My Shanghai – Xinjiang food

5 Feb

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.

I don't really know which dish is which on this bill as it is not written in Mandarin or English.  At this restaurant we heard almost no Mandarin.

I don’t really know which dish is which on this bill as it is not written in Mandarin or English. At this restaurant we heard almost no Mandarin.

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.

Lamb kebabs - the dish that started it all

Lamb kebabs – the dish that started it all

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.

Dapanji (大盘鸡) literally translates to a big dish of chicken.  It's chicken and potatoes and peppers with spiced tomato sauce - one of my favorites

Dapanji (大盘鸡) literally translates to a big dish of chicken. It’s chicken and potatoes and peppers with spiced tomato sauce – one of my favorites

Xinjiang naan bread topped with lamb served in a tomato based sauce - a little like a wet pizza, but with lamb

Xinjiang naan bread topped with lamb served in a tomato based sauce – a little like a wet pizza, but with lamb

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?

17 Responses to “My Shanghai – Xinjiang food”

  1. valerie February 5, 2013 at 8:50 am #

    Those pics look delicious! I love the variety of food that Chicago has to offer – fancy prix fix to any ethnicity (went to an Ethiopian one that was so good). Is it all authentic – probably not. But it’s still different and tasty!

    • gkm2011 February 5, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

      I know – the different spices or just things that are a little out of the ordinary make it all the more special. Just like when folks come to the US for the first time they want steak and lobster and the other things the US is famous for. If you have it every day though, not so special.

  2. expatlingo February 5, 2013 at 10:02 pm #

    Lamb, cumin, etc delicious. Trip to Xinjiang in the Autumn then ;-)?

    • gkm2011 February 6, 2013 at 9:53 am #

      Sounds like a plan! Should go in end of August/beginning of September time period before it gets too cold.

  3. stupiduglyforeigner February 6, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    All of this looks mad tasty, and I want it.

    • gkm2011 February 6, 2013 at 9:53 am #

      It is really good. I have never looked for a Xinjiang cookbook, as it’s literally around the corner, but the ingredients seem normal enough that I think it could be done at home.

      • stupiduglyforeigner February 6, 2013 at 9:55 am #

        Yeah, it doesn’t look overly complicated. Other than Koreanified Chinese, it looks like this regional stuff was the only kind we could really get in Korea (the lamb places I always went were generally viewed as quasi-Chinese restaurants, and now I am understanding why).

      • gkm2011 February 6, 2013 at 9:57 am #

        The spice mixtures are very different from typical Chinese food and that’s the big difference. If you find a cookbook, let me know!

      • stupiduglyforeigner February 6, 2013 at 10:07 am #

        Yeah — the lamb places always had a specific spice mix that none of my Korean or Chinese friends really knew, despite everyone assuring me it was Chinese in origin.

      • Josh February 17, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

        For what it’s worth, I lived out in Xinjiang for almost 4 years and never found a cookbook that wasn’t in the Uyghur language. I have, however, compiled a few recipes that local friends shared with us and friends I know in the area. Check it out if you’re interested!

      • gkm2011 February 18, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

        Great site! You have some of the classics there. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Josh February 18, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

        Thank you! I definitely enjoyed your pictures and descriptions of the food. Made my mouth water 🙂

  4. sarahinguangzhou February 6, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    Yes the best food I had in China came from this province to. A lot of the Cantonese wouldn’t go to the Xinjiang restaurant because they said it was ‘dirty’. I always thought that was funny.
    I went up to Ürümqi a few years back, soon after I got to China. It was a nice trip but expensive because of the distance. i couldn’t help thinking that I could be lying on a beach in Thailand for a month for the money I was spending there. Also because I have a weird British concept of distance I failed to grasp how far everything was. I caught a bus to the border with Turkistan(I think Turkistan I’m not even sure now), took a photo and came back again, because I was out of time by the time I got there.

    • gkm2011 February 6, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

      It is hard to comprehend how big China is – the flight times alone use a whole day! I will go eventually but not on short term radar.

  5. Nate February 6, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

    Lamb sounds very delicious right now. We just had a disappointing pizza down the block… The sauce never comes out right if it is even put on at all.


    • gkm2011 February 6, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

      Do they have Xinjiang restaurants in your area? They are all over Shanghai and the lamb kebabs are great.

      • Nate February 7, 2013 at 8:26 am #

        I haven’t seen any lamb around, but tons of BBQ joints grilling up a healthy dose of coal charred beef kabobs.

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