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May 9, 2024

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Commodity trading aside, Yiwu is a multicultural hub and diners’ delight

You might think of Yiwu as just a commodity trading mecca, but you’d be wrong. It’s also a center for cross-cultural experiences and unique dining.

When I heard about a restaurant in Yiwu boasting the “most authentic” Middle East cuisine, I didn’t take it seriously because, hey, restaurants often make such claims. But when I saw a row of hookah pipes and shisha tobacco for the first time in my life — in Yiwu, mind you — I realized that things were getting real.

Although it was a workday, a street nicknamed “exotic street” started to get busy around 8pm. The street was full of restaurants serving food from all over the world: Arabic, Turkish, Latin American and Italian. Neon lights were on, and terraces were filled by customers who were either puffing on hookahs, digging into a plate of kebab and pita, or drinking a cup of Arabica coffee.

“When you’re here, you don’t feel like you’re a foreigner,” said a Turkish dessert shop owner, who identified himself only as Emin.

Emin and his Chinese wife Yili opened their Turkish shop half a year ago. They develop desserts not only for customers but also for surrounding restaurants and cafes.

Emin introduced me to the most popular product in his shop — a traditional Turkish cake called trilece that is centuries old. It is a very light sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk and double cream, then topped with whipped cream and a layer of dark caramel.

It was indeed tasty. The cake looked heavy but it was actually quite light. I searched it online and found that trilece was not available in Shanghai, which I have to say is a loss.

“You can find halal restaurants of different styles everywhere. You can make friends from different cultures or even start a business here,” Emin said.

Not far away from “exotic street” was a Chinese-style night market, which exuded the aromas of barbeque, fried rice and sauced seafood. It was popular not only among locals but also expats, who curiously lingered at booths trying to decide what to choose.

Much of the signage on stores and small workshops on the street was written in three languages: Chinese, English and Arabic.

What I liked most about Yiwu was the co-mingling of people from different backgrounds in an atmosphere of inclusivity and conviviality.

Emin and his wife have welcomed their first born, and they are excited about their future in the small county that has prospered from its commodity trading and welcomed an expanded range of new businesses.

That’s the truth for both Chinese and expats here: If you settle down and resolve to start a life, then Yiwu is your home.


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