Naan bread from Xinjiang. Photo: flickr.com
If you've travelled to a Chinese city, chances are you've had a few meals of mystery meat at a sketchy outdoor stall. Urumqi is no different, but with its large Muslim population, the street food here is much more Middle Eastern in character. Instead of stinky tofu, rice and chicken feet, expect to find a lot of bread, fruit, yoghurt and endless lamb.
The Grand Bazaar is still the first stop for hungry travellers, but any place with a Mosque will also have some Muslim street restaurants outside. Just keep an eye out for long beards and tall minarets. For Han Chinese food, check outside of malls and big clothes markets.
If you want a really authentic experience, walk down the Muslim alleys near the Grand Bazaar. There is a long cramped alley parallel to Jiefang Lu, stretching from the Grand Bazaar to Nanmen. The alley is squeezed tight with people selling clothes, electronics and street food. Be warned – the butchers down this road have no qualms about bleeding, slaughtering, skinning and jointing their sheep right out in public. If you've got a weak stomach, you may wish to skip this part of the tour.
Here are some of the snacks you'll find on these streets:
1) Naan Bread | 馕
Naan is a wheel of thin herbed bread, usually kneaded and baked in big tandoors right in front of you. Prices depend on the size – a big one should cost no more than 3 RMB.
Naan is delicious when it's warm and crunchy from the oven, but absolutely unpalatable after it cools down. If you get a cold one, ask the server to “jia re” and they will pop it back in the oven for you.
Price: 1-3 RMB/each
2) Meat-stuffed Naan |肉馕
Meat-stuffed naan is the sexed-up, mouth-watering cousin of regular naan, stuffed with meat, onions and herbs. Local gourmets insist that these meaty pies inspired Marco Polo to bring pizza back to Italy, although the claim is dubious.
Don't indulge too heavily in these unless gaining weight's your thing.
Price: 5-8 RMB/pie
3) Roast Baozi | 考包子
Forget about the dry, doughy steamed buns you get in other parts of China. In Xinjiang, dumplings are thin dough envelopes, stuffed full with chopped meat and spices and roasted crunchy in a tandoor.
Roast baozi come in two sizes. Usually, they're about the size of a handful and sell for 1.5 RMB; a few places only charge 1 RMB – these are worth remembering, since you'll find yourself finding excuses to come back. There are also big club-sandwich sized baozi for 5 RMB, but some scoundrels will try to charge as much as 8 RMB for them.
If you're lucky enough to be in town in autumn, keep an eye out for tasty pumpkin baozi.
Price: 1-2 RMB (small); 5-6 RMB (large)
4) Skewers | 考肉
Known to doctors as “heart attack on a stick,” skewers are available at every corner street market. Depending on the quality and cut of meat, most are 2-4 RMB, though the finer delicacies (like sheep hearts and kidneys) can cost as much as 18 RMB per stick.
For a really authentic experience, walk down the Uyghur alley near the Grand Bazaar (see above). The skewers there are 10 RMB and as long and thick as your forearm. Use a piece of naanto pull the meat chunks off the stick.
For a healthier option, try a corkscrew-shaped grain sausage (麦肠, mai chang), a deceptively vegetarian snack usually smothered in pepper and sold for as cheap as 1 RMB/stick.
If you're new to China, you might be under the gravely erroneous impression that Muslims don't drink alcohol. Luckily, one trip to a Xinjiang night market will correct your misperception. Not only are the locals no strangers to the bottle, but their beers are stronger and tastier than other Chinese brews.
At four percent minimum ABV, Sinkiang and Wusu (the two local brands) may not sound very intimidating, but compared to their three point something percent, flavourless Chinese competitors, they win hands down.
Both Sinkiang and Wusu come in a variety of flavours, and Sinkiang Black is one of the most popular. If you ever want to make Uyghur friends in a pinch, try toasting strangers at a night market. Most will happily join you and buy you a few more.
Price: 4-6 RMB/bottle.
Plov. Photo: flickr.com
6) Plov | 抓饭
Plov (a.k.a. Polo) is another staple of Central Asian cuisine, made of rice with lots of vegetables, lamb and buckets of oil. In Xinjiang, it's also cooked with raisins, giving the dish a sweet, fruity taste. For the best Plov, avoid the fancy restaurants by the Bazaar and look for back-alley restaurants with big rice-filled woks outside.
Price: 12-20 RMB/plate.
7) Butter Ice Cream
For a different flavour of ice cream, try this homemade treat in any Uyghur neighbourhood. Look for bearded old men spooning yellow ice cream out by the street side.
Price: 1 RMB/ cone.
8) Iced Yoghurt | 酸奶
When you want a cold dessert in the hot desert, yogurt sellers are ubiquitous. Usually you'll find them selling out of big ice-filled basins. Although it tastes good, the ice used to keep the yogurt cold is not reliably sanitary and is often blamed for travellers' diarrhoea. Don't overindulge if you plan to take any long bus trips.
Price: 2 RMB/cup
Xinjiang is famous for its agricultural products and sellers are everywhere. Count yourself especially lucky if you're there in season for fresh grapes.
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Keywords: street snacks Urumqi what to eat in Urumqi Urumqi street food Urumqi cuisine local delicacies Urumqi
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