Lots of Westerners in China say they love Chinese food. I’m not one of them. It’s mostly slimy combinations of vegetables I wouldn’t make my kids eat, with meat that is old and unidentifiable. I used to joke with the folks back home that during The Great Leap Forward there wasn’t much around to cook, so all the Chinese mamas learned to make do with the unthinkable, and then they developed a taste for it.
The “unthinkable" were things like certain weeds (dandelions), different body parts of animals dried in a variety of ways (duck neck, what a treat!) and don’t forget about stinking tofu. This little treat is available in Nanjing at Fuzimiao. It smells like something dead, but the Nanjingers really like it.
But there is one type of Chinese cuisine that has to be some of the best food in the world, and that is Chinese Muslim food. Muslim food in China is primarily characterized by warm soft noodles, with the right combination of stir fried vegetables, grilled lamb and beef, out of this world kebabs, thick breads and sumsa’s, which are little oven baked dumplings filled with delicious vegetables and meat.
Each part of China has its own population of Muslims that cooks food similar to their own location, but each major city seems to attract Muslim immigrants from Xinjiang and Gansu, two western provinces with large Muslim populations. It is the food of Xinjiang and Gansu that seems to be most available, and imitated in restaurants. (It's also the food discussed in this article, as some Muslim restaurants in Nanjing lean towards the Indian/Pakistani fare, which is really very different cuisine.)
To find great Muslim food in Nanjing, Muslims will actually joke, "Go to the Mosque and make some friends!" But if you're not Muslim, or aren’t interested in trying to be one just to get great food, you can try Aladdin’s, located behind the Sheraton Hotel in Xinjiekou. At Aladdin’s, dishes run from a couple yuan for a kebab, to around 100 yuan for beef and chicken delicacies.
You can also just walk down the street. Small vendors are everywhere if you keep your eyes open. Just look for signs with Muslim symbols like the crescent moon, pictures of mosques, or Arabic writing. You can also look out for cooks wearing doppas, which are circular hats that Muslim men from Central Asia typically wear.
In Nanjing, one of the major areas for Muslim restaurants is the side streets of the Nanjing University Campus. On one street alone there are 3 different Muslim restaurants, each one with a line of regulars who claim their restaurant makes better kebab's and bread than all the other guys. (Really, they're all pretty good.) Each restaurant runs a little more expensive than the others, but in this neighborhood, you can find a plate of noodles for 7 yuan, and you can find more expensive grilled dishes, too. Other good places to look include the side streets in the Xinjiekou area, or the restaurants outside the Zhonghuamen gate, where you can find many smaller Muslim vendors.
Also, this author must concede, that although the food at these smaller restaurants is very good, the atmosphere usually isn’t. If you feel you have to, bring your sanitizer and never look too long at the floors.
That being said, here is a list of 4 typical dishes you can enjoy at a Muslim restaurant of your choice:
1. Lamian [拉面 | lāmiàn]
In Nanjing, this is sometimes called “Xinjiang mian.” It’s a simple dish of soft handmade noodles topped with spicy vegetables and seasoning. The noodles are pulled by hand and boiled when you order, so they are usually fantastic. This dish is usually greasy, but soooo delicious.
2. Kebab [烤肉串 | kǎoròuchuàn]
Muslims are most famous for their lamb and beef kebab’s or chuanr, which are seasoned with a combination of cumin and hot, hot pepper and grilled over coals until perfect. Something fun about kebabs is you can buy them from a single guy on a street corner, (usually for about a yuan a piece) or at a larger more expensive location. It doesn’t really matter where you buy the kebab from, it will taste the same - delicious!
Muslims also roast other meats in special ovens. Smaller restaurants usually have lamb, beef, and chicken to choose from on a small scale. Some restaurants in Nanjing will roast an entire lamb or rack of beef if ordered ahead of time.
3. Nang [馕 | náng]
There are various types of breads you can order at a Muslim restaurant, but the most famous is a flat round loaf of bread about the size of a Frisbee. They call it nang. It has a mild flavor and is sometimes topped with sesame seeds, or oil and seasoning. Unless ordered fresh, it can be very brittle. But most restaurants will grill the bread and also season it when ordered as a side to your dish, which changes the texture and flavor immediately.
Sumsa are like baked dumplings, my husband compares them to a pizza pocket. These little goodies are also found in Indian cuisine, as well as that of Xinjiang and other central Asian countries, but all taste a little different. The Xinjiang variety have a soft, chewy crust and are typically filled with lamb and onions. Another benefit is they are usually cheap! Even the higher end restaurants sell them as an extra, usually 3 yuan a piece.
*Just as a voice of warning to Muslims who are looking for a Halal source of food, some Muslim restaurants in Nanjing simply cook Muslim recipes; they aren't actual Muslim establishments interested in using Halal food. So if you are looking for a Halal source, just ask ahead of time and see if the particular restaurant does actually use Halal foods.
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