Friday, July 14, 2006

Uighur Cuisine

Intrepid. Vanguard. Trendspotters. So next week. Yep, that’s us. Helen and I set off on another adventure to the frontiers of cuisine; (music swells) to boldly go … you know the rest. And this time it really is a frontier in many senses of the word. In Australia we have myriad Asian regional restaurants, but I’d never heard of this one (not even on Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia) which of course is like showing a cat a closed door – it has to get to the other side.

Uighur (or sometimes spelled Uigyur, Uygur, and Uyghur, and pronounced “ee-yoo-wher-ger”, or as close as I can make out anyway from the quick lesson I had on Uighur language from the very helpful staff member) restaurants are springing up like autumn mushrooms around Sydney. As we trekked to our destination I kept seeing more of them – was it a conspiracy?

(meat in special Uihgur pastry, left)

But I digress. I’m sure you want to know more before we get to the food. Think Silk Road. Think Tibet and go up north a bit. Next time your up Everest, stand on the climber you’ve trampled over to get there and look over the edge – you can see it from there. The Uyghur are one of the 56 ethnic groups recognised in PRo China and although they live towards the China/former Soviet border, near the Pakistan/ Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan end, they are genetically closer to Turkish people than Chinese. Many Uyghur also live in parts of Russia, Turkey and throughout mainland China (and Sydney, it seems, as well – will their world domination ever cease?). In China they mainly live in Xinjiang province (which means ‘new frontier’ in Han Chinese).

Epitomised by the legendary Silk Road which runs through the region, Uighur cuisine is a melange of middle east, east and west. And as the predominant religion is Sunni Muslim, their food is also halal. So pork lovers, shove off.

(Spinach salad, left, Lamb kebab, below left)

So, here we are cross legged in our yurt ready to chow down, Uighur style. What do we see? Grape vines. No, really – it’s important. Know your Uighur restaurant by its artificial grape arbour, strung over the ceiling with leaves (sometimes in autumnal colours, but not today) and dangling bunches of red and green plastic grapes. You know I can’t resist asking such an important cultural question. For the Uighur this creates a pleasant atmosphere that reminds them of back home, where planted grape vines grow across the streets in summer, creating a cool haven. I’m told there is also tradition of homemade wine, but I can’t yet work out how this fits with Islam. Maybe next time. You’ll also see the walls bedecked with artefacts and crafts from the region as you listen to Uighur music piped through the room.

Walking through the entrance, you almost have to do an olfactory double take, because the scent of Turkish kebab shops is unmistakable. And indeed the lamb kebab (koy gosh kawapi $10 for 5 skewers) is one of their signature dishes. We choose the 5 skewers as we’re not quite hungry enough for the $350 whole lamb kebab. They’re crisply grilled and aromatic with chilli, lemon and what tastes like oregano. The meat isn’t quite as tender as it could be , but the flavour is pleasing. Unfortunately this is where much Uighur food may part company with the Western palate. Many of the dishes are more heavily laden with an animal fat taste (specifically lamb fat) than we’re used to with the influx of so much Mediterranean and lighter Cantonese and Thai cuisines, with their lean sweet and sour balances. Over two visits we tried the fried dumplings (tawa ban shir $7.80 for a dozen, pictured below), meat in special Uihgur pastry (gosh nun $10), and braised and steamed Uighur dumplings (Hoshang $8 for 5, and a bit like Russian piroshki, pictured above) all of which have a similar filling, are pretty heavy on the lamb fat, and not highly spiced enough to cut through the greasy taste and smell. But I guess that’s what you want when you’ve been out milking your yak at -20°C with the wind whipping off the steppes.

We’ve heard Uighur noodles are special, so undaunted by the likelihood of a high GI carbohydrate overdose, we try a long handmade noodle with chicken and vegetables (guiru laghman $8.50) and a square cut noodle with beef and vegetables (manpar saomin $7.80 both pictured below). As our blood sugars go off the scale, we find the noodles, while very filling, are a bit on the bland and starchy side unlike their finer and tastier Cantonese cousins. The stir fry sauce is spicy and a little vinegary, the vegetables crisp and crunchy, a welcome relief from the lamby dishes. The salad we choose is spicy spinach (palak hum sai $4.50) and its tart acidity also helps to cut through the fattier dishes. The meals are served with tea, unfortunately not very hot, but on our second visit we had a pretty brass tea pot.

Uighur cuisine might not be everyone’s cup of yak’s milk, but if you want to try something different, give it a go. Definitely try the kebabs, but my advice is to be judicious about the dumplings and noodles and select a couple of salads to balance out the meal. If you really baulk at a fatty meat taste, stay away from the dumplings and breads and go for the salads and stir fries. The servings are enormous, and we had piles left over to take away with us after the meals we had. The lasting impression is the service – the staff are extremely friendly and obliging, so much so that when I asked for a take away menu (you don’t think I remembered all those meal names off the top of my head, do you?) someone went down the road to a copy shop to photocopy the laminated restaurant menu. Nice :).

Uighur Cuisine
Shop 1, 2 Dixon St.,

(See also Silk Road restaurant next door and upstairs for similar choices - and if you go there, write about it and tell me what you think!)


Blogger Helen (AugustusGloop) said...

Just looking at those dumplings reminds of that fatty aftertaste of lamb =)

You're putting me to shame with your speediness. Will have to get to uploading my own take on Uighur Restaurant on-the-double!

10:44 AM  
Blogger Reb said...

Aww - but remember I'm on holidays and I have more time for frivolity! Those square cut noodles weren't that great as leftover either - they went a tough.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do you have a receipe for the
piroshkis pictured on your page?

Do you know who might make them in Brisbane?


9:59 AM  
Blogger Reb said...

Hi Rachel - no I don't have a recipe and unfortunately I'm not at all familiar with Brisbane food outlets. I know there's a guy in Sydney who sells something similar at the Fox Studio Markets, so next time I'm there I'll ask him if he know's producers in other states. But for the moment, I'm really sorry but I can't help you :(

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

woooo... wonderfol . I also had been in the Eastern Turkistan - Uighur (Uyghur ) homeland ...

6:03 AM  

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