A Guide To Popular Uighur Cuisine In Xinjiang

Uighur cuisine is hearty and flavoured with loads of spices, influenced by ingredients and cooking techniques carried along the Silk Road. As the Uighurs are Muslims, their dishes are pork-free, and ingredients need to be prepared according to halal standards. In this guide, you’ll be introduced to some common dishes found in many restaurants and food stalls across Xinjiang.

Pilaf, Plov, Polo or Pulao (Chinese: Zhua Fan, 抓饭)

A staple dish in many central Asian countries, pilaf looks like paella but is actually cooked in broth and oil, giving it flavour and a slightly moist texture. Usually, pilaf is served with lamb or chicken pieces, vegetables or dried fruit.

If you’re looking to stave off hunger pangs, pilaf is an excellent choice. It’s affordable, comes in huge servings, and makes for a hearty meal. You can also check out Kashgar’s old city food bazaar for smaller portions of pilaf. (Recipe)

Xinjiang cuisine uighur cuisine pilaf plov
Polo or plov, which is rice cooked with oil and chunks of lamb

Lagman (Chinese: Ban Mian, 拌面)

Lagman is a simple yet elegant dish of chewy hand-pulled noodles served with a sauce made from meat, vegetables and spices. To prepare the noodles, dough is first made from flour, water, salt and oil. This is then stretched into thin strands, usually with a flourish by slapping it onto a tabletop or a wooden board.

After the strands take shape into noodles, it is added to boiling water to cook, and then taken out and mixed with the sauce to serve. You can find Lagman almost everywhere too, and it’s also not too expensive for a very filling meal. (Recipe)

Xinjiang cuisine uighur cuisine la mian ban mian
La Mian or Ban Mian, a Chinese staple which might have inspired the spaghetti… or is it the other way?

Ding Ding Mian (Chinese: 丁丁麵)

Made in the same way as Lagman, the Ding Ding Mian is served in small pieces of noodles like macaroni, instead of the familiar long strands. It’s also served in a sauce of chopped meat, vegetables and spices, so the overall dish can be eaten easily with a spoon. (Recipe)

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine ding ding mian chopped noodles
Ding Ding Mian, or La Mian diced into fine pieces

Lamb Skewers (Chinese: Chuar, 串)

You can’t go wrong with generous chunks of juicy lamb, marinated with spices and grilled over a roaring fire. It’s similar to the Middle Eastern lamb kebabs, but with different seasoning and the cut of meat.

To make the perfect lamb skewer, start with the right kind of meat. Most street vendors choose a lean cut with a small amount of fat that caramelizes into crispy brown pieces during grilling. The meat is then marinated with salt, cumin and chilli powder, white pepper and Szechuan peppercorns. As the meat grills over the open flame, sprinkle more cumin and chilli powder over the meat constantly. The result is a Xinjiang-style lamb skewer, grilled to perfection. (Recipe)

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine Chuar Skewered meat
Grilled meat on skewers, also known as chuar (literally, a stick)

Nan Bread (Chinese: 馕)

A cheap and delicious snack for that’s easy to eat on the move, the Uighur Nan bread is made in a similar earthen oven like the Indian naan, but that’s where the similarities end. Shaped like a pizza with a thick crust and thinner in the middle, Nan bread is usually decorated with a bread stamp, and flavoured with sesame seeds, onions or other spices.

In Xinjiang, you’ll find these on display around every corner, and they come fresh from the oven. And all that for just 1-2 Yuan per piece! (Recipe)

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine Nan bread
Nan bread is an important staple in Uighur cuisine

Assorted Skewers in Mala Soup

You’ll come across this at food stalls in Kashgar and Ürümqi, where people will be milling around a large bubbling pot of red soup. Made from copious amounts of spices, chilli and Szechuan peppercorns, this soup is intensely spicy. In fact, mala means numbingly hot in Chinese!

To the side, and sometimes already cooking in the pot, are skewers with different ingredients like sausages, fish balls, fish cake and meat balls. The premise of this street snack is simple. Just choose a few skewers with your favourite ingredient, pay the vendor per stick, and dip it into the soup as long as you like. Each stick is pretty affordable too at 1 Yuan each.

When you’re satisfied the food is cooked well and the spiciness has penetrated into the food, just pop it into your mouth and endure the next few seconds of… well, numbing heat.

You’ll come across this at food stalls in Kashgar and Ürümqi, where people will be milling around a large bubbling pot of red soup. Made from copious amounts of spices, chilli and Szechuan peppercorns, this soup is intensely spicy – in fact, mala means numbingly hot in Chinese!

To the side, and sometimes already cooking in the pot, are skewers with different ingredients like sausages, fish balls, fish cake and meat balls. The premise of this street snack is simple. Just choose a few skewers with your favourite ingredient, pay the vendor per stick (usually 1 Yuan per skewer), and dip it into the soup as long as you like.

When you’re satisfied the food is cooked well and the spiciness has penetrated into the food, just pop it into your mouth and endure the next few seconds of… well, numbing heat.

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine Mala skewer in soup
Hot and spicy mala soup makes for an excellent dip on cold days

Zongza

Zongza is a sweet dessert of sticky rice, creamy yogurt curd, red dates and syrup served on bamboo leaves. Found in the Kashgar old city’s food bazaar, do save room for this dish only after trying everything else. Otherwise your tastebuds will be ruined by the sweetness after that!

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine Zongza glutinous rice with syrup
Zongza is sweet and sticky, even without the syrup!

Chuchvara

Found all across Central to East Asia, the humble dumpling has a remarkably complex family tree. In Uighur, small dumplings are called Chuchvara, and are served in a soup or sometimes alone by itself.

Chuchvara can come with various fillings, but the most common is lamb seasoned with salt, pepper and other spices. You may also come across larger dumplings, which the Uighurs refer to as Manti. You can probably tell how important the Uighurs treat their dumplings eh?

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine churchvara dumplings
A familiar sight all over China, but the Churchvara has fillings unique to Uighur cuisine

Samsa (Chinese: Kao Bao Zi, 烤包子)

A pocket-sized crispy bread with minced lamb filling, the Samsa is another delicious snack to take away. Easily found on the streets of Xinjiang’s cities, these are sold alongside Nan bread. In fact, Nans and Samsas are baked using the same earthen oven. Samsas are also really affordable, usually at 1 Yuan per piece.

Don’t let their small size deceive you though. The lamb filling is pretty heavy, and just one or two pieces is sufficient to stave off hunger pangs.

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine samsa lamb mince meat bun
Nothing compares to a freshly baked samsa bun with piping hot lamb filling

Rock candy

You’ll see heaps of rock candy sold on pushcarts in cities across Xinjiang. Eating it is as simple as it looks – just break off chunks and suck on ’em! I guess you can use them in cooking as well. They’re practically sugar!

You can find these stalls in the Kashgar Sunday bazaar, and buy them by weight. Just point at the ones you want, and the stall owner will do the math and tell you the price.

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine rock candy
If you really need your sugar, try a chunk of rock candy

 

To sample these dishes and more, visit the Kashgar Old City’s food market or the Sunday bazaar (see our itinerary)! Throughout the day, delicious food flavoured with the familiar spices of the Silk Road will tempt you. There’s also fresh local fruits for sale, like watermelons, hami melons and grapes. Just remember to drink up as you munch your way through town – the weather’s pretty unforgiving in this part of the world!

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