Breakfast in the remote Chinese town of Aksu would astonish even Marco Polo, who journeyed this stretch of the fabled Silk Road eight centuries ago.
In front of us are three soups: rice congee, corn porridge and geda, a blend of vegetables, egg and spices. Garlicky greens, green gourd with sesame oil, fried green chilies, fermented tofu, boiled peanuts, lamb dumplings, steamed buns stuffed with lamb, and a fiery condiment of salted, chopped red chilies -- this gets the day off to a roaring start -- round out the round table.
The Westernized cuisines of Guangdong (Canton) and Sichuan may be more familiar to Canadians, but this segment of the Silk Road through China's wild west offers an unforgettable, and overlooked, romp for an itinerant foodie.
The Silk Road winds across Xinjiang (pronounced "Shin-ji-ang"), China's westernmost and largest province, and forks around the fearsome Taklamakan Desert, second-largest in the world, before converging for the final lap to the ancient capital of Xi'an. Today, this territory remains one of the poorest, most remote -- and utterly compelling -- regions of Asia.
The new 560-kilometre Desert Highway, traversing the Taklamakan from north to south, pass through a landscape of sweeping majesty. The sand dunes of Dunhuang are the size of Singapore. Ruins of fallen cities, ancient tombs, 2,000-year-old mummies and weathered mosques mark the route's storied past.
Like religion, philosophy, silk and spices, food also travelled the great road, yielding what may be the world's first fusion cuisine. Its base is Uygur, the food of the mostly Muslim population -- cousins to the Turks -- who arrived from Mongolia a thousand years ago.
Uygur hallmarks are mutton, lamb, butter, pomegranates, melons, spices, flatbreads and the charcoal grill. To this, the Han Chinese added 5,000 years of trial and error in the kitchen, and their own artful, incomparably varied cuisine. Uygur spice and Chinese finesse: What an alchemy it is -- and that's without the contributions of the Mongolians, Hui, Tajiks and Manchurians, who also inhabit this realm.
Xinjinagers eat more lamb than New Zealanders. Lamb comes off the charcoal grill as kebabs crusted in chilies and salt, from the oven as juicy shanks, wok-fried with garlic and chilies, minced and stuffed into dumplings and eggs, tucked into pastries, braised atop rice and afloat as meatballs in soups. City streets sit under clouds of lamb-scented smoke.
Wondering if people eat Bactrian camels, the two-humpers found in China's deserts, I ask an Uygur cook about it.
"Would you eat a car?" he retorts.
"Pssssst," puts in a Chinese companion. "We eat the camel. In Dunhuang, there's a restaurant that serves camel hump. But you might not like it: It's all fat and grease, and mushy."
But Xinjiang isn't just for lamb-lovers. At their best -- and you'll need to shop around in private and hotel restaurants -- desert vegetables and fruits deliver knockout flavours. Chefs deep-fry green beans with star anise. Potatoes roll around in chilies and fennel. Tofu gets jazzed up with tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. In one village near Kashgar, a man claiming to be 120 years old credits his longevity to eating desert pomegranates and walnuts.
Although Muslim, Xinjiang's Uygurs aren't adverse to a toast or three. Their alcohol of choice is xiong san sheng jiu, a pungent liquor infused with emulsified male silkworms. This firewater is used to toast strangers, and has accounted for the decking of many a naive foreigner. The gentler alternative is piyaman, a dry, agreeable pomegranate wine seasoned with rosewater.
In Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang, I visit the Erdaoqiao Market, where an impromptu street festival begins at dusk. Grizzled Uygurs in skullcaps preside over kebabs of chicken and lamb liver. Flatbreads emerge from ovens in gusts of fennel and sesame. Whole goat heads, golden with turmeric, sit like macabre Christmas gifts in red ribbons waiting to be eaten, snout, eyes and all.
Not far from the Pakistan border in the city of Kashgar, the restaurant Orda represents Silk Road chic. Islamic arches lead to elevated tables around a central open kitchen. Dinner kicks off with tea, yogurt and fruit. Then comes the procession: a spicy salad of noodles and eggplant zapped with red chilies, rice pilaf with mutton and pomegranate seeds, rice noodles with mutton -- you begin to feel like a sheep -- mutton broth with chick peas and mutton balls, turnovers stuffed with ground mutton and coriander. The finale is a monstrous platter of roast lamb cleft into bewildering hunks of flesh, bone, fat and gristle.
Yet the candidate for best little restaurant in Kashgar is unquestionably Ak-Altun, a modest room with servers oddly dressed like starched English chambermaids. At Ak-Altun, soup is a delicious lamb broth with minced lamb wontons, onions, tomato and garlic. When grilled lamb finally arrives, it's lean and tender, aromatic and juicy. And it certainly doesn't hurt that four people can sit down to such a meal for a total of around $10.
At Kashgar's Barony Hotel, where a Coca-Cola convention has unleashed a horde of grinning Beijing yuppies, traditional Chinese cuisine imbues Uygur with celestial refinements: Translucent dumplings come filled with spinach and chives. Dove assumes the style of Peking duck, with a first course of crispy skin.
Our journey ends in Xian, at Defachang, probably the most famous dumpling house in all China. Defachang turns out 300 kinds of dumplings. There are clever dumplings like those resembling live silkworms and fluttering butterflies; explosive dumplings stuffed with Sichuan peppercorns; and artful dumplings like miniature pearls stuffed with chicken and which you cook in tabletop hot pots.
We drink Lao Lan, a Chinese table wine made in Turpan from cabernet sauvignon grapes. It won't keep Robert Mondavi up at night, but it's a well-made red from vineyards unknown to most Western oenophiles. Surprise tumbles upon surprise -- just the way it's always been for Silk Road travellers.
Pack your appetite
Air China flies from Vancouver to Beijing and connects to Southern China Airlines for the three-hour flight to Urumqi. Air Canada and Cathay
Pacific fly from Canada to Hong
Kong and Beijing.
China National Tourist Office: 416-599-6636; http://www.tourismchina-ca.com.
Urumqi Travel Guide: http://www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/urumqi.htm.
Kashgar Travel Guide: http://www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/kashgar.htm.
Silk Road essentials: http://www.travelchinaguide.com/silk-road/index.htm.
Lonely Planet China by Damian Harper, et al; The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, by Frances Wood; Life Along the Silk Road, by Susan Whitfield.