GRILLED TO PER­FEC­TION

Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion’s sig­na­ture lamb ke­babs have been popular for mil­lenia, re­ports Cui jia in Urumqi.

China Daily (Canada) - - XINJIANG -

Ask any Chi­nese diner to name the most fa­mous food from the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion and lamb ke­bab will be the likely an­swer from most of them. The mouth-wa­ter­ing skew­ers of grilled meat are rec­og­nized na­tion­wide as the Uygur eth­nic group’s sig­na­ture dish. Many Uygurs, a majority of whom are Mus­lims, have opened ke­bab restau­rants across the coun­try and beyond, but Xin­jiang is widely con­sid­ered to be the place to en­joy au­then­tic ke­babs.

Dur­ing lunchtime, the smoke and aroma of lamb on the grills be­gin to rise from Er­dao­qiao, an area where many Uygurs live in the re­gional cap­i­tal of Urumqi. Or­ders for kawap (lamb ke­babs in the Uygur lan­guage) in Uygur restau­rants, big or small, be­gin to ac­cu­mu­late. Some din­ers joke that kawap smoke is what helps pi­lots find Urumqi in the air.

Restau­rant owner Yas­in­jan Memet was busy pierc­ing chunks of meat sliced fresh from a lamb leg with metal skew­ers. Like all kawap chefs, he in­serted a piece of lamb fat on each skewer to help the ke­babs stay ten­der after be­ing grilled. The fat nourishes the lean lamb meat and brings out the best taste in ev­ery chunk of them, the 49-year-old said.

Soon, an or­der of 20 kawaps ar­rived. He then took the skew­ers he pre­pared out­side to a tra­di­tional U-shaped Uygur iron grill. Uygur busi­ness­men set their grills, which are dec­o­rated with or­nate pat­terns, out­side their restau­rants to at­tract din­ers.

The length of the grill also de­pends on the size of the restau­rant.

“Big­ger restau­rants have longer and more so­phis­ti­cated grills,” Yas­in­jan said while flat­ten­ing the char­coal in his grill to make sure his ke­babs were cooked evenly.

As soon as he put the skew­ers on the grill, the meat be­gan to siz­zle and smoke.

“Look, de­li­cious kawap made from the leg of un­mar­ried lambs!” he shouted in the Uygur lan­guage, ro­tat­ing the skew­ers as the meat be­gan to brown. “Un­mar­ried lambs” re­fer to lambs that are about 1 year old and have not mated yet. Their meat is key in mak­ing the best kawap, he said.

About four min­utes later, skew­ers of tasty lamb emerged from the grill, dusted with a pinch of cumin, dried chili pow­der and salt.

“Could any­one re­sist them?” Yas­in­jan smiled and asked. He then put a nang — a tra­di­tional Uygur round-shaped flat bread — on top of the ke­babs and turned them over us­ing the nang as a plate to serve the cus­tomers.

“The nang will ab­sorb all the juice from the meat. Noth­ing de­li­cious is go­ing to waste,” Yas­in­jan said.

The lamb ke­bab may look easy to make but it re­quires the chef’s abil­ity to pick the best meat and time the cook­ing process well so that it is not burnt or un­der­cooked, said Yas­in­jan, who has been mak­ing kawap for more than 20 years. His restau­rant is just across the street from a meat mar­ket and he per­son­ally picks the fresh lamb for his ke­babs ev­ery day.

“Some tourists once asked me why I don’t put as much cumin and chili on the ke­babs as what peo­ple do in Beijing. I told them it’s be­cause they are not con­fi­dent about the fresh­ness of their meat so they have to cover that up with spices,” he said. “Xin­jiang peo­ple are ex­perts in tast­ing kawap. Your business won’t sur­vive if your meat is not fresh.”

Ani­war Hasmu, deputy di­rec­tor and re­searcher at the Xin­jiang cul­tural relics and ar­chae­ol­ogy re­search in­sti­tute, has been study­ing food cul­ture in the re­gion. He said Xin­jiang peo­ple have been en­joy­ing kawap for a very long time.

In 1985, ar­chae­ol­o­gists dis­cov­ered two pieces of grilled lamb ribs on a red wil­low stick in a tomb in Qiemo county in South­ern Xin­jiang’s Bayin­golin Mon­gol au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture. He said the kawap dated back more than 2,700 years.

The ar­chae­ol­o­gists also found a small fan made of fur and wood in a tomb in Lop county in South­ern Xin­jiang’s Hotan pre­fec­ture in 1984. Ani­war said it could just be the tool used to grill kawaps.

“Peo­ple still use sim­i­lar fans to help the char­coal burn,” he said.

Red wil­low is a common plant in the desert ar­eas of Xin­jiang, and peo­ple still use them to make kawap, just like their an­ces­tors did 2,700 years ago. In Er­dao­qiao, bun­dles of red wil­low sticks are popular items in small shops spe­cial­iz­ing in ac­ces­sories for grilling kawap.

“The fla­vor of the red wil­low will be grad­u­ally re­leased into the meat, giv­ing the kawap a spe­cial fla­vor. It’s the most au­then­tic and de­li­cious kawap,” Yas­in­jan said.

Not far from Yas­in­jan’s restau­rant, busi­ness­man Bayi­aji had no time for lunch be­cause he was busy in­spect­ing his work­shop’s kawap grills be­fore they were shipped to East China’s Shan­dong prov­ince and South China’s Shen­zhen city.

The 39-year-old calls him­self “king of the kawap grills” be­cause he claims he can make the grills look like “tra­di­tional Uygur palaces”.

Bayi­aji’s business and crafts­man­ship in the iron kawap grills were passed from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. He now has plans to in­ject some in­no­va­tive el­e­ments in the fam­ily tra­di­tion.

“I’ve been learn­ing about the struc­ture and domes of the palaces in Europe,” he said.

“Soon, I will make Euro­pean-style kawap grills.”

Con­tact the writer at cui­jia@chi­nadaily.com.cn Spicy fried chicken

It is also known by its more fa­mous name of “big dish chicken’’ be­cause it is put in an ex­traor­di­nar­ily large dish. Cooked with green and red pep­pers and pota­toes, it com­bines the tastes of the poul­try and vegetables fried in edi­ble oil. Noo­dles

Noo­dles are the main sta­ple food for Xin­jiang lo­cals. Wheat flour pow­der is mixed with wa­ter to make dough, which is pulled into noo­dles that add a chewi­ness qual­ity. The boiled noo­dles are served with fried vegetables and meat. The most popular noo­dle dish in­cludes fried cab­bage and mut­ton. Uygur and Hui eth­nic groups are good at mak­ing noo­dles and op­er­ate most of the noo­dle restau­rants in the re­gion.

HAN LIANG / FOR CHINA DAILY

Yas­in­jan Memet shows the lamb ke­babs that are ready to be grilled at a restau­rant in Urumqi.

HAN LIANG / FOR CHINA DAILY

Lamb ribs roasted in a nang pit in a food stand in Urumqi.

HAN LIANG / FOR CHINA DAILY

A Uygur man can­not wait to have the pi­laf for lunch.

ZHAO GE / XIN­HUA

A restau­rant owner demon­strates the process of mak­ing Xin­jiang noo­dles in Tur­pan, Xin­jiang.

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