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They may only be a small percentage of the population – 1.7% to be exact – but the Muslim population in China has a distinct culinary culture.
There are two major Muslim ethnic groups in China: The Hui and the Uyghurs. While these two communities share the same religion and base ingredients, their respective cuisines are quite different.
The Hui people – based primarily in Ningxia province and dispersed all throughout Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Tibet – have a cuisine called qingzhen, which translates to “pure truth.” The word qing is also a homophone for the colour blue-green, and the restaurants all have signs of that very colour, which is a clear indication that the food is halal.
Kebabs, or chuan er, are a delicious Hui treat and are usually doused with a thick coating of cumin. Muslim Chinese food tends to be a bit spicy, and a lot of New World crops like potatoes, tomatoes, and bell peppers have become an integral part of the cuisine.
Lamb is a favourite and everything, from the intestines to the brain, is cooked and consumed.
Lanzhou noodles are also very popular. There are now more than 20,000 Lanzhou noodle shops spread across the country. The dish is a clear soup, chock full of turnip and tender beef raised in farmlands just outside of Lanzhou, ladled on top of hand-pulled chewy noodles and flavoured with a mix of chillies and peppercorns that numbs the tongue delightfully.
In contrast to the Hui, the Uyghurs are of mostly Muslim Turkic descent and are located primarily in Xinjiang, a far northwest autonomous region in China that borders Russia, Afghanistan, and India. They have a distinctly Eurasian look and have retained their own language. Uyghur cuisine draws from Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese influences.
Pilaf cooked with lamb fat is found everywhere, as well as laghman – handmade noodles topped with ground lamb, potato, tomato, onion, and capsicum. A dish called da pan ji – big plate chicken, such a great name – a spicy stewed chicken dish with hot chillies and capsicums, most commonly ladled over noodles is unique to the Uyghurs. They also have their own version of naan bread, cooked in a tandoor oven, and a bread called girda naan which looks and tastes exactly like a bagel.
So with so much great spring lamb in the shops, now’s is a great time to try some Chinese Islamic cuisine
Hui cuisine is focused on noodles and is more Chinese in taste, whereas Uyghur food has more of a Turkic influence. Both are heavy-handed in their use of lamb, beef, cumin, and wheat.
Make a change from your local takeout and try cooking something unique.