WORLD FOOD – Along The Silk Road

16 Jan 2004

Visiting the ancient cities of the Silk Road is an increasingly popular itinerary for many travelers. No doubt such a trip will include Kashgar, a city long known for its famous markets. In addition to the bustling bazaars, the food of Kashgar is a delight and deserves to be explored.

Although Kashgar is in China, its food has much more in common with that of its Central Asian neighbors. Essentially it is Uyghur cuisine—Uyghurs are the main ethnic group in Xinjiang Province—with aspects of Chinese influence.

Flatbreads are in abundance in Kashgar and there is a wide variety on offer. Most are plain round flatbreads—some up to 40 centimeters in diameter—with a circular design on top or with a light topping of cumin, sesame seeds and onions. Some of the breads look like bagels at first glance, but have a bottom base of dough, while other breads are cut in a sunflower shape and sprinkled with sugar after baking. All the flatbreads are cooked in a tandoori-type oven. The savory breads are eaten with kebabs or stews. Just a word of warning: avoid nibbling the breads on the street as this is considered rude behavior by locals.

As for meat, Kashgar is a mutton lover’s paradise. While chicken and beef kebabs are available, mutton kebabs are the local favorite. It is also the meat used in the staple pilau called zhau fan, a mixture of rice, yellow carrots which taste more like parsnips and onions topped with a small joint of meat. Traditionally eaten with one’s hands, nowadays it is eaten with a spoon. Because most Uyghurs are Muslim, pork is never served. Given that diced mutton fat is added to virtually every dish, Kashgar cuisine is rich and filling.

Thick round noodles are another staple. Called ‘pulled’ noodles, they are made in the same way as the Chinese noodles of the same name in that the cook pulls and twists the dough in a series of dramatic movements until it is smooth and silky. The noodles are then boiled and served with the topping of one’s choice. Often the noodles are served plain in a bowl and the topping separately. The sauce can be a simple mixture of sautéed tomatoes, carrots, green and red peppers, onions and garlic or a mixture of diced mutton with thinly sliced turnips and some spinach leaves just to name a few of the possibilities. These noodles are eaten with chopsticks.

The Kashgar version of steamed dumplings is huge compared to the Chinese one. At approximately 10 centimeters long and 7 centimeters wide, Kashgar dumplings are so big that they are difficult to eat without them falling apart. The standard meat filling is, of course, mutton, while the seasonal filling in mid-October was a type of pumpkin with sweet, deep orange flesh, red pepper, onion and just a little mutton, all finely diced. The samsas, hearty meat filling is enclosed in a thin dough wrapper and baked in a tandoori oven, is another regional treat.

Xinjiang Province is famous for its fruit, which provides a welcome balance to the sometimes heavy meat, noodles and dumplings. In October, on offer were small red apples, pears, pomegranates (a motif that appears on some of the carpets for sale in Kashgar), flat pale figs, large juicy green grapes, melons and quinces, all bursting with flavor.

Kashgar abounds with restaurants and simple streetside stalls to sample this cuisine. In the old part of town is a wide selection of bread stalls, noodle stalls and small restaurants, as well as fruit and vegetable vendors. The Sunday market is also full of eating possibilities, as is the Sunday livestock market. The Intizar restaurant on West Renmin Road near the Seman Hotel is a favorite haunt of the locals. On offer are all of the above-mentioned dishes, as well as cold dishes such as finely julienned cucumbers with a mild chili oil dressing and a dish of julienned pink radishes, carrots, cabbage mixed with translucent mung bean noodles and coriander all tossedwith a vinegar dressing. A delicious spiced black tea was served to all diners.

Try to time any trip to Kashgar to the weekend so that you can visit the Sunday markets. In addition to the main market near the mosque, the livestock market on the outskirts of town is well worth visiting, especially if you’d like to buy a camel. Kashgar time is unofficially two hours behind Beijing so when making arrangements, make sure to specify Beijing time or Kashgar time. This unofficial time difference also means that locals eat lunch at 2pm Beijing time and dinner at 8 – 9 pm Beijing time.

While the Silk Road itself is long gone, the food of today’s Kashgar still reflects its ancient trade links. Don’t wait, go and explore.

Pamela Shookman is a qualified and experienced cook who lives in Beijing

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