Chinese regional cuisine: Xinjiang food and where in Hong Kong to eat it
Influenced by trade with Central Asia, the food of Xinjiang in northwest China is distinctive. While still not common in Hong Kong, more restaurants are opening. Restaurateurs describe the cuisine and how they adapt it for local palates
In the past, Xinjiang in China’s northwest was a key staging post on the Silk Road that spread Chinese culture, and spices, to the West. In recent years the unique tastes of the desert region, where Turkic Uygurs are the biggest ethnic group, have spread south, to Hong Kong, as more restaurants serving its cuisine open.
“I have a complex about Xinjiang food … I was so nostalgic about the tastes of my hometown that I opened a restaurant,” says Wu Mengying, owner of Tin Saan Restaurant. “I take pleasure and peace from cooking Uygur dishes in a city far away from my hometown.”
Born in Karamay in northern Xinjiang, she married her Hong Kong husband in 1990 and has lived in the city ever since.
Kebabs are one of the food items most associated with Xinjiang. Mention skewered lamb (yang rou chuan) to anyone in China and it will make them think of men with moustaches and high cheekbones turning skewers of meat on a streetside charcoal grill, sprinkling them now and then with cumin seeds, chilli powder and salt, and loudly promoting their wares.
They don’t only use lamb; beef and chicken skewers are often to be found too.
“Traditionally meat cubes are strung on rose willow branches, rather than bamboo or metal sticks, with pieces of fatty meat alternating with lean meat. The fat would almost melt, leaving behind a caramelised crust and enriching the meat,” says Wu.
Rose willow branches, which grow in the desert, impart a distinctive fragrance to the meat. But it’s a tradition few now adhere to. “Most vendors wouldn’t bother to gather branches just for the street snack. Occasionally we would use it when roasting meat at home,” says Wu.
Cumin (ziran in Chinese) is part and parcel of Uygur cooking, the spice giving dishes a nutty, musty and peppery flavour. “Quality cumin seeds should have the hue of green moss. They should smell pungent with a hint of grass,” Wu explains.
The cumin used at Tin Saan Restaurant, which is in Tin Hau, is imported from Xinjiang. Wu collects a bulk delivery from Shenzhen, the Chinese city over the border from Hong Kong, every three months. She would not buy the cumin seeds sold on Hong Kong markets.
“If you compare the colour and smell, the differences are apparent,” she says. “The Hong Kong version has a dark shade without the freshness of grass. It even tastes bitter in dishes.”
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Naan, a round flatbread, is a staple for Xinjiang’s Uygurs. It was traditionally baked in a tandoor over charcoal, but nowadays, electric ovens are used.
To make naan, vendors would press the dough in their hands until it was a thin, flat disc, dab it with oil, then quickly slap it onto the wall of the tandoor. Naan is often served with braised lamb, acting as a sponge to absorb the gravy.
In Xinjiang, naan breads are much bigger than those Wu serves in portion-conscious Hong Kong, probably because Uygurs enjoy eating in big mouthfuls. Wu serves naan cut into wedges around the side of a diner’s plate and half soaked in gravy from the dish.
Pilaf, a steamed rice dish, is another staple in Xinjiang. It derives its flavour from lamb ribs, which Wu simmers to make a broth, to which she adds diced carrots. Rice cooks in the broth over a low flame. Although delicious, it is not cooked in the traditional way, she admits.
“Traditionally in Xinjiang, the rice is steamed over the ribs and a generous layer of mutton fat that is on the bottom of a huge wok. It is too heavy for Hong Kong diners, so I modify the cooking method.”
Many dishes in Xinjiang are based on chicken. The most popular one is da pan ji, literally big plate chicken – a stew with noodles. The dish is made of chicken chunks, potatoes, green and red chilli peppers and dried peppers. The noodles absorb the savoury, spicy sauce.
“Actually the noodles are full of flavours, and are more tasty than the stew,” Wu says.
Laghman is a hand-pulled noodle dish, often served topped with stir-fried chopped meat and fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini and onion. Making the noodles takes a few years of practice to master the techniques of pulling and twisting the dough into long strands.
In her restaurant, Wu is the only qualified laghman maker, while the other chefs are still honing their skills. Si Tin-lok, a Hong Kong native, has worked in the kitchen at Tin Saan for many years. Recognised by Wu as her most gifted disciple, Si says: “My noodles are not as beautiful as Master Wu’s.”
The chef adds: “I knew little about Xinjiang cookery when I started working here. It is Wu who introduced me to the ethnic cuisine.”
Si isn’t the only one Hongkonger who was previously ignorant about Uygur food culture. While the city is celebrated for its diverse food scene, “Xinjiang cuisine is quite a niche here”, says Ma Lee-ming, the owner of Ma’s Restaurant, which serves halal food.
“I find most customers simply equating halal dishes [only] with Xinjiang food. We are doing Xinjiang halal food, but we are also offering halal dishes from other Chinese regions, such as Shanghai, Sichuan and Guangdong,” says Ma.
When customers call Ma’s Restaurant a Xinjiang-style restaurant, Ma corrects them and explains the differences. “The confusion signals that Hong Kong people understand neither halal nor Uygur cuisines, which are marginal in Hong Kong.”
Ma’s wife, Yvonne Ma Yee-fong, is a member of the Hui ethnic minority from Henan province in central China. After the couple married, Ma converted to Islam and began to eat only lamb and beef.
Many items on the menu are original recipes from his wife’s Muslim family, such as dumplings, pot stickers and noodles.
Lamb dishes dominate the menu, including Xinjiang-style classics such as grilled lamb rack. Although the taste is the same as what you'd get in Xinjiang, in Hong Kong the racks are portioned, rather than being served whole.
“Eating habits are different,” Ma says. “Hong Kong eaters are very aware of their table manners and they’re health-conscious. We split the whole racks into manageable pieces so that they can have it gracefully and won’t overeat.”
For the same reason, he doesn’t serve da pan ji, as the dish traditionally comes in generous portions.
Not all the proprietors of Xinjiang restaurants in Hong Kong have a family connection to the region.
Willie Ling Kan-fung fell in love with the cuisine – the lamb dishes, in particular – after travelling with his family along the route of the ancient Silk Road nearly 20 years ago when he was in primary school. Their first stop was Xinjiang.
“I hadn’t eaten lamb at all in Hong Kong before that. But when I tried the roasted whole lamb there, I just loved it,” recalls Ling. Although they had lamb for every meal, he never tired of it.
Ling travelled to Xinjiang again after graduating from high school. This time, he went straight for the food.
“There wasn’t any restaurant in Hong Kong offering lamb skewers and roasted lamb in Xinjiang style. I wanted to be the first,” he says.
The year before he opened Mr Cumin, Ling revisited Xian in a quest for Uygur recipes. The city in western China has a big Central Asian population.
“I spent a month tasting in a lot of lamb specialist stores, chatting with the store owners and mingling with the local chefs. They generously shared their experience.”
Ling learned from the local chefs that the secret to making lamb appetising had much to do with the quality of the meat, rather than the seasonings.
“They use fresh lamb cuts from freshly slaughtered sheep. In Hong Kong, we can only access flash-frozen meat imported from New Zealand. You can tell the differences between the fresh cuts and frozen ones, which have a bitter aftertaste.”
There, seasonings are simpler – just cumin and salt, so the flavour of the meat comes through, and it’s grilled over charcoal, which gives the lamb a fruity fragrance.
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Back in Hong Kong, Ling put together all the recipes he’d learned and invented his own. He started Mr Cumin last year.
Unable to get fresh lamb, he uses Mongolian lamb rich in fat.
Ling marinates the frozen cuts and adds extracted lamb fat, which he buys in Xian, to give the meat more umami. Instead of a charcoal-fired grill, he uses an infrared one. Research showed him “the advantage of burning charcoals stems from the infrared rays generated in the process”, he says.
Ling adds: “Our cumin and chilli powder are imported from Turpan [in eastern Xinjiang].”
Minced lamb rice is an original recipe of Ling’s. He was inspired by a chance discovery in Xian. “Meat crumbs were often left on the bottom of the plate. I was surprised to find the small bits extremely tasty,” he says. “Taiwan has rice with minced pork. Why don’t we have lamb version?” The new dish is a hit.
Three places to satisfy your craving for Xinjiang-style kebabs in Hong Kong
Tin Saan Restaurant, Hoi Sun Building, 12 Mercury Street, Tin Hau, tel: 2805 6130
Ma’s Restaurant, 21-25 Cheung Sha Wan Road, Sham Shui Po, tel: 2787 6108
Mr Cumin, Wang Fai Mansion, 2-12 Wang On Road, Fortress Hill, tel: 2891 0013