One of the types of Chinese food that I had never even contemplated before I moved to China was Xinjiang food. Xinjiang is the province to the very west of China, with a capital called Wulumuqi. Wulumuqi is a five hour flight from Shanghai, meaning that I can get to Singapore in the same amount of time it would take me to get there.
Li has been to Wulumuqi and the surrounding area many times for work. He has shown me pictures of beautiful lakes (Kanas Lake) and mountains. The terrain looks closer to that of Switzerland than anything I expected in China. Unfortunately because it takes so long to get there, travel is quite inconvenient. Since he’s already been so many times he’s not looking to go back. If anyone is willing to take a trip – please let me know!
Xinjiang is closer to Kazakhstan than it is Beijing and the food and people that live there are not anything like the stereotypical view of China. The majority of individuals historically who have lived in this area are Muslim of the Ugyhur race, so they do not eat pork which is a mainstay on tables across most of China and instead lamb in all its various forms appears on the table. In addition, since they are closely linked to Russian and Turkish routes, coming from the west instead of the east, they look more Caucasian than Chinese. In a Xinjiang restaurant if I were wearing a veil, I could pass for a local.
The most ubiquitous Xinjiang snack is lamb kebabs, served at street corners throughout Shanghai. Sometimes they will pitch the portable charcoal grills right outside bars so that the less than sober patrons can purchase their wares at the end of the night. It’s a street food.
My first introduction was from a friend who lived close by. She took me to a small restaurant no more than a five minute walk from my house and started ordering dishes – lamb kebabs of course, but then Xinjiang noodles, chicken and potatoes in fragrant tomato sauce, flash fried crispy eggplant, bread that was flattened and pressed and perfect for soaking up the sauce left at the bottom of the bowls. The two of us gobbled up everything.
Since then, I have become a regular at that small restaurant (whose name I don’t know). They recognize me and I have tried other things on the menu, spicy shredded potatoes, little lamb chops, different types of noodles and veggies, all with a mixture of spices that seem slightly exotic and very familiar. When friends come to visit, I try to take them there to shake up their idea of traditional Chinese food and to a person, everyone has enjoyed the experience.
Since I like it so much we have even started to explore other Xinjiang restaurants – looking for the best lamb kebabs, the best bread (called Naan – but not like Indian naan at all), and the best service. I anticipate it will take many years to find the ultimate place and I’m up to the challenge!
Xinjiang food is something below the surface of the tourist Shanghai. Eating it makes me feel like I am understanding something more about the culture of the place where I am living. Xinjiang food is part of my Shanghai.
What’s special about the food where you are living?