In August of 2018, I arrived in Xinjiang, the autonomous region in China farthest to the country’s northwest. I knew it was probably my last chance to visit the destination I’d dreamed of ever since I became enchanted with the mysterious Tarim Basin mummies in my early teens. Why? The Chinese government and the local Uyghur people, who are Muslim, are, to put it mildly, at odds.
When I was there, police stations and checkpoints on the roads were intended to keep close watch on Uyghurs’ activity. But it gets far more sinister. Look up “Uyghur internment camps” and “Uyghur birth rate” to learn more.
The trip was often challenging due to the political climate, but I couldn’t help but fall in love with the place, the people and especially the food. And really, this is an article about food. While it’s impossible to ignore the dire situation of the people of Xinjiang, one can only hope that awareness of their plight will also mean greater knowledge of their culture and cuisine.
Diners in the Fairfax area may already know words like “samsa” and “laghman” from trying Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine in Old Town. It’s a great restaurant with a varied menu. But the dishes I’ve tried there didn’t always taste quite like what I ate in Xinjiang. At brand-new Mim’s Food, also in Fairfax, they did.
I’ve driven through the Tian Shan Mountains, where nomads slaughter lambs in front of their yurts and ply a trade grilling the meat into kebabs showered in a mix of cumin and chiles. While the lamb at Mim’s doesn’t quite melt the way it does at the roadside stands, I couldn’t detect much of a difference in the spice mix. Don’t have a meal there without a skewer or two.
The chopped noodles at Mim’s, with a texture similar to sturdier udon, also reminded me of stops on the road. Many modest restaurants in Xinjiang serve nothing but laghman, varied from restaurant to restaurant by little more than the vegetables that make their way into the stir fry that covers the chewy noodles. Usually, they are hand pulled, but may be chopped like the ones I had at Mim’s. More often than not, the noodles are served in a bowl, with the stir fry on the side, ready to be incorporated. At Mim’s, the whole assemblage of the chopped noodles is wok-fried together. My favorite version I tried in Xinjiang was topped with green chiles for an extra wallop of heat. At Mim’s, dried red chiles played a similar role among the red and green peppers, onions and beef woven between the strands.
But my favorite item on the concise menu was the dish referred to as chicken korma, but which I excitedly recognized as big plate chicken or da pan ji. The chiles, the star anise, the extra-wide hand pulled noodles, all gave it away. The spicy and sweet flavor was unmistakable. The ultra-thin noodles were enough to win me over utterly but, save for some underdone chunks of potato, the stew was habit-forming on its own. In Xinjiang, the Szechuan-influenced dish is pretty much always served on a giant plate intended for sharing. At Mim’s you can order it half-size. But next time, I probably won’t be able to resist going for the heartier helping. It’s enough to make me miss my time in Xinjiang a little bit less. // 9990 Main St., Fairfax