Xinjiang Uyghur is (to my understanding) a culturally grey area of China. Situated in the North West, it was known in the old days as Chinese Turkestan, and given the region’s being bordered by Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and India as much as by China, the influences from these non-Chinese regions have been as potent (or even more so) than from the epicentral Chinese culture. This reflects vividly in Xinjiang’s cooking tradition. Lamb, mutton and camel feature prominently. Meat is either braised or grilled on skewers (Kebab-style). There are “naan” bread, “plov/pilaf” rice and “lamian/lagman” hand-pulled noodle. Unlike what we now understand as Central Asian cuisine, Xinjiang cuisine relies on soy sauce and chilli oil in flavouring, hence more complex Chinese dimensions.
The feast like no other..
The menu at Wulumuchi is exciting in a way that it sets itself apart from other Cantonese-bordering-on-being-generic Chinese restaurants in London’s Chinatown. In other words, you won’t find a Sweet and Sour Pork there. Instead, you will come across a lot of lamb and chicken dishes, quite a few of which contain offal. (Shame they haven’t stretched to camel meat, which is delicious!). The starters are divided into cold dishes, dumplings and soups (£3 – £7.50); the mains – from stew, curry, stir-fry to flame grill – are priced between £9 and £25. Many dishes are clearly marked as Xinjiang specialties.
Lamb dumplings (£5) were boiled parcels of minced lamb. The filling was lamb-y and aromatic but lacked the typically vibrant Chinese ingredients (i.e. garlic, chive, etc.), thus likening the taste to two-dimensional Russian pelmini or Uzbek manti. The dipping sauce – made from an infusion of chilli, garlic and coriander in soy sauce – brought me back to China. Enjoyable, nonetheless. “Medium Chicken” (£16.50) billed as “most popular Xinjiang dish” was quite large. (I didn’t want to think how massive “Big Plate Chicken” would be). This was a braised dish of chicken thighs and drumsticks with bell peppers, onions, carrots and belt noodle. I found the chicken a little dry and not falling off the bones but loved a little punch in the sauce from fresh and rehydrated chilli, star anise and coriander. The belt noodle (around 1 inch wide and 2mm thick) was coarse-looking but quite addictive and delicious. Assorted Lamb Offal (£10.50) was a risky dish. Cooked together in a starchy sauce were slices of lamb tripe, kidneys, liver, hearts and intestines. All elements were expertly rinsed and did not ooze utterly foul smell. The seasoning came from bulbs of fresh chilli and garlic. Still, the whole thing was pretty pungent. (TOB skipped this). Garlic Chicken Wings (£9.50) were wrapped in lotus leaves and deep fried. The flavour was subtle – a hint of garlic mingling with nutty, bark-y aroma from the crispy leaves; the chicken was succulent and nicely cooked; the leafy wrap helped retain moisture in the meat. The only problem, though very minimal, was that the gelatin from the chicken skin broke down and glued the chicken to the leaves. That said, if you decide to eat the fried leaves – the waitress informed us as a customary practice – you won’t have to worry about removing them. Grilled Lamb Skewers (£9.80) arrived with salad (soy and rice vinegar dressing) and Xinjiang “naan” bread (with less elasticity than your typical Indian, in my opinion). The skewers of lamb slices dusted with chilli flake were pretty decent. (They did verge on being a chilli lamb kebab). To go with them were 4 kinds of sauces – plum, mint, yogurt and sweet vinegar-ed chilli – that tasted pretty trans-cultural. Last but not least was the most successful “plov/pilaf” rice (£ForgotThePrice). The rice, slow-cooked in intense lamb stock with star anise, garlic, diced carrots and potatoes. had a great depth of flavours. The texture was spot on, too, – puffy, soft and with a carefully measured oil content. Highly recommend this.
We had a discussion at the end of the meal that Xinjiang food tasted more Central Asian than Chinese. While Central Asian cuisine can be generally boring (due to lack of complex, big-flavoured seasoning), the exoticism that the Chinese ingredients bring makes Xinjiang cuisine, especially at Wulumuchi, thoroughly loveable. I am returning, without a doubt
16 Lisle Street
Tel. 020 7287 6606