Understanding Uyghur Culture and Cuisine

uyghur meal in kashgar
The beginning of our meal with our host, Abdul, the owner of Old Road Tours. Sara Naumann

My family and another family spent our October break in Xinjiang and had an incredible time. For us, it was an introduction to a new culture and that was as interesting and exciting as experiencing the incredible landscape of northwestern China.

Who Are the Uyghurs?

The People’s Republic of China has 56 officially recognized ethnicities. By far, the largest ethnic group is the Han, sometimes referred to as the Han Chinese. The other 55 are known within China as ethnic minorities. Ethnicities in China are referred to in Mandarin as ( 民族 | “minzu”) and the minorities are accorded a different status. 

In certain regions where the minority group is centered, the Chinese government has granted them a level of “autonomy”. This usually means the highest levels of government have people from the local dominant ethnicity serving. But note these people will always be appointed or approved by the Central Government in Beijing.

You’ll find this notion in the official names of their regions – and note these are “regions” as opposed to “provinces”:

  • Tibetan Autonomous Region – where the majority of ethnic Tibetans live
  • Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region – where the majority of ethnic Hui people live
  • Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region – where the majority of ethnic Mongols live
  • Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region – where the majority of ethnic Zhuang people live
  • Xinjiang Autonomous Region – where the majority of ethnic Uyghurs live

The Uyghur (also spelled Uygur and Uighur) people are ethnically a mix of European and Asian peoples who settled around the Tarim Basin in what is now northwestern China. Their look is more Central Asian than East Asian.

Uyghur Culture (General)

The Uyghurs practice Islam. Currently under Chinese law, Uyghur women are not allowed to wear complete head-coverings and young Uyghur men are not allowed to have long beards.

Uyghur language has Turkic origins and they use Arabic script.

Uyghur art, dance and music is very popular with the music being particularly popular throughout China. Uyghurs use special instruments for their music and it was fun while visiting the region to see some locals performing at certain tourist attraction and it is understandable why their music is beloved. The food is also quite unique but I’ll get more into this in the below section.

Our Experience with Uyghur Culture

All of us, having lived over a decade in Shanghai, are quite used to the dominant Han culture so were excited to venture far to the west and experience Uyghur life and culture. As part of our tour with Old Road Tours, we had requested to have our kids interact with other kids while we were there. We were hoping to visit a school, but our visit happened to overlap with two different holidays so school was not in session. Fortunately (and kindly!) the owner of Old Road Tours offered to invite us to his home in Kashgar for a traditional dinner, to meet his family and his children.

We felt very happy to do this.

A Traditional Meal at a Uyghur Home

In a Uyghur house (as in all houses in China) one takes off one’s shoes before entering. A small pitcher of water with a basin was then brought out and we were all invited to wash our hands. It’s almost a ritual washing and we were instructed to lightly brush hand over hand (not together like praying) while the host poured the water and then let the drips fall into the basin. You are not supposed to fling the drips as this is considered poor form, but the impulse to do this is difficult to suppress!

We were then seated in the dining room around a long low table. Traditionally Uyghurs sit on the floor on large cushions. The table was already full of local specialties such as fresh fruits, dried fruits, Uyghur flat breads, fried breads, nuts, and seeds. We were invited to snack on these while our host introduced us to his family. Our kids were instantly intrigued with each other and our host's daughter wanted to show our girls everything. Their common language (besides speaking iPad) was Mandarin so they got on well.

Mr. Wahab told us about the history of his company while his wife prepared two traditional Uyghur dishes. The first was rice polu, a sort of pilaf with mutton and carrots. This dish is something one finds being old out of enormous streetside wok-type pans throughout the markets in Xinjiang. The other dish was leghmen, which is noodles topped with a stew of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and spices. We drank tea, as observant Muslims do not drink alcohol.

Our hosts were extremely nice and, of course, offered us more food than we could possibly eat. We could have stayed on for many hours chatting and learning about life but we had an early morning departure to get on the road to the Karakoram Highway.

The meal was very enjoyable, made more so by the clear fun our kids were having.