My first encounter with Uyghur food was in the summer of 2007. I left on a 30-hour train from Xi’an, and got off in Turpan – a different world. Over the next few weeks, I became well-aquainted with laghman, kavap, polo, chuchvara, and other Uyghur foods as I traveled through Urumqi, westwards to Kashgar, and along the southern edge of the Tarim Basin to Hotan.
Seven years since, those places and that food have become almost mythical to me. Uyghur and Central Asian food has been a rare treat for me wherever I could find it – whether it be a Uyghur restaurant in Montreal’s Chinatown that has long since closed, or an Uzbek restaurant in Seoul’s “Little Central Asia.”
Here are a few of my culinary obsessions:
A person could cook plov for years and never fully master it. Every time I cook plov, I learn something new about my technique, and find someplace to improve. There are so many variables – the choice of rice, the soaking time, the amount of oil, the amount of water, how much you cook the rice, how long you steam it – and countless different variations in the technique. Here is my post about cooking plov.
I have yet to find a restaurant that makes the hand-pulled, bouncy, chewy noodles like in Xinjiang. Same for “suoman” – pulled flat noodle pieces. Even the sauce does not taste quite the same as in Xinjiang – rich and savory with tomato, with a touch of sweet. Here is my post about cooking laghman.
3. Nan bread
I’ve had some decent renditions of laghman, but nowhere else in the world have I had any bread that comes remotely close to Uyghur bread in Xinjiang – specifically, the big disc-shaped bread that is flat in the middle, oily, and flavored with onion and spices. Uzbek restaurants make a type of bread called “lepeshka”, but this is often doughy and minimally flavored. Here is my post about baking nan bread: Uyghur nan bread and Uzbek nan bread.
Over the years, I searched for Uyghur recipes in an attempt to make it myself, but found almost nothing on the English-speaking web. Only recently did I discover that there is a wealth of information about Uyghur and Central Asian cooking available in Russian. It makes sense, given that most of Central Asia used to be part of the Soviet Union, and there are many expatriate Uyghurs living in these countries.
My two biggest resources have been:
1. Stalic Khankishiev. He is an amateur-turned-celebrity chef who runs a livejournal with detailed recipes and beautiful photos, and there are countless Youtube videos of his cooking shows. He’s also written several books, which I will review in another post. He is fairly well known in Russia, where most people are familiar with Central Asian food (almost all Russians have tried plov and shashlik, for example).
2. Abdulaziz Salavat. He is a professional chef who runs a Youtube channel with lots of detailed videos about Uyghur cooking.
Trying these recipes myself as someone who rarely cooked before, I found most of these recipes quite simple and forgiving for a beginning cook. It’s a blend of Eastern and Western cooking: like Eastern cooking, most dishes are simply fried or stewed without the complicated procedures of Western cooking; like Western cooking, many dishes are cooked relatively slowly, and the ingredients are few and easy to find in NYC groceries: meat, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, cumin, flour.
You may notice that I generally do not give measurements or quantities in my recipes. This is because the measurements and fussy parts of cooking were what turned me off from it originally. I like cooking simple food. I don’t mind labor intensive dishes, but I don’t like overly complicated recipes or too many ingredients. I never measure anything. Generally, your own common sense for the amounts will do just fine. The pictures should help give you an idea of proportions. If the proportions make or break the dish, I will point it out.
I am far from an expert on Central Asian food. With this blog, I will chronicle my experiences in cooking, and hope to share what I learn with others who want to recreate this amazing food at home. I appreciate any advice you have.
All photos on this site are my own work unless a different source is mentioned.