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Uygur: China's Fifth Largest Minority Group

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Regional Foods

Winter Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(4) page(s): 7 and 33


With many names and many ways to spell them, the Uygur are China’s fifth largest ethnic minority population. Some of the ways they are include Uighur, Uyghur, Ouigour, and Uigur. They are also known as the Yuanhe, Huihe, Weiho, and Huigu people. In addition, some English-speaking people call them Weiwu Erzu. Many may recall and all can check out the article written about them and their Café Kashkar titled ‘Xinjiang’s Uygur Food.' It appeared in Volume 11(1) on pages 9. 10, 37 and 38; and is available on this magazine’s index on its web site.

At one time the region they lived in was called the ‘Western Region’ and that article advised they came to China hundreds and hundreds of years ago before the Christian era. Folks can find a plethora of ancient relics, many theirs, from the Han Dynasty or earlier. As that article said, most are now Muslim, a religion they adopted in the 14th century. These days, they speak a Turkic group of the Altaic language family when not speaking Chinese, which they all learn in school.

In 1881, some forty-five thousand Uygurs went to Kazakhsan. In 1931 - 1934, they were granted Chinese minority status after the largest of several rebellions there. They were then allowed to select their own name, some say in 1921, others say they did so in 1934. Some time after that, they moved near the Tianshan Mountains in both northern and southern Xinjiang. Over many years before and since, they have mingled with the Tubo, Khitan, and Mongolian people who arrived there after they did. Many of then are now well integrated with them and with the Han people.

Some, but not all, say they are descended from nomads. All agree they are now some twelve million and growing; and that they are a Turkic group, most living in Eastern and Central Asia, and in China mostly in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. They live there in a lush desert oases, the largest autonomous region in China. It is about one-sixth the country’s land mass, and is in northwest China. There are about a quarter of a million more Uygur people living in Kazakhstan, some sixty thousand in Uzbekistan, a like number in Kyrgyzstan, and smaller numbers in Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, and the Ukraine.

Those who have not intermarried, look more unified than their roots, and some say that means they look Greek rather than the rich tapestry that they come from. Almost all believe in Islam, are Sunni Muslims, and have their own spoken and written languages, actually two of them. One of these uses the Arabic alphabet, the other a recently developed romanized script.

Xinjiang is surrounded by mountains, one-quarter is desert, and their oases are surrounded by arid land with its soil rich enough to grow wheat, maize, rice, grapes, melons, peaches, pears, and many other fruits. In addition, their pastureland is great to breed livestock on the vast Pamir.

Wheat, rice, and corn are staple foods here. Nang, is their baked food made with ground wheat and corn flours and mixed with sugar, eggs, and cream. Beside this bread which often is a meal in and of itself, they make and love Pulao made with rice, mutton, sugar, fat from sheep, carrots, raisons, and onions. This dish is usually made for guests and for celebrations, and when it is served, we thought they were expecting five to ten times the number of us there.

Both of these dishes are seasoned with chili peppers, Sichuan pepper, and star anise. Sometimes they are served with or on noodles, and often eaten with their hands and not with chopsticks. Often the pulao is only served as a guest dish because Uygur meals can be limited to nang served with lots of tea, milk tea, and/or oil tea.

Uygur people love to snack. They do so on small baizi and jaozi, and on lots of fresh and dried fruits, most often peaches, apples, and grapes. They also adore eating mutton grilled on skewers.

Their most important holiday celebrations are Corban Bairam, their New Year, Lasser Bairam, the end of their Ramadan fasting, and Nuoluzi, which is Mohammad’s birthday. On these days, they visit one or more mosques, and feast on their special dishes.

The decorate their homes with many rugs, hang them on their walls, and have many windows including one on the roof of their houses. There is no door on the west side of the house, and their walls have many niches for small decorative objects.

Young girls wear many braids, the same number as the years they are old. Married women wear but two braids, their ends simply hang loose. Women and most men wear fur-corner embroidered skull caps called touba. Many of the men make and wear yengisan knives that are both beautiful and sharp.

Known for their very creative Karez system built to irrigate their fields, this is basically a well and a network of underground channels that allow little vapor to escape in their frequent very dry weather.

The Confucian classic, The Book of Shang, and the Spring and Autumn of Lu which is an anthology of pre-Qin thinkers, both mention this Western region. One chapter in the former refers to ‘Jade of Kun Mountains’ suggesting that this gem is already being sent to central China. During the Wei, Jin, Northern, and Southern Dynasties (220 - 581 CE), this region is politically independent of China’s central government; that is until the 13th century when Genghis Khan appoints a senior official to the region. Years later, in 1884, it is made a province. After the 1911 Revolution, Qing rule replaces that by feudal warlords. When the Kuomintang begins ruling here in 1944, and since liberation, feudal practices have died hard and had to be abolished.

This magazine did review Marc Cramer’s Mongolian cookbook. His father was a chef and many of those recipes are his. That review and the recipes in his book are excellent resources about Mongolian food; and we encourage you to seek them out in the review of his book, Imperial Mongolian Cooking. It can be found in Volume 8(2) on pages 23 and 24. We suggest you read the two articles he wrote in Volumes 8(3) and 8(4); they were published in 2001 in this magazine.

                                                                                                                                                       
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