It’s lunchtime at Kashgar’s Sunday Bazaar, and the crowds are beginning to pour from the market into the alleys outside, where hundreds of tiny restaurants and street food sellers reside. It’s a chaotic and colourful scene. Wafts of smoke greet you as you walk past a long line of men grilling long skewers of lamb kawap (kebabs), fanning the embers until they glow red and sending sparks into the air when they sprinkle cumin and chili over the meat.
The food of Kashgar, in China’s far west, is most influenced by the Uyghurs, the local Turkic-speaking Muslims. Tastes normally associated with the Middle East predominate – cumin, chili, saffron, and sesame – cooked with peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. Lamb and mutton feature heavily, either slow-braised or smoke-grilled. And bread. An essential at every meal, Kashgar’s traditional Uyghur breads are baked in deep tonur pit charcoal ovens, giving them a smoky, rustic flavor. There are giant flat rounds of hemek nan, typical of Kashgar; smaller rounds of thicker Turpan nan topped with onion and black nigella seeds; and small fat bagels, gizhder, shining and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The bread tastes every bit as good as it looks – all warm buttery crust, with flecks of salt and sweet onion.
Back in the bazaar, you might decide to try mutton polo for lunch. A rich and satisfying rice pilaf, polo is cooked in enormous blackened pots, gently warmed by a charcoal brazier. Shreds of carrot and onion cook to a caramelized loveliness on the bottom of the pot, mixed with buttery rice and mutton on the bone. Or you might be entranced by laghman, Uyghur-style hand-pulled noodles topped with a rich vegetable ragout of peppers, eggplant, onion, garlic and tomato. The noodles are pulled into finer and finer strands, like skeins of wool.
Every meal is taken with small bowls of fragrant black tea flavored with saffron and rose petals, poured from decorative brass teapots at each table. Later, you may find a sweet treat to finish off your meal – a luscious ripe golden fig - enjur – handed to you on a fig leaf to catch all the honey-sweet juice; or a ruby-red pomegranate.
In all, eating at Kashgar’s Sunday Bazaar is an intoxicating experience not readily forgotten – the colourful crowds of women, baskets piled with fruit, the wisps of smoke, and echoes of the Silk Road all around you.