The food you'll find in the Xinjiang region is quite different from that of the rest of China. Here's a quick primer on the kinds of things you'll come across while you travel.
Pomegranates are in season in the late summer and fall months. You’ll find them piled up outside markets and are sold by the kilo. One of my favorite fruits, I was delighted to find the beautiful dark red variety. Our guide from Old Road Tours informed us that there are two types of pomegranate – sour ones that are used in dishes and sweet ones that are used for juice. I found it difficult to tell the difference.
I bought an enormous box at a market in Kashgar and carried them around all through my trip on through Urumqi and Turpan and finally hand-carried them home to Shanghai. I was so glad I did. And after a few days when they were all gone, I even tried to order more Kashgar pomegranates on a mail-order website but they weren’t quite as good.
These flatbreads are on sale throughout the region by small bread makers. Best bought warm, straight from the naan oven, they are a breakfast staple. Some are baked plain but you can also find some baked with cumin, salt, scallions or sesame seeds baked in. The bread is often decorated with traditional round circles.
The Xinjiang version of “lamian” is called leghman. Traditionally hand-pulled, they are first boiled and then topped with a stir-fry of different ingredients, depending on where you have them. Usually, the topping is a mix of vegetables and we ate them with mixes of tomatoes, peppers, onions, potatoes, and beans. They are not served in a soup but rather cooked and topped with the vegetable mix.
This noodle dish is very typical in Xinjiang and you’ll find it most local restaurants.
Polu Rice Pilaf
Another very typical dish that you’ll find being sold often outside restaurants from an enormous wok-type dish is Xinjiang’s polu, or rice pilaf. This dish is made from cooked mutton along with onion and yellow carrots – a type of carrot I’ve only come across in Xinjiang. The meat and vegetables are cooked with some spices, including cumin, and then steamed along with the rice. Sometimes you’ll find raisins added in giving the dish a salty-sweet taste. This is a good dish to get to-go if you’re in a hurry. Most places that sell it will have plastic ware and they’ll pack you up a dish to go.
Lamb and Mutton Skewers
Kawaplar is piled up on tables at every market. These skewers of mostly mutton meat and mutton fat are a staple in Xinjiang. Outside of the market, there will be a line of men selling grilled skewers from small stalls. Each little stall will have a table, a pile of pre-grilled skewers and an enormous electric fan that blows the billowing smoke from the charcoal grill away and into your face if you're not careful.
The skewers are typically sprinkled with a mix of spices that includes some cumin and hot chili flakes. Pantomime that you don't want the spices if you don't like chili.
A stewed chicken dish with potatoes and green peppers is also quite common when eating in a Xinjiang-style restaurant. Be careful, the chicken meat will not have been de-boned.
Xinjiang is very famous for its bounty of fruit. It is the top producer of grapes and grape products, including raisins. You'll find all kinds of varieties in the markets and every market will have a whole section of sellers of dried raisins.
We were told by our Old Road Tours guide that if you're concerned about how natural your raisins are then you should avoid the ones that look most delicious! We were drawn to the small, green raisins that are all uniform in color in size. Our guide said that any of the raisin varieties that are quite uniform in color and size are most likely dried with a spray-on chemical that helps the desiccating process. Locals, said our guide, prefer the raisins that basically look bad - the color is darker, black or very dark brown - and the sizes of raisins within the batch are not uniform. These are what you want! As these raisins are naturally dried without the use of chemicals.
Raisins are a good souvenir to bring back to friends and family.
Samsa Mutton Dumplings
One of the most delicious foods we came across in Xinjiang were street-side Samsa. Baked in an oven similar to a naan-oven, these dumplings had a delicious mutton and onion filling. We ate them right as they came out of the oven.
Nuts and Dried fruits
Another thing you'll find in all the markets - as well as from street vendors selling them out of carts - is a variety of dried fruit and nuts. Most will be familiar - almonds, cashews, dried apricots - but be careful, we mistook apricot seeds for mini-almonds and got quite a shock they're quite bitter. Most vendors are happy for you to sample some of their products so you can decide before you buy. During our trip we had a constant supply of almonds, dried apricots, raisins and cashews going.