I thought I was going for a Chinese food festival. Instead, what I got was Kashmiri food. It was all rather disorienting till I made the Silk Route connection.
Chef Li Peng, the talented Chinese chef of Vasant Continental in New Delhi, had put together a food festival of China’s Xinjiang region. There was no way I was going to miss it—I’m a fan of this young chef, whose food and personality both vie for attention.
Li gave me a crash course in the food of the Uighurs before he brought me the menu. Apparently, while the eastern half of China is heavily populated, the western half is a sparsely populated vast desert. Many of the people are not Han Chinese (an ethnic group native to China) at all but another race entirely, and most of them belong to the Muslim faith. Their food habits are dramatically different from their Han neighbours, with just a few things in common. Uighurs are one community in this melting pot: All Uighurs are Muslims, but not all Muslims are Uighurs in Xinjiang, the largest province in west China.
The first course was what Kashmiris would call tooj, which generally means stick and specifically, seekh. Cubes of lamb or chicken are rubbed with a marinade of salt, chilli powder, cumin seed powder (and crushed sesame seeds, in the case of Xinjiang), and grilled over burning coal. You could argue that boti kebabs are hardly a novelty across India. The only difference is the size of the botis and the fact that neither Kashmir nor Xinjiang favours curd marinations. The taste of chef Li’s offering was surprisingly Kashmiri. Even more surprising was Li’s assertion that street-side stalls in China that offer Xinjiang kebabs remove the piping hot kebabs from the seekh by wrapping bread around them. That’s exactly what they do in the seedy area of Srinagar’s Nowpora, where my husband and I go for plates of tooj.
Cross culture: Pieces of bread stir fried with slices of meat is a dish in Kashmir as well as Xinjiang. Chef Li Peng, Vasant Continental
However, it was the sight of the bread itself that left me dumbfounded. It was the Kashmiri staple—tsot, eaten every morning as a breakfast bread with tea all over the valley. The only difference was that chef Li had it made in a five-star hotel, so the central part had fork marks on it, whereas in Kashmir, a pattern would be created by fingernails.
The other surprise was the sliced lamb that was served with the same bread, this time chopped into bite-sized pieces and stir-fried with the meat. So overcome was I that I took some home to show my husband. “Naan ghosht!” he exclaimed in delight after he tasted the first morsel. “Where did you get it?”
I’ve always wanted to visit Xinjiang because it represents one half of an image we all have of Kashmiri culture. Will I find Kashmiri cups there, as a friend recently found in Uzbekistan? Will I discover some resonance of the valley? I can hardly wait to find the answer.
Tossed bread and lamb with cumin
120g sliced lamb
10g corn flour
30g sliced onion
10g chopped coriander leaves
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp cumin powder
30ml refined oil
100g flat bread (the original is Kashmiri tsot)
Salt to taste
Cut the bread into bite-sized pieces. Mix the lamb with salt, cumin powder and cornflour and marinate for an hour. Sauté the lamb in a wok with oil on high heat till it is done. This will take around 5 minutes. Refresh the wok, add cumin seeds, onion and lamb, toss for a few seconds, add the diced bread and salt, mix briefly. Add chopped coriander leaves after taking off the fire. Put in a plate, garnish and serve hot.
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