Chinese and Middle Eastern cuisines are both enjoying a spike in popularity at the moment, but how about a cuisine that combines elements of both? That's one way to describe Uyghur food, where Middle Eastern flavours and spices meet Chinese and Central Asian favourites in a mash-up of regional cuisines. (Oh, and it’s pronounced wee-gur, in case you were wondering).
The cuisine hails from China’s Xinjiang province and draws upon the culinary traditions of its many neighbours, which include Mongolia, Russia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The region was also the link on the Silk Road between Asia and the Middle East, creating a melting pot of food from the famous trade route.
The area is home to the Uyghur ethnic minority, which is predominantly Muslim and follows a halal diet.
Lamb and mutton dominates many of the meals, which are either slow braised, smoke grilled or stuffed into something. While vegetarian isn’t really a feature of the cuisine, many of the dishes are adaptable.
Dishes common in the cuisine include hand-pulled noodles, steamed buns, dumplings, spiced skewers, samosas and homemade bread.
Oodles of noodles
If you were headed to the culinary cupboard to whip up a meal, staples would include cumin, garlic, onion and tomatoes as a base for sauces and lamb broth.
Unlike many other regions of China, rice takes a backseat in the cuisine. Instead, meals are usually accompanied by noodles and several varieties of bread, including giant flat rounds of naan, smaller ones topped with onion and black nigella seeds, and small fat bagels, called gizhder, that are sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Some popular dishes include goshnan, a pan-fried meat bread made from dough and filled with lamb and onion, and lagman, a breakfast staple of hand-pulled noodles that are then tossed in a wok with a broth consisting of lamb, cumin, chilli, peppers, eggplant and cabbage.
While there are outposts of Uyghur cooking in Sydney and Istanbul – and it’s slowing spreading in America, with restaurants in cities like New York, Washington, Texas and Boston – the cuisine isn’t familiar to a UK audience.
However, London does have one notable exponent of the cuisine. Opened in April 2017 in Walthamstow, Etles is run by wife and husband team Mukaddes Yadikar and Ablikim Rahman.
The pair have created a menu that features classic Uyghur cooking, from ququre, a soup with lamb dumplings served in a broth of onion, tomato, chilli and pepper, and polu, which is like a rice pilaf made with fried onion, carrots and mutton. Some recipes for polu also throw in varying combinations of raisons, apricots, chickpeas, walnuts and even hard-boiled eggs, but what remains constant is its popularity as an all-day food, as well as at parties and weddings.
Other Etles standouts include da pan ji, which translates into ‘big plate of chicken’ – a spicy chicken and potato stew served with hand-pulled noodles; tugur – boiled dumplings stuffed with lamb and onion; and chaimian – a lamb stir fry with short cut noodles tossed with celery and tomato.
Links to traditional foods within the region can also be seen within the cuisine, like the popular breakfast munch samsa, the Uyghur version of the samosa, which is stuffed with lamb, onion and spices, then baked in a tandoor oven. There is also a distinctive version of Shanghai’s xiaolongbao dumplings called pitir manta, which are filled and steamed.
A popular street food that has achieved mainstream popularity throughout China is the lamb kawap, the Uyghur version of skewers, which are covered in cumin. The cuisine also has a classic take on Chinese sticky rice, called zongza, which is made with a sweet red date and covered in creamy yoghurt cured and drizzled with brown sugar syrup.
So have we ignited Sparkie’s interest?
This cuisine does appear to have all the potential. I would put a pin in it and wait to see if it gets any bigger media presence before taking it too seriously, but it may be one for the food producers to start gathering surface knowledge of so that they can respond quickly if it does begin to pick up pace.