Western diners are scratching the surface of Chinese cuisine, awakening to the incredible diversity of China’s regional cooking.
It’s a development that Aucklanders can run with – we are a city that has grown rapidly to become one-fifth Chinese. From inner-city holes-in-the-wall to the banqueting halls of outskirt suburbs, Auckland is home to a spectrum of Chinese regional cuisine. (Not that this choice is easy to navigate – often when the primary market is local Chinese who know what they want, menus don’t provide any context, or do justice to the distinctiveness of a dish….)
One extreme of the spectrum of Chinese food styles is the cuisine of Chinese Muslims in the north-west province of Xinjiang. It is shrouded in the flavours of central Asia, particularly pungent is that most un-Chinese spice, cumin seed.
The Turkish-style lamb kebabs that can be found in Xinjiang are flecked in cumin and chilli and served with a flat round bread called nan. These kebabs have become a popular street food throughout China as emigrants from this impoverished desert province have taken the distinctive dish to China’s booming cities.
Legend is that Persian soldiers used to grill meat on their swords, beginning the tradition of skewering meat into kebabs that spread through the Middle East, the Balkans and into Asia over the last few millennia.
The infamous Silk Road, which ran from China to the West until the 15th Century, passed through Xinjiang, and many influences were left behind.
Fuschia Dunlop, a contemporary English food writer, recounts a visit to Xinjiang in her memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper:
“The crowds milled around, talking and shouting in a melodic, guttural tongue that sounded like Turkish. The air was filled with the punchy scent of cumin from sizzling kebabs…. I found it hard to believe that I was still in China. The only reminder was the occasional street or shop sign, with Chinese characters alongside the local, Arabic-based script.”
Dunlop has spent long periods in China, including training as a chef (the first ever foreigner) at the elite Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.
The Uyghur people of the Xinjiang province are one of China’s official ‘ethnic minorities.’ Dunlop says they have more in common with central Asians of Turk descent than with the Han Chinese though both food cultures are present in Xinjiang’s towns and cities.
“The spice stalls sell the familiar aromatics of Chinese cookery – Sichuan pepper, star anise, Chinese cardamom and fennel – but they also dispense herbs and flavourings redolent of central Asia: saffron, green cardamom, safflower and rose petals. And while they drink tea, constantly, like the Chinese, they show their nomadic heritage in their liking for yoghurt or other dairy foods,” says Dunlop.
Because the Uyghurs are Islamic, their food doesn’t feature pork, which is China’s most popular meat. Lamb is used a lot, unusual in Chinese cuisine.
In recent years China has pushed a flow of investment into these poorer western regions. Dunlop says increasingly the towns are now looking, “like anywhere else in China, with its dull apartment blocks and shopping malls, its karaoke bars and mobile phone stores…” But the ancient bazaars with the Arabic script and smells of cumin, for now, feel, “More like Marrakech than Beijing.”
(You can read more about Xinjiang by Fuschia Dunlop in this article from Gourmet magazine.)
Where to eat Xinjiang kebabs in Auckland
Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle Bar on Dominion Road is certainly pungent with cumin seed. They do a plate of the lamb kebabs (12 for $10).
They also have another Uyghur specialty, hand-pulled noodles – which are irregular-width dense noodle strands also served with lamb, cumin and chilli. And they do a ‘Chinese burger’, a small thick flatbread, stuffed with lamb and similar flavours.
Dining guide Eat Here Now, which is a real asset in navigating Asian cuisine in Auckland, called the burger one of their best finds of 2012.
Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle Bar
636 Dominion Road, Balmoral, ph (09) 623 6298
How to make Xinxiang kebabs
At its most basic, lamb pieces are doused with chilli flakes, cumin seed, salt and pepper, skewered and chargrilled. Fuschia Dunlop says a little of the fat from the lamb’s tail is a delicacy included on the skewer in Xinjiang.
Here is a recipe for the kebabs on The Hungry Australian blog, which has a few more spices thrown in, including Sichuan pepper. The Hungry Australian’s description of how these were a favourite takeaway food when living as an expat in Shanghai brings the story of this travelling street food full circle.