Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
This weekend I saw a photo of the first four Uighurs (whee-gurs) freed from Guantanamo, splashing about in the Bahamas. The story, which ran in Sunday's New York Times, was a buoyant one (though there is much that is strangely tragic about seeing these men at sea). They're certainly enjoying their first days of freedom, but they're a world away from their home, and their estimable food. Food they might never taste again.
The Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language, mostly inhabit China's western reaches--especially the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. And over the past thousand-odd years in the high desert, on China's fringes, the Uighurs have developed a most satisfying sort of cuisine. Most people call it Xinjiang food.
Cooking is often the Uighur minority's proverbial meal ticket. Because they're such a tiny ethnic group in Han-dominated China, opportunities are slim. They face stiff discrimination in large Chinese cities. Much like the Southern Chinese did in America and Europe, the Uighurs headed elsewhere in search of work in humble restaurants. Instead of moo shu pork, they're serving naan bread, pulled wheat noodles, and mutton kebabs sprinkled with cumin, chili, and salt.
Over the years their food has been sinified to accommodate local tastes. What results is a fusion of Central Asian and Chinese cooking styles; it's rustic Islamic cuisine viewed through a Chinese prism. Mutton-centric stir-frys, chopped salads of onion, tomatoes and, coriander in dark Zhejiang vinegar, and stews that combine Chinese ingredients (star anise and Sichuan peppercorns) with Central Asian ones (cumin and occasionally cardamom). They also produce wonderful dried fruits and nuts--and Xinjiang might one day produce some serious wines.
Uighur cuisine is one of the first things I really missed after several months away from China--it's simple and fulfilling to eat. Meat comes in large chunks, braised, roasted or grilled. Their sauces often have an acidic tomato base with onions and green peppers. The bread soaks up those rich sauces. Xinjiang also produces a malty black beer--which is easily one of the best brews in China.
Xinjiang food borrows from both Western and Eastern ideas about cooking, and manages to satisfy an appetite for both, all at once.
Perhaps these guys should open a restaurant.
(Up top is a picture of classic Uighur dishes, da pan ji, a richly spiced chicken stew, a salad of red onion, tomatoes and green peppers, and bread. Photo taken at a favorite old haunt in Shanghai, the Xinjiang Fengwei Restaurant).