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Xinjiang's Uygur Food
Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods
Spring Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(1) page(s): 9, 10, 37, and 38
Xinjiang Uygur food? What is it and where it that? Questions roll from my companion’s lips driving to Brighton Beach. Others were heard earlier, via e-mail. Had China hands ever experienced Uygur food outside of China? We did, but were we alone?
Those questions came as we are off to go to Kashkar, not the lush desert oasis in the northwestern Xinjiang province of China, but Café Kashkar, a small store-front eatery near the ocean in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach. It was exciting to be going to what may be the city's only Uygur restaurant, maybe the only one in the United States, or even outside of China. We had not heard of another outside of China, have you?
Brooklyn's Brighton Beach was once an outpost for New York City residents who went there to breathe clean air, smell the sea, and bathe. It was an ‘in’ place to revitalize self on week-ends. Rich folk would actually stay for a week or more, on vacation. An uncle drove us there some sixty years ago. That drive took two hours. Now an elevated stop on the Q subway-line half an hour away, this area is home to new Russian immigrants. It is also the business location for a few Chinese immigrants from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region in China.
You may have seen the nationality called Uygur spelled or said Ouigour, Weiho, Huigu, Weiwuerh, or Uyghur. Uygur is the correct pinyin romanization. In China, Weiwuerh is what they say, and that translates to Uygur. And yes, Uygur people really can be Chinese.
In the café we visited, management did not look Chinese, but they do come from China. Almost all Uygur people do not look Chinese. The 'why' is related to the fact that some of their ancestor’s traveled the Silk Route to get there. Most of them lived in or came to China hundreds upon hundreds of years ago. History records them arriving there several hundred years before the Christian Era. Uygur food does not taste Chinese, either. It is closer to flavors of foods from the Middle East and it includes skewered meats cooked over charcoal, among other foods.
The Uygurs are an ethnic minority nationality in China about six million strong. Most are of ancient Turkic origin and most are now Muslims. That is the religion they adopted circa the mid-fourteenth century. In fact, their religion is more unified than their roots, which are a rich racial tapestry. Some say they look Greek. Everyone agrees those not intermarried with Han Chinese, look Caucasian; and most of them are. Their food, the Uygur food we ate several years ago in Xian, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and in Beijing did not taste Chinese either. Those foods were not identical to those tried at Café Kashkar; but more on that later.
Café Kashkar was neither Chinese nor lush, nor was it desert-ed (sorry about that pun). Actually, an hour after noon it was deserted, but at three on a mid-week afternoon after we finished eating more than half the menu items, almost every table was full. True, it is a small store-front eatery this CAFE KASHKAR at 1141 Brighton Beach Avenue; Brooklyn NY: phone: (718) 743-3832. But still it was loaded with more than thirty folk, a number that can easily be accommodated there. They were happily enjoying their food from a restaurant menu, in Russian and English, that says: 'hallal meat,' 'Oygur international food,' 'we do delivery' and 'between 14th and 15th St.' We, and these people were at a restaurant that features thirty-four different dishes, but no desserts.
Everything, while inexpensive, is not always what it says. Among the eight soup listings, for example, there were two noodle dishes. Therefore, we recommend asking about every dish before ordering. The staff does a great job with explanations. Do not ask and you may be surprised when what you order arrives.
We would have been, but now know one should not miss the Fried Lagman and the Goiro Lagman. They were in that soup category, but are noodle dishes. The first was hot and hearty, the second was cold and creative. The former had hand-pulled noodles loaded with cooked carrots, a little lamb and cabbage, a lot of three different kinds of raw onions, all lightly dusted with tiny tastes of fresh dill.
In the Gioro, the pasta was tiny rolled cold noodles that arrived from the refrigerator. They were delicious and correctly cold, mixed with tiny slivers of beef, a reasonable amount of oil, a bit of garlic, and very few cumin seeds. They arrived topped with a pair of two-inch long thin slices of equally cold beef. Close inspection led us to believe the meat was stuffed in pseudo-intestine-like skin along with large chunks of congealed pieces of fat. Sound awful? Absolutely not! It was just the opposite. The noodles were very flavorful and had been cooked in great broth. The meat was generously loaded with lots of salt. We found both noodle dishes nice, nay, they were nifty.
The menu has other goodies, five kabob dishes at two bucks a skewer, among them. Another was a single lamb chop three times that price and half as tasty. Best among the handful is the ground beef one, next the chunks of chicken, at least that is what your editor thought. Some, among the five at our table, liked the lamb or beef best. A few said they are too chewy, one actually called the lamb 'quite tough.'
From another menu section, our group orders Palao, a fried rice dish. It has half again as many small pieces of cooked carrots and half dozen canned chick peas. Before it arrives, we drool at salads in a glass-fronted refrigerator case, then devour one called Pickled Salad. It is wonderful. The half circle of warm Naan we order comes later. We could have eaten and delighted in more of it and other salads, but because we did order about half the things on the menu, we needed to exercise some self-control. Folks at other tables had baskets of several breads and they were devouring them.
Virtually every dish comes garnished with large amounts of three different kinds or colors of onions, all dusted with dill. Tea, coffee, and bottled or canned soda are available but we opt for and down pots full of good back tea. It comes in a beautiful blue teapot with teacups that look like small Chinese soup bowls. We turn ours over and are not surprised to see ‘made in Russia’ on the underside.
We had ordered four soups, but two turned out to be those noodle dishes. The others, satisfying and substantial, are Shurpa and Chuchuara. The latter is a hands down favorite. Everyone loves the dozen silky buttery wonton-shaped dumplings in it. You might want to try yours with a bottle of Tarragon Soda; a most unusual beverage. It is not on the menu, not even noticed until we pay our tab of forty bucks for our indulgent ordering.
Café Kashkar’s food does differ from similar foods eaten in China. But they were in homes, none in a restaurant. In China, with eight or more at our tables, the portions are at least twice as large. The seasonings and contents of the dishes we had in China are less limited in number of ingredients and types of flavorings. There, they have eight, ten, or more different food items, except for the meat dishes, and the decor differs too, only one or two dishes come with different raw onions.
In China, we had a huge fried pilaf-type rice dish at every meal. It is the staple food of the families we ate with, the dish that the meal centers around. Each time it arrives, it is on a huge round tray, set down as the centerpiece of the table. Each comes piled high with rice, lamb, carrots, cooked onions, loads of fresh minced coriander, quite a few nuts, many raisons, other dried fruits, also herbs we could not identify. In one home, the rice centerpiece has minced pickled bamboo shoots as its decor. That slight taste of sour is a welcome surprise because most dishes have lots of salt and sugar amidst their different seasonings.
In China, every Uygur dish we had was seasoned with one or more spices, cumin among them, and several dried herbs, one called kir–something we never did identify. Many had been dried and collected in the mountains. The skewered meat, either lamb, mutton, or goat, was almost always ground or minced, and they served many skewers per person. On one occasion, we had tender pieces of long-roasted almost fat-free mutton that we pulled from the bone–-a task done with the fingers of the right hand.
Two or three meals or snacks have large pieces of deep-fried animal skin, unidentified as to which; and all have scallions plain and raw, often whole. There are also scallions minced and mixed into many dishes, but never into the one with rice. In one home, we clearly recall some minced radish and it was orange. We had mistakenly commented on the unusual carrot taste, and were politely corrected that it was radish.
When rice, meat, and noodle dishes were cleared, they were replaced with bowls of fresh fruit, mostly apples pears, some small melons, dates, lots of grapes, and a peach or two. Dried fruits were served, too, each in their own bowl. These included figs, apricots, raisons, and more. Uygurs eat differently from their Chinese neighbors. They also have different spoken and written languages. As descendants of a group known as the Dingling Nomads, also called Tiele or Chile people, they meandered in western China long before Christ. Many married Mongolians and others, some married Han Chinese. They did not take the name Uygur, which means 'unity,' until 1934. Knowing about their heritage is not simple to outsiders. They do have many songs that speak of their heritage, and they do have many written tomes, some just beginning to be translated.
As a nomadic population, their culinary remains simple. Meats prevail. It was the main food and for many, even though they live in and are now Chinese, it still is. Besides meat, Uygur people eat a lot of dried fruits and melons, much wheat, some as noodles, buns, or breads; and they eat lots of rice, some millet, and not too many green vegetables. The way they make their rice has distinct Persian overtones in taste as well as cooking technique. However, the amount of oil they use is much greater. It is not uncommon for some of them to have noodles, rice, and breads at the same meal, sometimes with more than twice as much meat as grain food.
We once visited a home that had piles of dry fried noodles called hsi huan pin. Some folk told us they bake theirs. This is a common snack food known since about 540 CE. Other snacks we are served, and there is always a snack session, often set out on a tablecloth atop a carpet on the floor before the meal is served. Included can be watermelon slices and what looks inside like a honeydew melon. A few are super sweet and juicy like hami melons, most are not. One family serves us han chu, a baked pastry made with honey, flour, salt, Chinese red dates, goat’s milk, and sheep tallow. It is sweet and savory at the same time, as are many of the starch and meat dishes served to us.
We have never seen a Uygur cookbook, though the web does seem to have many Uygur recipes. They write about, and we know their staple foods which include cheese, yogurt, grapes, and apricots, but we had none. We know they eat lots of dumplings, some called manti, and we are aware they can be flavored, as can many of their breads and other dishes, with sesame seeds and mutton fat. These we have many of with and without the mutton fat.
We adore their 'nang', as they spell their bread for us. They are baked flat and decorated, others look like bagels, but are never boiled. In one home, children are snacking on buns stuffed with lamb called youtazzy (the spelling is ours). Some are baked, others steamed. The ones we taste are filled with meat, mutton fat, onions, salt and pepper, and pieces of fried egg. The dough is layered in some, rolled and thin in others.
One afternoon we are plied with baked wonton-looking dumplings called sumsa, lots of baked bread they say they make in sunken ovens, plates piled high with dried fruits, much tea, and very unusual twisted wheat noodles fried or baked we guessed days in advance. These snagza which you can see on this page were made of a salty dough. We had read they were holiday food, but it was no holiday. Piles of them were readily available in the marketplace almost every day, our hosts said. They informed us they sometimes use one layer of them as a base for any hot mixed dish made with some sauce. That we never tasted.
In the homes we visited, they served milk tea made with black tea leaves, and salt; it was stirred together with canned evaporated milk, and salt or sugar on the side or already mixed in. One family served, and they also partook of a musty grape wine. It did not seem to have much alcohol, but it did have some. The beverages are almost always served in handleless teacups, the food eaten with the right hand. They advise that most of their friends do not drink alcohol, but they have learned to love it.
One host, when we already have more than we need or want, encourage us to eat lots more. He said doing so was very healthy. He advises that Japanese doctors from Tokyo’s International Natural Medical Science Committee wrote about their town and their food. He said they call it 'a world longevity area.' There, one-quarter of the people live past the age of one hundred. Reasons, he says, their food, environment, lifestyle, and family. We later read the same but in a different order. We read it as genetics, environment, life, and food.
For those going to China, Beijing has a Uygur restaurant. It is said to turn customers away weekends when there are Uygur song and dance performances. This eatery serves Uygur and foods of those of some other Chinese nationality groups. We have not eaten there, but did hear about their Hot Special. That dish arrives on a flaming tray and is wrapped in silver paper. If you get there, let us hear from you and see a photo of it; that would be nice. AHFANTI at 14 Guaibang Hutong, Chaoyanmennei Dajie; Beijing, China; phone: (10)6517-0956 for a reservation. Also suggest you say rehemaiti and then haier huoxi when leaving. This should bring smiles as they mean 'thank you' and 'goodbye,' respectively.
Should you go to Urumchi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Province, check out China’s soon to be opened first anthropological museum. While it can not be tasted, it should serve as a tasty learning location. They say it will feature Uygur and other nationality people living in this northwestern region of China.
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