Dispatches From the Silk Road: The Must-Try Uyghur Food of Kashgar

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Kashgar's central bazaar [Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

In China's remote far west, Kashgar sits like a punctuation mark between China and Central Asia, along the Silk Road. For two millennia, the oasis city has enticed travelers with labyrinthine alleys filled with the smoke of char-grilled meat, the scent of spice, and the hawker cries of pomegranate vendors. But while it lies in the region of Xinjiang, within China's borders, Kashgar's cuisine shares little with traditional Chinese food.

Instead, it's heavily influenced by the local Uyghur people, a community of Turkic-speaking Muslims. Facing a gallery of sometimes difficult neighbors—Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, India, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan—Kashgar has experienced a turbulent history of outside interference and internal conflict. The Chinese might be the most recent to govern, but Kashgar has been ruled by the Tibetan, Persian, Turkic, and Mongol empires in turn. Thanks to this revolving door of influences, the city's cuisine is a splendid mosaic of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Chinese flavors.

Kashgar's food resonates with tastes typically associated with the Middle East—cumin, chili, cinnamon, garlic, saffron, and sesame. The city's rich culinary life surprises on every corner of its winding streets, as spice-sprinkled lamb sizzles over charcoal pits, bakers haul rounds of bread from tall tonur (outdoor pit ovens), and women sell tiny bowls of tart yogurt sprinkled with sugar.

Saffron lamb, braised in yogurt

Lamb and mutton feature heavily, either slow-braised or smoke-grilled, and even camel meat is eaten on occasion. Hand-pulled noodles are topped with a rich stew of peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants, and rice pilafs sweetened with local yellow carrots and dried fruits are a popular meal. Bread is an essential, along with black tea fragrant with cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, and rose petals. Uyghurs love sweetness too: dried fruits, nougats, yogurt, milk, cream, and pastries.

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Hand-pulled noodles

In fact, little about Kashgar's culinary scene has changed for centuries; a walk through the city will take you through traditional bakeries behind the Id Kah mosque (China's largest), into the Sunday Animal Market, the crowded bazaar, and lastly the Old City and its night market. But it's a life Uyghurs believe is under threat as their culture, religion, and cuisine face assimilation into the Chinese mainstream. The food traditions of past centuries live on in Kashgar today, but will they exist tomorrow? Head behind the scenes to visit this ancient city and taste the flavors of the bazaar: saffron-marinated lamb, sweet figs, and the finest hand-pulled noodles.

Breads of Kashgar

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In Kashgar's dimlit dawn, the aroma of wood smoke fills the streets as lines of tonur pit ovens fire up and breadmaking begins for the day. The baker, wearing a green and white embroidered doppa, or Uyghur cap, makes nan bread. He flattens rounds of dough, curls the edges, and stamps a laced pattern of holes with a spiked tool, to help the bread cook evenly.

I watch as he sprinkles it with black onion seeds, sesame, or a flurry of chopped garlic, and stretches the bread onto a curved cushion. He reaches into the depths of the glowing tonur to roll the nan bread onto its walls. A few minutes later, he hands me the clock-sized bread, brown and crisp, and studded with tiny flecks of charcoal from the fire. The next is added to the towering stacks of baked nan outside the shop, waiting for early customers to come from morning prayers at the Id Kah mosque.

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The breads of Kashgar are one of the seven wonders of the culinary world, extraordinary in their variety. There are giant flat rounds of hemek nan, typical of Kashgar; smaller rounds of thicker Turpan nan topped with onion and black nigella seeds; and small fat bagels, gizhder, shining and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The hemek nan tastes every bit as good as it looks, all warm buttery crust with flecks of salt and sweet onion, and steam rises with every bite.

Beasts and Breakfast: The Sunday Animal Market

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Once I have my morning bread in hand, it's a ride to the Sunday Animal Market on the outskirts of town. You know you're in the right place when you spot masses of bleating sheep, goats, yaks, camels, donkeys and horses converge on a golden arched gateway. Inside the walled yard is barely-controlled chaos. A thousand beasts protest their proximity to other beasts by snorting, braying, kicking, biting, and running away, held back by rope tethers and sheer luck. Occasionally one gets loose and creates a magnificent drama as traders scatter while the hapless owner tries to recapture the animal.

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Buying and selling livestock is men's business and besides myself, there are few women present. Uyghur, Tajik, and Kyrgyz traders, each in characteristic hats, make secret deals in which no money visibly changes hands. Like stockbrokers working the stock exchange, I'm told some buyers spend the whole day buying and selling repeatedly to make a margin on the sale; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

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Although it may appear that the main business of the market is yaks and sheep, I can assure you it's actually breakfast. Wrangling beasts is hungry work and around the yard's perimeter cooks are turning out bowl after bowl of laghman, Uyghur-style hand-pulled noodles topped with a rich vegetable ragout of peppers, eggplant, onion, garlic, and tomato.

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The other popular breakfast food is samsa. In Kashgar, there are constant linguistic reminders that the Xinjiang region shares much in common with central Asia, including the name of these spiced lamb and onion parcels cooked in the tall tonur oven. The heat blisters and crisps the outside, while the inside is meltingly soft. Known as samosa in India, sambosa in Afghanistan, sambusa in Iran, and samsa in Pakistan, samsas are a perfect snack, while larger versions known as kumach are an entire meal.

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Dried Fruit and Pilaf Galore: Lunch at the Bazaar

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Although I have my eye on a flock of Kashgar's prize fat-tailed sheep, midday is prime time to return to the city and enjoy the bazaar in full Sunday swing. The color and chaos of the crowds, mixed with smoke from the charcoal grills and the scent of meat and spice is intoxicating. Men cluster at the entrance, offering me luscious ripe golden figs—enjur—for one yuan (about 15 cents) apiece. The sweetest figs come from Atash and Beshkirem near Kashgar, and the vendor passes me one on a fig leaf to catch the sticky juices. Nearby, another man carves ruby-colored slices of watermelon with a tapered silver knife. The knife is beautifully crafted, its horn handle inlaid with stones, and I ask him where he found it. He points me to another part of the bazaar, where the knife makers work alongside men beating copper bowls and selling brass water pitchers.

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But as much as the animal market is a man's world, the bazaar belongs to women, as they buy and sell colored cloth, bargain over tea, and negotiate the price of dried fruits. There are tubs of the most exquisite dried figs, each the size of a marble. The vendor urges me to try one—it is sweet and chewy with the crunch of tiny seeds. The lush fertility of the oasis and the cool, dry climate makes for some of the world's best dried fruit and nuts—apricots and dates; sultanas in green, purple, and black; raisins, walnuts, and almonds.

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A whole zip code of the bazaar is dedicated to spices, the air thick with the smells of dried chili, cumin, saffron, and cinnamon. Visit any dora dermek shop and ask for a tetitku (a spice mixture). The vendor takes a little of this, a little of that, and hands me a paper cone of dynamite powder packed with flavor. I'll use it for seasoning kebabs, roast lamb, chicken, or vegetables.

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Mutton polo

At lunchtime, the bazaar empties into the alleys outside for hot food like saffron lamb: a plate of tender meat, slow-cooked in a yogurt marinade until it falls apart. Or there's mutton polo, a rich and satisfying rice pilaf that cooks in enormous blackened pots, gently warmed by a charcoal brazier. Shreds of carrot and onion cook to a caramelized coating on the bottom of the pot, mixed with buttery rice and mutton on the bone. I sit elbow to elbow on a narrow table with Uyghur women in colorful head scarves, laughing and gossiping, eating and sipping tea.

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For dessert, everyone returns to the shade of the bazaar where you can eat yogurt mixed with shaved ice, or zongza, a Uyghur take on classic Chinese sticky rice steamed in bamboo leaves. Zongza are made with a sweet red date in the tip, then unwrapped, pressed flat on a saucer, and covered in creamy yogurt curd and drizzled with brown sugar syrup. I buy matang to take home: a giant block of sweet, chewy nutty nougat made with local walnuts or almonds. When I tell the vendor how much I want, he slices off a hunk with a sharp knife and chops it into bite-size pieces.

Smoke and Spice: Old City and the Night Market

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As the midday heat wanes and the afternoon sun lengthens shadows, I wander the Old City. I touch the cool, smooth adobe walls of the quiet alleys, and peek into homes hiding courtyards shaded by trellised grapevines. The maze of the old city is Kashgar's beating heart, or was until the Chinese Government declared it a fire and earthquake hazard and set to rebuilding it in an effort to improve living conditions. UNESCO petitioned for preservation of the Old City in 2009, but development proceeded regardless. Now it's considered by UNESCO officials as "one of the black spots of heritage conservation." Even so, traces of the Old City's magic remain in several dozen preserved homes.

At day's end, as the last call-to-prayer can be heard, I gather my remaining appetite and visit the night market opposite the mosque. The smell of charcoal, spice, and grilling meat is a vivid memory for travelers to Kashgar, with outdoor barbecues smoking on every street corner. Lamb kawap (known to us as kebabs and to the Chinese as yang rou chuanr) have worked their way into the hearts of Chinese people everywhere as Xinjiang's most popular street food export.

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I can't help myself—I gorge on succulent pieces of lamb threaded onto long metal skewers, with juicy chunks of fat in the center to keep the meat tender, and a piece of lamb kidney for flavor. The cook grills the kawap over a waist-high charcoal brazier, fanning the coals with a broad ply fan. As he sprinkles them with ziran— that magical mixture of cumin, white pepper, chili, and salt—I know the taste and smell will forever remind me of this night in Kashgar.