Saturday, July 19, 2008

Chinese Food, Part Four: Western Food

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)

In addition to Dongbei, or "northeastern" food, Nana and I also sampled some Western Chinese food on our recent trip to China. Western Chinese food is heavily influenced by the flavors of Xinjiang cuisine. Xinjiang is China's westernmost province, and though it doesn't get as much press as Tibet, it's every bit as far-flung. Xinjiang was brought under Chinese domination during the opening of the Silk Road in the Middle Ages; culturally, the area has more in common with, say, Turkey than it does with eastern China, and Kashgar, one of Xinjiang's two major cities, is as close to Baghdad as it is to Beijing. This sense of separateness is made even greater by the fact that a plurality of Xinjiang residents are Uighurs, a Turkic people related to the nearby people of "the Stans" (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, specifically), and a majority of Xinjiang residents belong to one of the Turkic ethnic groups. As such, many of the same charges of "cultural genocide" bandied about in Tibet are current in Xinjiang, aka East Turkmenistan, as well.
However much the national-majority Han Chinese might be uncomfortable with Xinjiang's aspirations of independence, though, people from all over China seem to love Uighur food. In Beijing, Western Chinese is a well-represented ethnic cuisine, and in Xian, the traditional eastern terminus of the Silk Road, Xinjiang provides the dominant flavors.

Here we are enjoying a meal with Shasha and her boyfriend. Shasha says the restaurant is the place for Xinjiang food in Beijing. It's a giant dining hall across from the Xinjiang provincial consulate (fascinating tidbit: many of China's provinces, especially those dominated by ethnic minorities, such as Xinjiang and Tibet, are largely autonomous). It's where all the Xinjiang officials in Beijing eat.

First, we one of my favorites. This is a common appetizer/side dish: pickled green beans in hot sauce. The pickled green beans are actually a Dongbei thing, while the hot sauce is classic Xinjiang. Yum.

One of the things that makes Xinjiang cuisine a lot of fun is the way it blends Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Chinese flavors. At the top above, you can see a very Chinese tofu soup, and below it some Middle Eastern braised beef served with Chinese-style rice bread to be used like Indian naan.

This is another good example of fusion, picked up at a random diner in Xian on our last night in town: Chinese-style fried egg patties and soy-stir-fried green onions, with hot green chilies and Middle-Eastern-style spiced chicken.

Above we've got another variation on the spicy-meat-with-bread dish (this time it's shredded, stir-fried beef), coupled with stir-fried shoestring potatoes (a Dongbei staple) and other veggies in a tomato broth. Note the cooling yogurt at the lower right.
Then, of course, you don't get much more Middle Eastern than this: lamb kebabs and roast chicken. All in all, a delicious meal!

The verdict: if you're in China, try some Xinjiang food. Not only is it tasty, it's like a history lecture in your mouth!

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