When I talk about “Xinjiang food” I refer to the traditional Uyghur cuisine. The reason is that here about half of the population belongs to the Uyghur minority, a Muslim ethnic group that has its own language and culture.
Even if Xinjiang is part of China, its food shares much more characteristics with the Turkish and Central Asia food. So, every time I need a break from Chinese cuisine, I go to a Xinjiang restaurant (they are all around China).
Even if Xinjiang represents about the 15% of the whole Chinese territory, its land is mostly composed by deserts and mountains. Hence there are very few vegetables that grow here, almost only onions, carrots, peppers and tomatoes.
You do get a lot of fruit, especially in summer. Grapes, melons, watermelons, peaches and figs are the most common. You can follow the link above to learn more about the fruit market of Kashgar, a town situated in the extreme West of Xinjiang.
And then you get the meat, a ton of meat. However, since Xinjiang people are Muslim and don’t eat pork, the choice is limited between beef and mutton meat.
Kawap (Roasted mutton kebabs)
Mutton (or sheep) meat is by far the most common here in Xinjiang, to the point that you can find a mutton kebab’s stand in pretty much every corner of Kashgar or Urumqi, the capital of the province.
The photo above shows the classical mutton kebabs from Kashgar. They are composed by three pieces of meat and one piece of fat. While the food in Xinjiang is usually quite spicy, I was surprised to find out that the kebabs prepared in Kashgar only have salt and some light spices.
The photo above shows the roasted kebabs (kawap in Uyghur language) stand that was just below my hostel in Kashgar. The flavor of sheep pervaded the whole street.
I bought the kebabs on this photo in Urumqi, in East Xinjiang. You can see by yourself that they have way too much spices. It was even difficult to taste the meat.
Those are the kind of mutton kebabs that you can find all around China. Xinjiang is a poor province and many Uyghur people left their hometowns to work in East China, which offers more economic possibilities. Personally I prefer the kebabs from Kashgar.
The price for a mutton kebab ranges between 2 and 5 RMB (1 RMB is the equivalent of 0.16 USD).
Da pan ji (chicken soup)
This originally wasn’t an Uyghur dish so even Uyghur people call it in Mandarin.
The Chinese term da pan ji can be translated as “big plate of chicken.” The name is quite accurate. The da pan ji is a spicy chicken soup with potatoes, peppers and onions. As you can see on the photo below, you can ask the waiter to add some noodles (la mian) to complete the dish.
This is one of my favorite dishes and, as for the mutton kebabs, you can find it all around China. You just have to look for a small restaurant (they usually look quite poor) owned by Xinjiang people. The best way to find them is to look for a panel that says 新疆 (it means “Xinjiang”) or 大盘鸡 (it means “da pan ji“).
If you are just two people (or you are traveling alone) a plate of da pan ji is probably too much. In this case you can ask for a xiao pan ji, which means “small plate of chicken.”
The price for da pan ji ranges between 40 and 80 RMB (according on the restaurant) while the xiao pan ji is about the 30% less expensive.
In Xinjiang the staple food is the wheat (instead of rice as in most part of China and South East Asia).
The laghman, hand made noodles with mutton meat, onion and peppers, are especially popular.
If you are visiting Beijing, Shanghai or any other Chinese city and you aren’t able to find a Xinjiang restaurant, you can still look for a 兰州拉面 (Lanzhou lamian) restaurant, which can be found in any corner of every Chinese city.
Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu province, which is close to Xinjiang, and the noodles that you’ll find here are quite similar to the ones that you can find in Xinjiang. However the choice in a Lanzhou lamian restaurant is limited and you can’t get the other dishes typical from Xinjiang (da pan ji, mutton kebabs and so on). Sometimes you can’t even get a Coca Cola.
I took this photo in Kanas (a touristic town in the Altai Mountains, at the border with Russia and Kazakhstan). The cook also added a bit of tudou si (sliced potatoes) and the dish was especially tasty.
Liang mian (Cold noodles)
I bought these noodles near the bus station of Urumqi. This isn’t a Uyghur dish, it’s actually a Hui dish (the Hui people are another ethnic minority of Xinjiang Province).
As you can see this is a poorer version of the previous dishes as it comes without meat and vegetables. I was indeed disappointed!
There isn’t much to say about this dish. You must love mutton to appreciate it : )
Polu (fried rice with mutton)
Even if the main staple food of Xinjiang are the noodles and the naan (the flat Muslim bread), you can still get some rice, especially in East and North Xinjiang (I didn’t see any rice in Kashgar).
In particular, you can find the fried rice cooked with vegetable oil, carrots and mutton meat. It’s quite tasty but be careful because it’s not so easy to digest.
This dish is called polu in Uyghur and zhua fan in Mandarin.
Naan (flat bread)
In Xinjiang you’ll find the naan. It usually cooked in a portable oven and sold on the street (see photos below).
The technique for cooking the bread is quite interesting as the baker pastes the bread on the internal side of the oven.
This guy was selling his bread in Hemu, a touristic village in North Xinjiang.
This is another dish that I love. I order it every time that I go eating in a Xinjiang restaurant. The pastries are generally filled with mutton meat.
Fish from the Altai lakes
Xinjiang isn’t the place to go for eating fish as it’s one of the further regions from the sea in the whole world (together with Kazakhstan). However in the Altai mountains there are several lakes and you can get some fresh fish.
I find it to be expensive (but in Altai everything is expensive) and not really tasty. So I won’t recommend it to you. However I may be biased as I come from Sardinia, an Italian island where the fish is particularly good.
As I said, you’ll find a lot of fruit in Xinjiang. But what caught my attention were the figs that I saw (and ate) in Kashgar because so far I had only see figs in the Mediterranean countries.
So I want to let you with some nice photos of figs.
I must thank Grace for pointing out, in the comments below, some mistakes in the names of the dishes.
Do you like mutton meat? What’s your favorite Chinese dish?
Photo Credits: Photos by Sapore di Cina
Gulbanu Mohammed says
you know a lot about Xinjiang, and thank you for that. Urumqi is my hometown. we have different food with Chinese, also Chinese love it. I can cook Xinjiang food, my classmates said it’s amazing. i’m happy for that they like it.
Furio Fu says
Hello Mohammed, thank yuo for your message. Yes, I love Xinjiang food : )
this is not chinese food!!(as some refer!!)
UIGHUR- culturally,racially,lingusticly and ethnically different people!
Chinese always hated lam/mutton meat and never ever eaten!
Now they became more clever and eat it with pleasure.
Furio Fu says
yeah, this is clearly specified on both the title and the article!
Sborto Zhou says
At the present moment Uighur people are Chinese people. Xinjiang food is not Han food but still is Chinese food. Chinese and Han Chinese is not the same.
I was wondering if food in xingjiang restaurant and mainly meat is halal ?
By halal i mean that the animal has been slaughtered according to muslim ritual.
Also i there any certificate for those restaurant slaughtering according to muslim ritual ?
Thanks in advance.
Sborto Zhou says
If the food is prepared by Uigur people (the Muslim minority in Xinjiang), the meat is probably halal, about the certification some of the best restaurants have it, but I doubt it for small Xinjiang restaurants (the most common), also you can try the Hui minority restaurants (also Muslim), you can recognize them because the people of wear white caps (in Xian there’s a big community). Anyway, I think you can ask the waiters before eating.
I’m a 19yo Turkish guy from Holland, backpacking through China right now.
When I first came here I was reaaally surprised that there was Halal food here. The food does indeed taste like Turkish food! We also use tons of onion and tomato in pretty much every meal. And the kebabs ofc.
Watching them stretch and roll the noodle-dough into actual noodles is pretty cool haha. I’d wish Chinese people would do that as well. Tastes much better.
Stumbled upon the website looking for a working VPN.
You post some nice stuff. Absolutely checking out more of it, keep it up. :)
Furio Fu says
Hello, the Uyghur culture is very close to the Turkish one. In fact, for what I know also the Uyghur language is very close to Turkish
Those are not Chinese food. One should not mix them. Since Uyghur are not Chinese ethnic. They share different background, culture, language and belief. It’s always wise to Google who “Uyghur People” are if one does not clarify. You’ll find that they are Turkic, an ethnic group nothing to do with typical Chinese. I mean putting up the title like “Chinese muslim” would be greatly misleading, especially for readers who have no knowledge about Uyghur. Just a reminder and I love Uyghur food a lot, enjoy guys! : )
Furio Fu says
Thank you for the comment! However all you said is clearly explained on the first 3 paragraphs of the article : )
Wow, cool. These pics already made my mouth watering … lol
Furio Fu says
Thanks a lot for reminding and sharing~
Thanks for the great post about Xinjiang food which represents Uyghur and other ethnic groups food who are living in Xinjiang. The list is fairly complete with the contribution by Grace who I assume is native to Xinjiang and Josh who call Xinjiang as a second home after lived there. Love the pics, it made my mouth watering while reading it. I’ve been to Shanghai couple of times and tried different Xinjiang restuarants there, absolutely loved it and price is affordable.
Qayyum, I’ glad you liked the article : )
found you through your mention of dongbei cai (also one of my favorite cuisines).
However, you missed out on my three favorite Xinjiang dishes (from our local Xinjiang restaurant in Yinchuan):
1 – Nang chao kao rou 馕炒烤肉 – that nang bread is fried together with mutton and onions with a cumin seasoning – it may sound strange, but it is fantastic.
2- xin jiang da ban cai 新疆打扮菜- A colddish with slivers of mutton atop cucumber, green peppers, and tomato in a garlicky sauce. Also delicious.
3. ding ding chao mian – 丁丁炒面 – short stumps of noodles fried with small chunks of mutton and tomato. Tasty.
I’m almost sure that I tried the first and the third dish you mentioned, but not in Xinjiang. There is a great Xinjiang restaurant in Yan An Road, Shanghai. I’m not sure that I know the second though.
Ian Price says
Why do you give many of the names of the food in Chinese? The
dishes are Uyghur and you should give their Uyghur names.
I also have a copy of tour travel book which has some great photos in it but,
in my opinion, your book is slanted towards the Chinese rather than giving an emphasis to the Uyghurs.
thank you for your comment
I like to only talk about what I know. I don’t speak Uyghur so for me it’s difficult to figure out the exact names. I would rather say nothing that say something false.
If you know the names in Uyghur just let a comment with them and I will update the article : )
Here is a list of the names of the food you mentioned here in Uyghur language (in Latin script. I wanted to type in the Arabic script, but to keep it simple for English speakers), followed by their Chinese names used by the local Han Chinese or Hui:
Your Roasted mutton kebabs: in Uyghur “kawap,” in local Chinese 烤肉/kao rou
Your Da pan ji: correct. It doesn’t have a Uyghur language name. Uyghur people also called it da pan ji. In Chinese is the same 大盘鸡/da pan ji. It was originally not a Uyghur dish, most probably a Hui dish or maybe Han, but all groups love it and eat it either at home or in restaurants. Of course the foreign tourists like it too I could see.
Your Lamian: in Uyghur “laghman” (the gh together indicates the voiced uvular fricative consonant), in local Chinese 拉条子/la tiao zi. (the origin of laghman is actually unknown, is it a Uyghur dish, or Hui dish or Han dish? Oh man, does it really matter?)
Also, the 3rd picture under your ‘lamian” is not laghman/拉条子, it’s call 凉面/liang mian (English translation cold noodles), a totally different dish. It’s vegetarian. Maybe that’s why you’re disappointed. tIt’s not a Uyghur dish. It’s actually a Hui dish. So there is no Uyghur word for it. Uyghur people call it liang mian too. Together with 凉皮子/liang pizi and 凉粉/liang fen，they are the proud tradition of the Hui people. They originated in the Gangsu and Ningxia area and were brought into Xinjiang. But again, now every group like it. Actually, it’s a common scene in the summer that a Uyghur lad selling kawap and a middle-aged Hui woman selling liangpizi partner up, because this combination is very popular when the weather is warm and you sit and eat outside.
Your “chao fan”: Wrong. Sorry. In Uyghur it’s polu (it’s actually kind of pilaf or plot, but I personally think it’s the best kind). In local Chinese 抓饭/zhua fan (I personally don’t like the Chinese translation. But oh well). So even your Chinese name here chao fan is wrong. Chao fan refers to something else, that has different varieties in other provinces.
naan: correct. In Chinese 馕／nang. But ‘Muslim bread” in the brackets is misleading. Why not just delete it? Hui people are Muslims too, they don’t really make this. This is a skill mostly unique to the Uyghur people. Plus naan or na’an was just a Persian word that made its way into West, Central and South Asia where people who made flatbread of different kinds.
Other terms are fine.
Finally, to you and to the commentators here, I just want to point out that maybe for tourists it’s interesting to argue which group owns which food, but to the locals who have lived here all their lives, it’s not that a meaning argument. Each group has their typical food but there’s mutual learning and borrowing too. Each group cook and eat all the foods you mentioned, with adaptations and variations. Because food is part of cultures in its plural form. And it mingles and changes. Do you know that hotpot/火锅is getting popular among the Uyghur people and some Chinese dishes (the Halal ones of course) are served at weddings? And in daily lives, we don’t really talk about “let’s go to this Uyghur food restaurant” or Chinese restaurant. We say, “hey I heard there is such such restaurant where da pan ji is really good. Let’s go.” The most important difference in food practice between the Muslims and non-Muslims here, as I see it, is if it’s halal or not. And we the locals (who have lived here for generations. I don’t know the newly immigrated though) all have the tacit knowledge what food was originated by who and who do the best in what kind of food. I wouldn’t go to a naan tandoor or kawap stall if that’s run by a Han person, because I know they don’t specialize in making them. But for da pan ji, Uyghur, or Hui, or Kazakh, or Han can all do it very well. For the tourists our food’s exotic. For us, it’s daily life.
There’s so much diversity and variation, even within each group. It’s hard to generalize.
My two cents.
correction: I meant “plot” not “plot”
this is one of the best comments on the blog! Thanks for all the corrections, One of these days I’ll change the article.
I was just a traveler in Xinjiang, not an expert at all : )
If you want to write an article about Xinjiang culture and traditions I will be happy to publish it (with your name of course).
thanks again for the long comment!
Great photo essay, Furio! The food of Xinjiang is by far one of the most fascinating parts of traveling to the region. If I could, I would add a few more items to your list including pomegranates, samsa, Uyghur ice cream, and sanzi. Give those a try next time you’re traveling through.
thank you for your comment!
I tried the ice cream just beside the Pamir Hostel, close to the Id Kah of Kashgar, and it wasn’t bad : )
Yea, it’s definitely interesting! Some people love the ice cream and others hate it.
Oh, and by the way I accidentally passed up the samsa photo you took. Looks like you’ve already had the chance to enjoy it!
Wait, the samsa are the one I called “Savory pastries”? In this case I should change the name hehe
Also, I love them. I order it every time I eat Xinjiang food in Shanghai, that is quite often
Yup…”Samsa” is the Uyghur name for them or 烤包子 (kǎo bāozi) in Mandarin. Incredibly good, aren’t they?!
Here’s an article I wrote just on this one food: http://www.farwestchina.com/2009/03/xinjiangs-best-food-samsa_19.html
Hehe yeah, if you like sheep meat they are great!
You know? I have a little group of sheep behind my backyard.
The ram has three year and it is time for his butchering. I really appreciated your pictures of chinese dishes. I have to learn how well preparing and conserving the meat of my mutton. Think that its weight is almost 80 kg like me …
Merry Christmas everywhere you are Furio.
haha that must be a lot of meat! Good luck with it and merry xmas to you too.