Cuisine on the western side of China is actually quite different from the eastern side of the country. With influences from Sichuan and central Asian countries, Xinjiang province offers up some interesting fusion.
Hitting Urumqi after spending a month in Mongolia there was only one thing we had on our minds, vegetables and any meat that was not lamb!
If you don’t know much about mongolian cuisine, here’s a quick rundown: lamb…that is all.
So we were pretty excited to learn that one of the major dishes to try in Urumqi was a dish called “Dapan ji” (大盘鸡) also known as Big Chicken! This dish is traditionally made up of chicken, onions, garlic, bell peppers, chili peppers, potatoes, ground cumin, ground Sichuan peppers, soy sauce, and beer.
So, not only were we scoring a meal that didn’t have a trace of lamb in it but it also had something that had been eluding us for sometime….flavour!
Upon ordering the “Big Chicken” we didn’t really take into account how big this dish really was. We shortly discovered its enormity when it was delivered to us! It seems that we 5DTs have an eternal battle where our eyes are just too big for our stomachs. This was once again to be the case. There was no way that two people could finish this dish: But we were up for the challenge!
Dapan Ji could be referred to as a Chinese chicken casserole but with one difference the addition of Sichuan Peppers. For those who have never encountered a Sichuan Pepper it’s a small pepper that creates a strange numbing effect that also has a tingling sensation Wiki describes it as “touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue”.
This taste and feeling could (will!) be a bit overbearing for some, but overall the flavour is amazing. Be warned though this won’t be the last time you’ll be seeing this dish… If you know what I mean! If you want to clean out the system this is certainly the dish to have!
Local guides also recommend heading to the “Grand Bazaar” to experience the Muslim side of Urumqi. It was a little concerning getting off the bus to see every street corner filled with Chinese soldiers in full riot gear, helmets and high powered guns. This part was not mentioned in the guides! It seems that in 2009 there were clashes between the Muslim and Buddhist communities in this district of Urumqi and the government cracked down big time so that it will not occur again. So just a heads up on that one!
To the south side of the Grand Bazaar is a massive open air food market which we found to be lacking in variety of food and beer! There was lamb with naan bread (the naan is a local specialty), lamb dumpling soup, cold noodles and hot pot…did I mention no beer?!? I know that Muslim people don’t drink alcohol but we were surprised that there wasn’t even a drop in sight, after all, this is China.
Even after a recent abundance of lamb we opted for the lamb & naan and a dumpling soup. Maybe we didn’t choose the right stalls but the naan was dry, the lamb was super fatty (like 80% pure fat) and the soup was dull!
For those visiting the Grand Bazaar we would recommend skipping the “food court” entirely and wander the side alleys instead, here we found a selection of small restaurants and street stalls all offering different selections of “Bing” (meat stuffed in a bread pocket) meat skewers and much tastier naan! There is also a small pastry stuffed with lamb that is amazing and only costs about 30 cents!!!
Remember though, this is a hustle and bustle kind of place and you need to keep close watch of your belongings, we had someone try to pick-pocket our video camera but luckily some locals alerted us to the douche bag thief in time! Sadly he disappeared into the crowd before we could call him out on it, but the moral of the story is: Be Careful!
Like many Chinese cities Urumqi has a diverse range of food available, all at an affordable price. With everything from street side BBQ to tasty local restaurants this is certainly not a place where you would ever go hungry. So pick up your chopsticks and enjoy but watch that chilli, it’ll catch you by surprise!