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December 22, 2011

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Hearty fare for carnivores

THE Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is famous for its well-seasoned grilled and skewered meats, lamb and mutton, beef, chicken as well as grilled fish. But it's more than just barbecue and incorporates the flavorful specialities of many ethnic groups, such as the Uygur, Dongxiang, Kazakh and Hui, They are overwhelmingly Muslim so the food is halal, fresh and hygienic.

There are noodles, dumplings, pilafs, soups, stews and casseroles, various types of flat bread and twists, fresh vegetables, pickled vegetables and vegetables baked into pies. Tomatoes, onions, eggplant, green and red peppers, carrots, celery and other vegetables are common.

Over the years, Han people from nearby Gansu and Shaanxi provinces have brought their northwestern China cooking so there's a fusion with halal foods. Regional cooking is known for large portions, rich meaty taste and fragrance of many seasonings.

Mutton is the staple in famous dishes such as roast whole mutton, mutton kebabs, boiled mutton, which is eaten with the hands. There are varieties of bread, such as naan and bread twists. Yogurt is indispensable.

Chili powder, black pepper, cumin seeds, red pepper flakes, sultana nuts, seeds and other spices and ingredients are common. Mutton or beef fat may be used in cooking to enrich the flavor.

Shanghai has a handful Xinjiang restaurants, usually with ethnic decor and staffed by Xinjiang wait staff. Ethnic dance programs are popular at night. Most eateries are small and the service can be indifferent; many wait staff do not speak Mandarin or English. Though the food is usually delicious, some people find the atmosphere and service a turnoff.

Shanghai Daily selects four of the most popular Xinjiang restaurants.


Cuisine: Contemporary and innovative Xinjiang cuisines

Ambience: Xibo is one among the most stylish and best decorated Xinjiang restaurants, with a fusion style combining traditional ethnic elements and modern Western design. Tasteful decor includes ethnic items from Xibo, a little-known Tungusic ethnic group (the owner is Xibo.) Colorful shirts worn by married Xibo women are arranged on the walls under glass. A stone wall containing numerous small extensions replicates the system used to dry grapes in Xinjiang. Musical instruments and interesting hats worn by other ethnic groups are arranged tastefully around the restaurant.

Who to invite: Friends to hang out with, business partners, boyfriend/girlfriend

Pros: Wait staff is well-trained and efficient. A menu is available in English. There's a long table for 10 or 20 people for large groups and parties. Presentation is very modern, though most Xinjiang restaurants pay no attention.

Cons: Most dishes are adapted to appeal to Western and Chinese taste, so they are less spicy and authentic, but still delicious. After all, Xinjiang food is hearty, not delicate.

Recommended: Beef with mixed vegetables encapsulates the style of fusing Xinjiang classics with modern cooking method sand presentation. Tasty and juicy beef kebabs are layered on top of mixed shredded green vegetables, appealing not only to the palate but to the eyes and nose. The presentation matches its poetic Chinese name, feng chui cao di xian niu yang, which means that sheep and cows are seen in large groups as the wind bends the long grass. Jian bing mei wei gan lan cai, a pancake with Chinese mustard, is an innovative dish that wraps a handmade pancake around gan lan cai, cooked Chinese mustard and olives, known for its sour taste.

Don't order: Xibo flapjacks (or nann) are quit different from typical Xinjiang flapjacks, which is meant to be crispy and salty. It's a bit tasteless.

Drinks: Wines from around the world, soft drinks, special Xinjiang drinks like Xinjiang beer

Cost: 300 yuan (US$47) for three including three glasses of soft drinks

Address: Floor 3, 83, Changshu Rd, Jing'an District

Tel: 5403-8330

Ai Ni Ba Yi

Cuisine: Xinjiang

Ambience: Ai Ni Ba Yi is right next to the Shanghai office of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the Shanghai Exchange for the Xinjiang city of Hotan, famous for producing jade. Predictably the venue is filled with more Xinjiang guests than Han patrons, usually a sign that the food is good and authentic. Wait staff come from Xinjiang.

At first sight it looks like a large and disorderly outdoor canteen with a long open kitchen and counter offering different dishes.

A small door at the end section of the outdoor canteen leads to the more inviting indoor area, a small space with only seven tables on the first floor and a few more on second floor, which is reached by a long, twisting staircase.

Inside walls are decorated with colorful paintings of scenes from Xinjiang, such as harvests and village festivals. There the seating is a bit crowded.

Who to invite: Friends who want authentic Xinjiang tastes.

Pros: The food is authentic in taste and presentation - large quantities of meat are served on large platters and guests share. The menu is in English and there are pictures of the dishes, so ordering is easy. Smaller portions can be ordered.

Cons: They don't accept credit cards and there's no nearby ATM, so guests pay at the outdoor counter as they leave. Waiters don't speak very good Mandarin and service is not very efficient. Sometimes wait staff doesn't answer questions, but mumbles in dialect. The outdoor canteen is closed in winter.

Recommended: Ting Ting Fried Noodle is named after its style of cutting long noodles into small pieces (Ting ting means small piece in Chinese). The fried noodle is cooked with shredded mutton and mixed vegetables such as onions, carrots and green peppers. The noodles are chewy and the dish is juicy and tasty. The large Xinjiang flapjacks just hot out of the oven are tempting; they are aromatic, salty, crispy and perfect for dipping in all kinds of juices from various dishes. The yogurt is very thick and sour but can be sweetened.

Don't order: When we visited, the signature mutton kebab and mutton steak were disappointing, overcooked and dry.

Drinks: Xinjiang beer (light), yogurt (made of sheep or goat milk), all kinds of soft drinks

Cost: 180 yuan for three, including two glasses of beer one soft drink

What else: Ethnic dance performance nightly

Address: 759, Quyang Rd, Hongkou District

Tel: 6554-5054

Ye Li Xia Li (Tianshan Branch)

Cuisine: Modern Xinjiang

Ambience: Ye Li Xia Li means "earth" in Uygur. This colorful and often crowded restaurant is one of the best-known in the city with six branches. The venue is exotically decorated and ethnic utensils, clothing and musical instruments are tastefully placed around the venue.

Who to invite: Lots of friends for a party

Pros: The environment is nice, food is tasty and authentic, service is good, the staff well-trained and menus in English.

Cons: Most portions are very large, so it's best to share, not necessarily a con.

Recommended: A big platter of juicy chicken is one of the most famous dishes, especially enjoyed by people who may not care for mutton.

Don't Order: Mutton with pancake has more onions than mutton and is quite oily.

Drinks: soft drinks, beer and yogurt

Cost: 350 yuan for five including drinks

Address: 2F, 762, Tianshan Rd, Changning District

Tel: 6274-8367


Cuisine: Xinjiang

Ambience: This is not a place for ambience, but hearty food. It can be difficult to find the small entry, right next to the venue's outdoor barbecue. It contains a small stage for regular dinner performances. Bright pictures of performances and paintings and pictures of beautiful women make the venue a bit tacky.

Who to invite: Meat-eaters

Pros: It is the place for meat-lovers and one of the best places in the city to have roasted mutton of any kinds. Taste is authentic and portions are large. An English menu is available.

Cons: Seating isn't very comfortable and the service is not overly efficient. Wait staff tend to recommend more than necessary.

Recommended: Mutton kebabs on skewers contain just the right amount of meat; three pieces are lean and chewy while two other pieces are fatty, adding a rich aroma and juice. Roast mutton steak is excellent, with the skin still crispy and the meat tender juicy.

Don't Order: Those who don't like very spicy food should avoid the big plate of chicken; some people love it.

Drinks: Beer, soft drinks, milk tea

Cost: 472 yuan for four, including four beers

Address: 280 Yishan Rd, Xuhui District

Tel: 6468-9198


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