For many of us, trying out new food is part of the travel experience. Whenever I visit a new place, I always try to head to the bazaar to see what food the locals usually eat. In addition, I would walk up to random restaurants and cafes just to stalk what the locals are eating. Exploring southern Xinjiang was a brilliant choice to fulfill my inner foodie desires! There was so much food around that were very different from what you would normally get in Asia. In my quest to conquer all the different types of Uyghur food, I have picked out the top 10 Uyghur food that you must try when you are in southern Xinjiang:
1) Nan (馕: nang or bread)
I cannot stress how incredible Uyghur nan (bread) is. As you walk along the streets in southern Xinjiang, you will definitely find a shop with beautifully decorated nans on display. Uyghur nan comes in all shapes, sizes and flavours and you will need to visit every southern Xinjiang city to try them all. Grab one fresh from the tandoor if you can; the first 5 minutes of a nan’s life is its prime.
Comment: Try the buttered nan first if you do not have too much time to try all of them. They are small, have thick rims and are sprinkled with white sesame seeds. Warning: Nan does get addictive and you might not be able to stop eating it!
2) Laghman (拌面: ban mian or hand-pulled noodles)
Laghman is the Uyghur’s national dish. You are first served a bowl of ingredients, made up of tender lamb meat, peppers and asparagus. Shortly after, the waiter will come with a bowl of hand-pulled noodles. Pour the ingredients over the noodles and slurp away! The balance among the various tastes is perfect. In one mouthful, you can taste the sweetness of the peppers, the fragrance of the lamb, the crunchiness of the asparagus and the smoothness of the al dente noodles. This is what I call a gastronomic paradise.
Comment: Do not finish all your ingredients just yet! The chef is eagerly waiting to serve you a second bowl of hand-pulled noodles. The second bowl of noodles is free and most locals eat with a second bowl in mind. Laghman is one of my favourite Uyghur food and you must try it!
3) Samsa (烤包子: kao bao zi or baked lamb buns)
Samsa is a popular Uyghur street snack (or even a breakfast item). Made from an even mixture of lamb meat and fat, the samsas fresh from the tandoor drip with melted fat on each bite. The meat is tender and the dough is thin and crispy. Great for an afternoon snack!
Comment: Like all foods baked in the tandoor, the best time to eat them is right after it comes out! Though if you are not a fan of fat, the samsa might be a little gross considering how much fat there is in it.
4) Polo (抓饭: zhua fan or buttered rice)
The Uyghur polo is yet another amazing dish you must try. Polo (or pilaf) is a dish of buttered rice cooked with sliced carrots and apricots. You can choose to have a topping of vegetables and eggs if you are vegetarian, or lamb meat, shank or rib for meat-lovers. Uyghur polo is exceptionally fragrant and delicious! You can easily find polo in most Uyghur restaurants, or on the streets from one of those huge woks.
Comment: Uyghur polo is slightly oily so it goes well with tea. Ask for a pot of tea when you try polo. This combination is fantastic!
5) Kawap (羊肉串: yang rou chuan or lamb skewers / kebab)
Do not mix up Uyghur kawap with Turkish kebabs! Kawaps (lamb skewers) are seasoned in a very different way and taste totally different from what you would expect in a Turkish restaurant. You can smell the lamb skewers from a distance and they taste as good as they smell! No words can describe these tender, juicy and succulent pieces of lamb on the skewer. Apart from meat, you can also try ribs, liver, testicles, heart and other parts of the sheep.
Comment: Clean the tips of the skewers before you start eating. Also, many locals first order a bowl of cold noodles (凉面: liang mian) or cold jelly (凉粉: liang fen) before they gobble down the chunks of meat. The sourness of the vinegar in the noodles perfectly balances the heaviness of the meat.
6) Tonur Kawap (馕坑肉: nang keng rou or tandoor lamb skewers / kebab)
Instead of cooking the lamb skewers over a grill, they are cooked in a tandoor in this dish. The lamb meat tastes exceptionally tender and fragrant and has a hint of woodiness from the wood-fired tandoor. Tonur kawap goes really well with nan, which might just come from the same tandoor!
Comment: It is impossible to order a portion for just one person. Gather some friends and order one set, which can feed at least two hungry people.
7) Opke Hessip (米腸子／面肺子: mi chang zi/ mian fei zi or stuffed intestines / lungs)
If you are adventurous enough, try a bowl of opke hessip at a street stall in bazaars or night markets. Each bowl usually contains a mixture of sheep intestines stuffed with rice and sheep lungs stuffed with wheat. You will also find bits of sheep liver, heart and stomach in your bowl. It does not sound very appetising but it sure tastes like heaven!
Comment: Not for the faint-hearted, but you will be rewarded if you try it!
8) Zongza (粽子: zong zi or rice dumpling)
Similar to the Chinese rice dumplings, the zongza is made from glutinous rice wrapped in leaves and steamed. However, there is a Uyghur twist to it. The rice dumplings are served with a generous spoon of clotted cream and brown sugar syrup and topped off with a soft red date. Zongzas are great for a street snack or dessert. The creaminess of the clotted cream goes really well with the stickiness of the rice.
Comment: If you are a fan of sweets, you will love zongzas. Watch out as they can be really filling though!
9) Maruxna (冰淇淋: bing qi lin or ice cream)
Have you seen ice cream in the open that does not melt? Maruxna is the first of such that I have ever seen! Strangely, it melts really well in your mouth and is exceptionally chewy, creamy and fragrant. Maruxna is great in the summer, when you need to cool down in the sweltering heat.
Comment: Ice cream is always great. Better if it does not melt in the open even in the incredulously hot summers!
10) Doghap (刨冰: bao bing or shaved ice)
If you see blocks of ice by the roadside, you have found the Uyghur doghap. Watch as the skillful masters shave the ice off the block and top it off with yoghurt and honey. This sweet and creamy combination is perfect for summer and for an after-meal dessert.
Comment: If you are lucky, you can even see the masters toss your shaved ice in the air so that it mixes evenly with the yoghurt and honey. Cheap thrill but nonetheless thrilling.
This is my list of the top 10 Uyghur food that you must try while you are in southern Xinjiang. All of them can be found in Kashgar, the cultural capital of the Uyghurs. There are not a lot of options of vegetarians (or for vegetables in general) so you might have to settle for salads or Chinese-style vegetable dishes. If you are going on a short vacation, I say it would be ok to ditch the vegetables once in a while and go all-out on the meat and desserts. With all these tasty Uyghur food, I see no reason why you should delay your chance to visit southern Xinjiang and explore the various regions and cuisine!
Have you tried any of the top 10 Uyghur food that everyone must try? Share with me in the comments below. Do also share these amazing food with your friends!