Xinjiang: a foodie reconnaissance

One single city won’t reflect the cultural complexity of an entire region. But an immersion into its food can certainly help in grasping the intricacies of both history, geography and customs. Let’s look at Xinjiang through a foodie stroll around Yining.

Xinjiang is the size of Iran. Double Texas and you still need to add New Mexico to surpass it. Or multiply Germany by five. It’s huge and it’s incredibly diverse. Imagine immense deserts, snow-caped mountains and vast grasslands of unseen beauty. Kunlun, Tianshan, Altai, Pamir, Tibetan Plateau, Taklamakan, Gobi – you’ve heard about these places but never realized that there is a region that has a chunk of each of them.

Xinjiang’s history is even more complex. Scattered around this mysterious land are mummies of early Indo-European speakers and ruins of ancient Chinese military outposts. Peoples passed through, civilizations emerged and declined, goods changed hands, ideas were passed on and passed down. Silk traveled west, Buddhism traveled east. After islamization came the Mongol and then the Manchu conquests, bloody rebellions and experimental reforms. Today Xinjiang is a subject of a media war. Too much for one paragraph. Can a foodie stroll through Yining do it justice?

Yīníng (伊宁) is also known as Ghulja (غۇلجا / Құлжа / Кульджа / Хулж). It’s inhabited by Han Chinese, Kazakhs and Uyghurs. I also encountered some Mongolians. Most of Yining presents standard modern Chinese cityscape: well organized but dreary and generic. The old town area doesn’t have, well, touristic values, but it’s definitely interesting in its rough authenticity. Most of the photos you see posted with this article were taken there. The architecture recalls Siberia rather than China, which only adds to its interestingness.

Culturally and in the menu, Xinjiang is a realm of in-between: it’s still China but also already Central Asia. Let’s look at it from an Eastern perspecitve. Suddenly, pork becomes rarer than beef and mutton. Baozi 包子 (steamed stuffed buns) make room for samsa (baked stuffed buns), chaofan 炒饭 turns into pilaf (fried rice), lamian 拉面 becomes lagman (pulled noodles), jiaozi 饺子 are now manti (dumplings), bing 饼 (flat-shaped foods) is replaced by nang 囊 (flatbread).

Here and there pop out some distinctively local products that cannot be compared to anything Chinese, like the super hard lumps of dried cheese you see on the photos below. In Turkic languages they are known as kurt/qurut, in Mongolian as aaruul. It’s a great hiking snack. I usually buy a bag of it, put some in my pocket and take small bites from time to time to kill hunger. High in nutrients and with long shelf life (or rather “pocket life”), it is a staple for Asian pastoralists, soldiers and travelers since times immemorial.

Winter is very severe here, north of the Tianshan range. Luckily, easily available in Yining and other major northern towns is the abundant produce of the south. Diverse landscape, plenty of sunlight and big differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures in southern Xinjiang make it China’s orchard, blessed with delicious and healthy fruits. Among the most highly reputed are region’s grapes, watermelons, pears, apricots and Hami melons.

Xinjiang also excels in pomegranates. Freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice is a real must-drink here! In Uyghur and in Kazakh pomegranate is called anar. In Chinese it’s 石榴 (shí liú).

Another street treat you can’t miss is samsa (سامسا‎ / самса / 烤包子). Be sure to buy it straight from tandoor. Firstly, baked in a different kind of oven won’t have properly juicy and succulent filling. Secondly, for a truly divine crispiness it just got to be freshly made. In my eyes, fresh tandoor samsas are the quintessence of Central Asia. It’s Chinese name, 烤包子, means “baked baozi”, which does it more harm than good: they are not similar to Chinese baozi (steamed buns) at all. They also differ from South Asian samosas and African sambusas, even if their names and provenances are related.

There is something primeval about tandoor ovens that touches the deepest part of my being. Echoes of ancient civilizations seem to be trapped in their ceramic chambers. Heat bursts out from them with enticing fragrance. The crispness of the crust of whatever is baked in them, oh my. I’m drooling like a baby. I sometimes hug trees, ergo, I’m a tree hugger. I feel similar inexplicable connection to tandoors. Should I call myslef an oven hugger?

The neighboring countries of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (as well as Mongolia) use cyrillic script to write their national languages. But in China, Uyghurs use the Perso-Arabic alphabet. That’s why when you look at Chinese banknotes, among several other writing systems (Chinese, Tibetan, Latin), you can see some Arabic letters.

While walking around the town, I found that many restaurant signboards have some words stripped down (see the photo above). I might be wrong, but my guess is that those names sounded too Islamic. Recent government policies prohibit giving religious first names to babies and I wouldn’t be surprised if other secularization initiatives are implemented in public space.

Mosques are not a rare sight in China – on the contrary, you can find them in virtually every city. But because of the ongoing media war and human rights controversies, encountering one in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region may evoke emotions different than usual. This blog is about culture and not politics. Let’s avoid prides and hatreds, let’s avoid taking sides and just hope for a bright future for Xinjiang and its people!

What is great about foodie travel is that even if you are walking seemingly aimlessly, there is still a purpose to every step you take. Maybe there’s zero tourist attractions, maybe there’s no beautiful buildings around. But you need to have your eyes wide open: food may be around the corner, always! There might be no restaurant in miles, but people might be drying cabbage in their backyard, someone may be selling honey on the street, grapevines may adorn some houses.

Slightly tired after a long exploration, a tiny unassuming hut came as my rescue. I peeped in. It was a truly local little restaurant, full of people of different age, eating noodles or just chatting over tea. When I entered, everyone seemed surprised to see me, including the big Uyghur man who was probably the boss. I asked if I can take some photos and I ordered a bowl of lagman. It was delicous. The boss smiled and said I don’t need to pay. That’s the famous Central Asian hospitality!

Well known around China as well as in the former Soviet states, Uyghur-style stretched noodles are something I couldn’t leave the town without trying.

Lagman (laghman, لەغمەن‎, лагман) not only sounds similar to lā miàn (拉面 / 拉麵), which simply means “pulled noodles” in Chinese, but also undoubtedly belongs to the same “family” of noodles. A lump of wheat dough is stretched and twisted repeatedly to produce long, thin strands. Different lamians (or ramens) are common in China since many centuries, but it would be inappropriate to unambiguously attribute its invention to the Chinese civilization. Pulled noodles have long history in Central Asia. Unlike Japanese-style ramen, development of which we can easily trace in history and which (in Japan) to some extent is still a “Chinatown thing”, the origins of Uyghur-style lagman are obscure. In fact, noodles are present in this region longer than any nation or statehood. Archeological finds prove their existence here since at least 4 thousand years.

The central part of the Asian continent belonged to many different empires over the time. The heritage of many local cultures, some nomadic, is long lost. It was one of the first territories to promote Buddhism and one of the last to adopt Islam. Always a pulsating artery of cultural exchange, which word is more appropriate: borderland or heartland? Architecture and culture differ greatly between China and the West, but here – they merge. Winds of time changed both the landscape and the people. Camels were replaced with trucks and trains. Noodles are still here. They are the true soul of the Silk Road.

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