Can I just say, I really love Sydney! There aren't many cities in the world where you can taste such a broad spectrum of global cuisines. It's also not just the fact that we have access to such variety on our own doorsteps, but the quality is sensational.
So lately I've become fascinated with Central Asian food from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region - Uighur cuisine to be exact.
I've never been great at geography but looking at the location of Xinjiang really explains the cuisine's core ingredients and signature dishes. The Xinjiang region spans over 1.6 million km² but only about 4.3% of it is fit for human habitation. In fact, in the east of Xinjiang is the Turpan Depression which is the hottest and driest area in China. You can often spot a Xinjiang restaurant in Sydney by the plastic grapevines dangling off the ceiling. These are actually representations of the picturesque vine trellises that shade Xinjiang locals in Turpan from the fierce heat.
Xinjiang borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and because of the Islamic population, the food is predominantly halal. Furthermore, since it is so far in-land seafood rarely makes it onto the menu. Instead, expect to find foods like mutton, beef, camel, chicken, goose, carrots, tomatoes, onions, peppers, eggplant, celery, various dairy foods, and fruits.
So let this culinary adventure to Xinjiang begin!
We are at Chinese Halal Restaurant which sits directly opposite Auburn Station. The restaurant is fairly minimalistic in comparison to other Uighur restaurants across Sydney. Only a few plastic vines hang above the main entrance and even the vividly coloured wall tapestries are smaller in size.
The menu is a laminated double-sided A3 presented with lots of pictures and descriptions in Chinese and English.
I hear the restaurant owners speak and the Uighur language definitely sounds more like a dialect of Turkish than Chinese. It is completely foreign but sounds so relaxed and beautiful.
We start with the Chuchura (dumpling soup, $8.90). The dumplings are small ravioli-like parcels filled with an aromatic mixture of minced lamb, onion, black pepper and coriander. The soup is a lightly flavoured broth with diced tomatoes and more fresh coriander. It's a soothing start to the feast.
Uighur cuisine uses fat, red pepper flakes and cumin to flavour a lot of their food and these kewap (Xinjiang shish kebabs, five for $12.50) are the classic example. Succulent cubes of fatty lamb on a sword skewer, seared and spiced with cumin, salt and chilli. They're so tender and full of melt-in-your-mouth goodness.
The proper Xinjiang way of eating these would be to put the skewer near your mouth, bite onto the meat and slide it off. But fearing i'll stab myself, I safely push down each piece of lamb with a fork onto the plate.
While it is called fried eggplant with special sauce ($12), this next dish is way more than just fried eggplant. Chunks of fried capsicum, strangely with the seeds in tact, tomato and eggplant are enriched in a think glossy sauce. I taste vinegar, garlic and soy sauce - a rich and complex combination that simply tastes amazing. The serving size is ginormous so we get two times the enjoyment out of it and have it for both lunch and dinner. Win!
Last course is laghman (hand-pulled noodles) with spicy chicken ($10). The chicken is similar to Xinjiang's signature dish, dapanji (small for $20 and large for $36), which typically features cuts of chicken, onions, garlic, green peppers, chili peppers, potatoes, ground cumin, ground Sichuan peppers, soy sauce, and beer; but with the noodles, the sauce is much less intense, though equally delicious. The noodles are authentically smooth with a slight bite and I just can't get enough of the sauce.
I'm so pleased there are more and more restaurants opening up to offer regional Chinese cuisines. If you haven't tried Uighur cuisine then you're seriously missing out!
Chinese Halal Restaurant
105 Rawson Street, Auburn NSW
Phone: (02) 8084 6721
And if you're not willing to drive all the way to Auburn, then in no particular order, here are some other Uighur restaurants you can try -
Silk Road Chinese Halal Restaurant
2/203 Thomas Street, Haymarket
Great Wall Kitchen
154 Haldon Street , Lakemba
Neptune Palace Restaurant
Level1 Cnr Pitt and Alfred Street, Circular Quay
Silk Road Chinese Restaurant
Prince Centre, 8 Quay St, Sydney
Shop 1/8 Dixon St (Cnr of Liverpool & Dixon St) Chinatown, Sydney
Western Orient Chinese Restaurant
173 Forest Rd, Hurstville
Xin Jiang Noodle Restaurant
297 Forest Road, Hurstville
205 Liverpool Road, Ashfield