Uyghur food, unsurprisingly, has far more of a Central Asian than a Chinese flavour. The most basic staple – which often seems to be the only food available – is laghman, known in Chinese as lamian, literally “pulled noodles”. Watching these being made to order is greatly entertaining: the cook grabs both ends of a roll of elastic dough and pulls it into a long ribbon by stretching his arms apart; he then slaps it down onto a floured counter, and brings his hands together to join the ends of the dough, so forming two ribbons. These are slapped again, pulled again, the cook once more rejoins his hands to make four ribbons; and the process is repeated, doubling the number of ribbons each time, until a mass of thin, metre-long noodles is strung between the cook’s hands. The “handles” of surplus dough are torn off either end, and the noodles dropped into boiling water to cook for a couple of minutes. The speed at which a skilled cook transforms the raw dough into a bowlful of noodles, banging, pulling, and managing to keep all the strands separate, is incredible.
In Xinjiang, laghman is served with a stew of mutton, tomatoes, chilli and other vegetables; rather different from the more soupy version sold elsewhere in China. For the same spicy sauce but without the noodles, try tohogish (known in Chinese as dapan ji), a chicken served chopped up in its entirety, head, feet and all; or jerkob, a beef stew – both are served in smarter restaurants. Coriander leaf is used as a garnish on everything.
In summer, apart from laghman, street vendors also offer endless cold noodle soup dishes, usually very spicy. Rice is rare in Xinjiang, though it does appear in the saffron-coloured pilau, comprising fried rice and hunks of mutton. More familiar to foreigners are the skewers of grilled mutton kebabs, dusted with chilli and cumin powder – buy several of them at once, as one skewer does not make much more than a mouthful. They are often eaten with delicious glasses of ice-cold yoghurt (known in Chinese as suannai), which are available everywhere in Xinjiang. Tea often comes flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and rose hips.
Oven-baked breads are also popular in markets: you’ll see bakers apparently plunging their hands into live furnaces, to stick balls of dough on to the brick-lined walls; these are then withdrawn minutes later as bagel-like bread rolls, and naan flat breads, or sometimes permuda (known in Chinese as kaobao), tasty baked dough packets of mutton and onions, which can also be fried – as samsa – rather than baked. The steamed version, manta, recalls Chinese dumplings or mantou.
A couple of other specialities are worth trying: madang is nougat thick with walnuts, raisins, and dried fruit, sold by pedlars who carve the amount you want (or usually, more than you want – it’s sold by weight) off massive slabs of the stuff. More refreshing is that characteristic Central Asian fruit, the pomegranate, known as shiliu in Chinese; they’re about the size of an apple, with leathery yellow and red skin, and packed with hundreds of juicy, ruby-red seeds. You can find them whole at markets, or buy the juice off street vendors – look for the piles of skins and the juicing machines, which resemble a large, spiky torture implement.