Dee: “The landlocked province of Xinjiang is located in the North West of China, and shares borders with a number of Central Asian countries, and also Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and the fascinating cuisine of the region contains elements of all of them. It is meat and carb heavy, with much use being made of strong spices, sauces and marinades.
There are a number of recipes documented on line, and it was quite difficult choosing just one starter, one main course and one dessert. I was particularly sad to have to leave out a dish of lamb cooked with pomegranate molasses. It was quite a surprise to find pilaf, kebabs, yoghurt and flatbreads included in Chinese recipes and I wanted to include some of these elements in the menu.
I was happy with what we settled on. The meal was most enjoyable, and we were pleasantly full by the end of it. I would go so far as to say that this has been one of my favourite menus so far and am looking forward to try out some more recipes. Perhaps that lamb with pomegranate molasses.”
Starter: Grilled Xinjiang Lamb Kebabs with Yogurt
Dee: “This simple recipe provided a great idea for the starter, even though we made one or two changes to it, first by using minced beef instead of lamb chunks, then by mixing all of the ingredients together, rather than in stages, prior to cooking. Unfortunately we weren’t able to grill them on a barbeque so had to make do with cooking them first in the oven, then crisping them up in a frying pan. Not quite the same flavour I know, but we enjoyed them nonetheless. There was plenty of flavour from both the meat and the spices, which could all be tasted in the finished dish.”
Bread: Uyghur Neng (Nan) With Cumin and Onion
Dee: “The Uyghurs are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang and are of Turkic, rather than Han Chinese, descent and this bread, along with the kebabs, forms part of their culinary identity.
I wanted to include bread in this menu partly because I love to bake bread, and partly because it was unusual to see bread featured so prominently in a cuisine which I had assumed relied on rice as its staple.
The main problem I had with recreating this bread exactly from the recipe was that my oven wasn’t hot enough. I tried baking the bread in the oven at its maximum temperature for a little longer but wasn’t happy with how it turned out, so tried cooking the breads in the frying pan instead. This proved much more successful, and the resulting breads are the ones featured in the picture. The oven baked ones were still edible, but were strategically placed underneath the more successful pan cooked ones in the photo. I also decided to mix the chopped onions and cumin seeds into the dough rather than using them as a garnish, as I was a little concerned that they might burn. This proved successful and gave the breads that little bit more flavour.”
Main: Da Pan Ji (Big Plate Chicken)
Dee: “This was listed as a popular dish in Xinjiang and appeared a number of times while I was researching the menu, and after sampling it for the first time, it was easy to see why. Hearty and filling, containing two lots of carbs in the form of noodles and potato, with a sauce enriched by soy sauce and shaoxing rice wine, it proved a surprisingly good winter warmer. The addition of star anise and sugar provided a distinctive sweetness to compliment the pepper and salt of the soy sauce. Instead of serving the chicken on top of the noodles, as stated in the recipe, we stirred the whole lot together, which allowed the noodles to take on more of the flavour of the sauce. Delicious.”
Dessert: Nut Cake
Dee: “I kept reading about a street food called Matang while researching the menu, and after seeing pictures of vendors selling slices of it from huge cakes which they transported on bicycles, I just had to try it. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a single recipe for it anywhere, so was left to try and create it myself, based on the photos in the articles and the accompanying commentaries. I didn’t let this stop me though and set to work creating my own recipe. An initial attempt at creating something that I thought would resemble the photos was unsuccessful, but I managed to save all the ingredients by returning them to the mixing bowl, adding flour water and egg and going again.
The recipe that follows can’t really be called matang, but it does contain lots of nuts, and also Goji Berries, which are heavily cultivated in Xinjiang.
If I ever do find a recipe for matang I will be more than happy to revisit this blog entry and make it. I’m sure I will love it, but this will have to suffice for now. While it lacks absolute authenticity I certainly think it delivers on taste. Sweet, nutty and slightly sticky. So, this is what I used and how I made it;
- 2 cups walnuts
- 1 cup ground almonds
- ½ cup pistachios
- ½ cup cashews
- ½ cup peanuts
- ½ cup goji berries (heavily cultivated in Xinjiang)
- 1 ½ cups butter
- 1 cup honey
- 250g self-raising flour
- 5g salt
- 1 egg
- 100g water
- Preheat the oven to 180/350 degrees.
- Mix dry ingredients together and stir.
- Heat the butter and honey and mix until combined.
- Bake this mixture for 15 minutes, then leave to cool.
- Measure the flour out into a bowl and mix in the butter/honey/nut mixture.
- Add the eggs and water and mix to form the cake batter. (Use a wooden spoon for this. Don’t bother trying to do it by hand, it will be far too wet).
- Tip the mixture out into a 21cm square cake tin lined with baking sheet or baking parchment, and smooth it out so that it covers the base of the tin and is smooth on top.
- Bake for 35 minutes, then if necessary in additional 20 minute stages until a skewer comes out clean and hot when poked into the middle of the cake.
- Leave the mixture to cool completely in the tin.
- When cooled, cut into squares and serve.
Soundtrack: The Uyghur Musicians of Xinjiang – Music from the Oasis Towns of Central Asia
Dee: “In keeping with the diverse nature of the food we sampled, the music contained on this album was also distinct from what I would normally consider to be traditional Chinese music. This was more like a natural fusion of Chinese and Central Asian sounds. There were a number of different instruments featured on the songs, including percussion, stringed instruments plucked, strummed and played with a bow, one sounding like a deeply tuned sitar, a wind instrument that sounded like something you’d expect to hear in Turkey, and vocals, occasionally female but mostly male. The songs were all quite folky and raw sounding and I imagined them to be all quite old.
I would listen to it again, though probably as a backdrop to my next Xinjiang-themed meal rather than on its own.”
Next week we will be covering another cuisine within a cuisine: Y for Yemenite Jews