As you can probably understand from the photos below, one of the highlights of living in Urumqi (and just China in general) was the food. Sure, there were some awful dishes. But the variety, the color, the texture, the taste, the play on you palate can hardly be matched.
Living in Urumqi (2012-2013) I had access to both Uygur and Chinese cuisines (along with a few random western imports, like the Colorado-ian owned Texas Cafe). Living on a university campus, I had access to both within a two minute walk of my apartment, and at student prices (it’s probably why I gained ten pounds that year…). And while I’m a bit wheat intolerant, nobody does bread and pasta like the Uyghurs. There was laghman with endless toppings soft under dripping sauce, raisin-stuffed buns with perfect oven-fresh crusts, chick peas on cold noodles, savory naan with meat mixed in the dough (made perfect when dipped in sour local yogurt), a ready lunch of samsa, light pillowy bread with paper-thin shell and, of course, manti. The most common manti come stuffed with sheep, and in Uyghur cuisine that’s usually fatty, oil-dripping mutton. But spring sees manta made with wild grass from the Kyrgyz highlands, and colder weather my personal favorite – kawa manta, pumpkin manta.
There was one restaurant in southern Urumqi, just north of the tourist bazaar, where I would always stop for manti on my trips to the southern end of town. Grease-stained wallpaper cloaking two mutton-smelling rooms with dingy tables and barely a seat free – because they had some of the best food in town. The proprietor started to laugh at me after a while – I was that one foreigner (there weren’t man in Urumqi) who could speak a little broken Uyghur, and who would come and just order three pumpkin manti every time. But the manti… it was like a pumpkin pillow of heaven.
Yesterday I had pumpkin manta in Bishkek (from the ‘Manti Yurt’) and it was awful.
Maybe I should follow the recipe on this Princeton blog and try making my own:
Ingredients: 1½ cup all-purpose flour; 1 cup cold water; 1 tbsp. salt; ½ cup fried mutton fat (or lean meat with 1 tsp. cooking oil); 1 large orange pumpkin; 2 green or red hot peppers; 1 red onion; cumin, salt, and pepper to taste.
Serving: Four, about 40-50 dumplings
1. Dissolve salt into water. In a large mixing bowl, add the saltwater to flour while kneading the dough constantly for about five minutes.
2. Dice fat or meat and vegetables into small cubes, not more than half an inch wide.
3. Combine meat and vegetables into another large bowl. Add cumin, salt, and pepper to taste.
4. Roll the dough into logs about ¾ inch diameter on a cutting board thinly coated with flour.
5. Cut the logs into ½ inch-long pieces. Flatten each piece into 3-inch-wide circles. The center of the pieces should be a bit thicker than its edges. Alternatively, buy ready-made dumpling wraps at an Oriental foods store.
6. Place 1 tbsp. of filling into wrapper. Fold the dough over in a semicircle. Smear the inside edges of the circle with a little water. Close the dumpling by pleating and pinching the edges, meeting at the top. Twist the top of the dough to seal firmly.
7. Steam the dumplings for 20 minutes, best in a multi-level steamer, and serve hot.