When I first came to China last year, I was struck at how much of the Chinese food I ate didn’t taste like Chinese food at all. Like most Americans, I was only familiar with sweet and sour pork, kung pao chicken and any other goopy mess slopped into a styrofoam container by the workers at Lover’s Egg Roll (a beloved Dallas dive frequently requested by my gourmand grandmother).
How blind I’d been. Over the past few weeks, I’ve studiously consumed scrambled eggs with jasmine buds, tea leaf salad, chili-braized fish heads, steamed-osmanthus cakes, and boiled coke with ginger. None of these were identifiable as Chinese to my uneducated self, but all of them – very distinctly – are.
Most surprising has been the cuisine of the Uighur community, a minority Muslim group predominately hailing from China’s Xinjiang province. With central Asian ingredients and Turkic roots, Uighur cuisine tastes more like the food I had in Morocco than anything else I’ve tried in China.
Shanghai has countless Uighur restaurants, and signature hand-pulled noodle joints are a dime a dozen. But the best place to get a taste of China’s Wild West is at the Shanghai Muslim market on Aomen Road.
Gone is the pork, the soy sauce, the Sichuan peppercorn. In their place: lamb, cumin, sheep-milk tea, sticky walnut sweets, roasted eggplant, and rice pilaf.
Jostle with lunch-goers in front of charcoal grills, buy as many spicy lamb kebabs as you can carry in one hand, then pick up a bowl of rice pilaf and braised mutton.
Chances are, you’ll be engulfed with smoke from the grills, but this is a good place to people watch and sample some of that salty sheep-milk tea from communal pots.
If you’ve come with a friend, have them hold down the fort while you venture back out to load up with more meaty goods.
Don’t miss the fried beef buns, whose thick dough is the perfect foil for the hot fat and juices within.
The lamb samsas (or kao bao zi) are equally necessary to consume. These little packets of tender meat and dough are stuck the the walls of a tandoor oven. Once fully cooked, they’re popped off the side with the aid of a spatula…golden, crispy, and screaming hot.
Wrap things up with walnut cookies, dried fruits, or any manner of sticky sweet things that I’ve no way to identify.
Like most markets, this one is highly seasonal, and warmer weather will bring a whole host of new treats to discover. I fully intend to come back but, like everything else in Shanghai, the Muslim market is a shape-shifting thing. Recent years have seen a government crackdown on the gathering, causing vendors to disperse completely before reconfiguring in their current sized-down formation.
As of last week, the place was in full swing. If you’re in Shanghai, and interested in minority culture, make this one of your top priorities. You’ll never think of “Chinese food” the same way again.