesty; "the food should be well-prepared and reasonably-priced, and the staff treated like family."

The restaurant's cuisine features Uyghur flavors prominently, but Beijing Hui flavors have a place here as well. "We aim to make the Xinjiang Uyghur flavors strong and the Beijing Hui flavors refined," Chen says.

To create those strong Xinjiang flavors, the restaurant has sourced top-grade cumin seeds, which are the most used spices in Xinjiang cooking, from Turpan since 1985.

Chen Liansheng is particular about the meat served as well. Only the hind leg of the lamb is used to make the ever-popular Uyghur snack, lamb kebabs, since it has less fat. While small cubes of fat are still used in the kebab like everywhere else, the lamb kebab is noticeably meatier at Tulufan Restaurant. Only chicken legs are used in the popular chicken dish, "da pan ji," or "big plate chicken," which features roasted chicken with potatoes, peppers, and thick noodles in a spicy Xinjiang sauce. "Chicken legs are more tender and taste better than other parts of the chicken," Chen says.

The staff brings authenticity and experience to the establishment. "All our specialties are cooked by Uyghur chefs," Chen explains. The cook in charge of the restaurant's kebabs has held the job since 1990. Should there be a problem with quality, each dish is marked with a small label indicating which chef prepared the dish.

The kitchen buzzes with over a dozen cooks rushing to meet the demands of a full dining room, but tension does not seem to be a problem. There are 5 ethnicities represented among the staff: Uyghur, Hui, Han, Manchu, and Kazakh. To promote team-building, the restaurant holds staff activities and parties for each ethnicity's holidays.

Like many ethnic restaurants in the city, some of its workers are recruited directly from the region. Chen notes that servers with Uyghur ethnicity are why the restaurant first became popular. "It was rare to see Uyghur girls in Beijing at that time, so neighbors brought their children to see them in my restaurant. The Uyghur staff drew a lot of Xinjiang natives, as well as Beijing natives who hadn't ever tried Xinjiang food before to come try this restaurant," he says.

The restaurant's interior also displays the distinct beauty of Xinjiang with an upscale style. The doorways imitate mosque-style pointed arches, and paintings of Xinjiang and Uyghur calligraphy hang on the walls. On the second floor, each private dining room is named after a city in Xinjiang.

The restaurant's swanky look and quality food mean that prices are somewhat higher than most neighborhood Xinjiang eateries, with most main courses costing between 30 and 60 yuan. Appetizers run a bit less (10-30 yuan), while some special dishes cost well over 100 yuan.

Customers, however, have not been discouraged with the first floor dining room bustling with customers long after the kitchen closes at 8:30 pm. The popularity of the restaurant is indicative of the work emphasized with the food and atmosphere.

Tang Juan Guo (Chinese yam and date rolls) make a sweet, yet light dessert. (Photo:CRIENGLISH.com)

Da Pan Ji (big plate chicken) features chicken legs, roasted potatoes, red peppers, and thick noodles. (Photo:CRIENGLISH.com)