How One Muslim Food Culture Could Disappear
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you have to taste a culture to understand it.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
The small, boisterous Muslim Quarter in southwest Beijing is up in flames — flames, that is, from smoking charcoal grills. Lamb skewers sizzle with chili, cumin and numbing Szechuan peppercorns, while bronze-skinned Uighur men with embroidered skullcaps break freshly toasted naan together. One agile vendor stretches fresh dough into laghman noodles and finishes it off with a mound of chili, Chinese cabbage, spring onions, ginger, garlic and sautéed beef.
After one spoonful of tangy yogurt drizzled with sweet honey, golden raisins and crushed walnuts, I want to smack my housemate for still buying Yoplait.
For me, it’s a welcome respite from the greasy noodles and lard-heavy pork dishes that dominate the food scene in the rest of Beijing. But to outside palates, Uighur cuisine tastes closer to its -stani neighbors in Central Asia than to the Han majority in China that culturally eclipses the nation’s Turkish minority. On a Friday afternoon after the Jumu’ah call to prayer, I stroll into a cozy enclave for Muslim Uighurs near Niu Jie (Ox Street) in Beijing. Here, everything from flaky, lamb-filled bread buns to lemon-tinged pomegranate tea can satisfy. After one spoonful of tangy yogurt drizzled with sweet honey, golden raisins and crushed walnuts, I want to smack my housemate for still buying Yoplait.
Uighur food is made all the more irresistible by its growing “forbidden fruit” status. It hails from a western frontier caught up in a targeted state campaign to crack down on terrorism in Xinjiang province. Although the western part of China has a long historical relationship with Islam, today the region is shunned as a cradle for separatist tendencies and popular unrest among Muslim minorities who make up less than 1 percent of the country’s total population. These days, Xinjiang’s culture and its deepening political fissures with the Communist Party fall into a media blackout and informational black hole.
You can still stumble across the cloistered region’s food, culture and people, who have migrated some 2,000 miles eastward to Beijing and into the winding back alleyways of Niu Jie. A tip for the uninitiated: Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty — let the juices of the beef-filled flatbread drip from your lips and the garlicky steam of the pumpkin dumplings float into your hungry soul. It’s the proper way to enjoy Uighur food, in all its messy pleasures.