Despite its popularity in China, I’ve found very little written in English about Xinjiang food in general and Chinese muslim food in particular. When a Xinjiang restaurant opened in my neighborhood, I went there as soon as I had a chance to see if it would deliver. It did, and while I originally was going to do this as a restaurant review, I thought it might be better as an introduction to muslim cuisine in China.
One refreshing dish to begin with is the spicy “pilahong” (皮辣红), an appetizer that consists of sliced onions, bell peppers and tomatoes, sprinkled with sesame oil. This dish is quite a treat, and a perfect companion to some cold beer.
No meal would be complete without the grilled mutton skewers and a naan bread. Both of these tend to be heavily spiced with a special blend of peppers. The naan (or nang 馕 as it is called in Chinese) is a local version of a wide-spread culinary tradition that can be found as far away as Eastern Europe; the name itself is spread over large parts of Asia and the Middle East. For drinks, Xinjiang locals prefer a special brand of brick tea that has a peculiar but pleasant taste.
Another flagship dish is the square fried noodles (dingding chaomian 丁丁炒面). These are covered with a sauce made of tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and mutton/beef. Unfortunately this is the only dish that the local restaurant doesn’t do to perfection, but it’s still passable:
There is also another dish that wasn’t included in this meal, and that’s the “big platter chicken” (dapanji, 大盘鸡), a casserole made of large chicken pieces, potatoes, bell peppers and lots of chili. It’s really an “all you can eat” type of dish but if you bring a large group of people or are very hungry, it’s great.
One of the reasons I find Xinjiang food so fascinating is that it is so obviously an early fusion between culinary habits from the muslim world and Chinese cuisine. Mutton, onions and bell peppers are the main ingredients, supplemented with various spices and ways of cooking particular to local tastes. This has happened in other muslim parts of China as well, notably Xi’an and Lanzhou with their “kebab noodles” (yangrou promo, 羊肉泡馍) as well as kebab slices in bread (yangrou jiamo, 羊肉夹馍), which can be seen below (the juicy kebab pieces make a great contrast with the thin, crunchy crust of the bread):
This particular place I’ve been going to might be a bit off the beaten track, but I’ve never been to a Xinjiang restaurant that disappointed me. Perhaps because it’s not your everyday cuisine, those that exist tend to make good food, and there are plenty of them in Beijing. Xinjiang-style mutton is ubiquitous all over China.