Xinjiang: Culinary Crossroads?

A week ago today, my wife and I parted ways with my parents in Urumqi, marking the end of two weeks traveling in Xinjiang and the beginning of 10 days in Sichuan and Chongqing. Flying from Kashgar via Urumqi to Chengdu, we left behind the arid deserts of the Tarim Basin, skirting the Tibetan Plateau, only to descend at its western end through a thick cloud cover into the humid air of the Sichuan Basin. Located at opposite ends of the Earth’s largest, current orogenic event and separated by thousands of kilometers of mountains, deserts and grasslands, these two basins are– culinarily– worlds apart. Sichuanese cooking incorporates many historically “Chinese” methods of food preservation and fermentation (a later post). With a few notable exceptions, Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities use few of these techniques.

The Uighurs, a turkic people, are the largest ethnic group in the PRC’s eponymous Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Traveling with my parents and planning to cover thousands of miles, we organized a tour through the company Uighur Tours. The tour organizer, driver and guide were all Uighurs from Kashgar. The tour organizer and boss of Uighur Tours, Ali, spent hours customizing our trip and was very responsive to both emails and phone calls. Our guide, Hasan, was excellent. He spoke excellent English and fluent Mandarin. His knowledge was vast, his humor well-timed. Needless to say, I highly recommend their services to anyone considering a custom tour in the region. It is with debt to their guidance and translation that I was able to experience and learn about food preservation and fermentation among Uighurs and other non-Han ethnicities of the region.

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Naan, a leavened flatbread, is the Uighur’s most prevalent fermented food. “Uighurs can eat naan bread at every meal and never grow tired of it,” explained Hasan, “when we travel, we always carry plenty of naan.” Traveling nearly 300km every day, our driver, Korbun, made sure the car was well stocked, stopping at roadside tandoors each morning to guarantee freshness (and ensure a Halal supply of food in case lunch options were only Chinese). The roadside bakers we encountered universally use factory yeast to make naan. According to one baker, factory yeast provides a consistent rise, allowing him a degree of control and scaleability to production not afforded by wild yeast. Yet in villages, many homes still maintain starters composed entirely of wild yeasts. As guests in a village outside Kashgar, our host explained that her naan was made with a yeast starter recently transplanted from a neighbor’s supply. Typically, she bakes naan for home consumption in a tandoor in their courtyard. Occasionally, she will gather with neighbors and make big batches in a larger tandoor a few doors down. More than one Uighur explained that shelf life and flavor are the main difference between factory yeast naan and wild yeast naan. Fresh, both factory and wild yeasts make a similar product. Yet the naans made with factory yeasts begin to change flavor for the worse after only one day. In contrast, naan made with wild yeast is regularly stored (wrapped tightly in cloth or plastic) for a week or more without much degradation of flavor.

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Naan is ubiquitous in Xinjiang, but yogurt and yogurt products are certainly the second most prevalent fermented foods. Over two weeks of meals in Uighur establishments, we became connoisseurs of local yogurts, discussing its acidity, consistency, and mouthfeel. There were enormous differences in flavor, linked to source of milk and production technique. By visiting morning markets and talking with those who made and sold yogurt, we learned that the common variables of yogurt production (boiling time, cooling time, fermentation time, etc) differed greatly. Boiling times varied from person to person. Temperature is not rigorously controlled. None of methods we encountered fit within FDA guidelines for home production. That didn’t stop us from eating it. After all, Uighurs consume yogurt without any apparent fear of disease. What can explain this discrepancy between public health advice and seemingly contradictory practice?

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The oases of the Tarim Basin are historically home to Uighurs, but in the surrounding mountains and grasslands, there are many areas dominated by Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Mongols who also have a strong tradition of dairy products. The most common fermented food is a yogurt product called “korut,” a word used in Uighur, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh to refer to a thoroughly dehydrated ball of hardened yogurt. Korut in Ghulja’s markets made by Kazakhs varied greatly from those made fresh by Kyrgyz nomads in the Pamirs. This difference is rooted in variations in dehydration and drying techniques. Flavors also varied. Some korut are salty. Others are sweeter, others more sour. The saltier korut are easily stored. A Kyrgyz woman I met stores her yak-milk korut for upwards of a year. When needed, she rehydrates it by boiling then adds fresh yak cream for consumption over naan.

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Yogurt and naan production have corollaries in Central and Southern Asia, but the use of yeast and bacteria among the Hui and Han of Xinjiang looks eastwards. The use of crocks (坛子, tanzi) is common in both Han and Hui communities. A spicy Hui-made paocai (fermented cabbage and other vegetables) was found both in groceries and on breakfast buffets at Chinese operated hotels. Fermented sunchokes marinated in a soysauce and spice brine were also found. We did not speak with or visit any Hui people in our travels, but further investigation into fermentation practices in Hui areas would likely shed light on transmission of culinary techniques between Central Asia and East Asia.

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Since 1949, Han Chinese have emigrated in large numbers to the region, growing from from 6.7 percent of the population to over 40 percent today. As a result, regional ferments and salt-cures associated with Inner China are also common, Sichuanese in particular. In many Chinese restaurants and hotels in Xinjiang, I spoke with kitchen staff from both Chongqing and Sichuan who ferment vegetables for use in their cooking. Most common were various paocai (vegetables quick pickled in old, highPH crock water) and sour green beans (酸豆角). When crossing the Taklamakan Desert, we encountered a Sichuanese working a multi-year assignment at an irrigation pump station who regularly makes wind and salt cured pork. In Urumqi, we met a Han Chinese, born and raised in Xinjiang, who at the mere mention of sour green beans his mouth began to water. Of note, his parents were not of Sichuanese extraction. Nevertheless, I met another Han Chinese, recently arrived from Henan, who strongly disliked both Sichuanese paocai in particular and Uighur food in general. I failed to follow up, but I assume she prefers her native cuisine and continues to cook in the style of her parents. Either that or the woman doesn’t eat.

The fermentation traditions found in Xinjiang can be divided by ethnicity. Shared techniques and similarities between ethnicities can be potentially explained through analyzing both length of historical contact and similarity of lifestyles (e.g. sedentary agriculturalists, nomadism, or a mix of the two). Naan production is found among sedentary populations. Yogurt can be made by both nomads and agriculturalists. Korut, however, is a more nomadic food. The absence of crocks outside of Hui and Han communities is an interesting phenomenon. Nomadic life potentially explains their absence among Mongols and Kazakhs. Among Uighurs, however, their absence is notable. Whether or not Hui make yogurt and naan would also shed light on culinary transmission in the region.

Today is Tuesday October 1, the first day of China’s weeklong National Day holidays. At this point, I’ve been traveling in Sichuan for over a week and the wide variety of fermentation and food preservation techniques here are numerous and well diversified. Their wide use in Sichuanese cooking explains their presence among Sichuanese in Xinjiang. Yet traveling in Xinjiang, I was looking for culinary crossovers. I sought Han traditions among Central Asian ethnicities and I found almost none. The Hui– the ethnicity I had least contact with– were the only people to use crocks in the Chinese tradition. An investigation into Hui practices in Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Gansu would likely yield interesting results.

Earlier today, my wife and I went to People’s Park in the heart of Chengdu to people watch. We were rewarded with thousands of National Day revelers, singing patriotic songs, carrying flags, and eating all sorts of snack foods. The intimate paths of this 100 year old park were designed for a bygone era when fewer people frequented its lush green forests. Like pressurized pipes, the paths and its contents propelled us until reaching bottlenecks only to spew us out into squares. Accelerated along to an exit, we heard the now familiar sound of Uighur spoken, sprinkled with Chinese for “kebab” and “lamb meat.” A young Uighur man with barely a stubble of facial hair was selling kebabs and naan. Excited to meet a Uighur in Sichuan, I began to speak Mandarin to him, inquiring about his naan, “You sell naan? Is there a restaurant with a tandoor for making naan here in Chengdu?” By the second question, he was saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand much Mandarin.” If I spoke decent Uighur, I would have asked him what brand of factory yeast he used.

The word naan has uncertain linguistic roots, likely arising first in communities that spoke an ancient Persian or Indian language. It is still used still today in Farsi, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. In Xinjiang and Central Asia, naan is the word for flat bread used by Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, and Tajik. In Chinese, the word for naan is “nang” (馕), pronounced like naan but with a nasal “g” ending. Although I’ve never heard it used pejoratively, the character for nang can be used as a verb to mean “cram your mouth with food.”

Reputable Sources Goes Crockless

As of yesterday, Reputable Sources has been crockless for two weeks. Looking back on it, the exact moment is hard to pinpoint, but one day last spring, my wife and I knew we would be leaving China before winter. We didn’t have specific dates or thorough plans in those days, but Beijing’s extreme winds, bitter cold, and lingering pollution were frequent villains in our stories, looming at the end of the year. Our calendar began to fill with all sorts of deadlines and projects. We busied ourselves with packing for the move — “sell it or ship it” — and preparing for our lives in America. The crocks were not sold.

In total, we’ll be on the road for just over two months, researching all foods pickled, cured, fermented, dried or otherwise preserved. We’ll start among the decidedly Central Asian minorities of western China and traveling eastwards, looking for people who process their own food and how these ingredients are used in their cooking. Come November, we’ll return to Beijing to process mustard greens and cabbage for winter. In January, I’ll begin experimenting with Chinese preservation techniques in Atlanta, reunited with my fermentation crocks.

Yesterday marks yet another milestone: our first full week of travel. Here are some pickles, ferments, and cures made by Kazaks, Huis, Uighurs, and Han Chinese from Sichuan and Henan, all found in Xinjiang:

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