Shanghai may be home to over 30 Michelin-starred restaurants, glitzy bars with panoramic city views, and chefs serving noodles made with actual gold, but the most exciting food experience in the city is far less flashy.
Every Friday outside the Huxi mosque in the city's Putuo District is a Xinjiang street market.
Xinjiang is China's western most region, a sparsely populated desert larger than continental Europe and home to over 20 of China's 56 ethnic groups. It's the site of the old Silk Road, which had to split in two to skirt the edges of the Taklamakan Desert—an unforgiving expanse of sand roughly the size of Germany.
Among the ethnic groups living in Xinjiang are the Hui and the Uyghurs, both predominantly Muslim.
The proximity of the Xinjiang market to the Huxi mosque means that it attracts Shanghai's Hui and Uyghur communities, their distinguishing feature—language aside—being the hats that they wear. The Hui typically don white skullcaps, while the Uyghurs wear a square black and green doppa. As Muslims, neither group eats pork, so there is none to be found at the market. The staple here is lamb—in every possible incarnation.
Lamb carcasses hang from hooks as butchers bargain with customers and hack off great hunks of shoulder with giant cleavers. There are countless stalls selling lamb kebabs and the smell of fat rendering on the grill wafts lazily in the Friday morning breeze. There are kang bao, thick bread dumplings filled with lamb and cooked in a tandoor oven. The lamb fat soaks into the bread, which is soft on the inside but has a crunchy outer surface. Then there are lamb sheng jian bao, which is where Xinjiang really meets Shanghai. The Shanghai-style shallow-fried dumplings are filled with lamb in place of the traditional pork.
Aside from mosque-goers, the market attracts plenty of local Shanghainese. There are quite a few elderly people, many of whom were sent to Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution. They come here every week to reminisce about their time as "sent-down youth" and sample the flavours that came to define their adolescence.
The diet in Xinjiang is meat-heavy and as such, the Huxi mosque market is not somewhere you'd send your vegetarian mate looking for a bite to eat in Shanghai. Aside from the raw carcasses, there are stalls steaming entrails and one stand that sells entire lamb legs coated in cumin and spices, the joint of each sticking out stark white in contrast to the dark roasted meat.
That's not to say that a veggie would go hungry here. Xinjiang is also famous for fruits and many stalls at the Shanghai market sell hami gua, a particularly succulent type of melon that is just starting to come into season when I visit. Watermelons are ubiquitous, their seeds scattering the concrete beneath a number of the stands.
Xinjiang also dries its fruit. Turpan, a city an hour away from the provincial capital, grows two thirds of China's grapes. Most of these are dried by the desert winds that blow through the giant concrete structures littering the hills outside the city. They create raisins unlike anything you've ever tasted: sweet but without having lost their original flavour and tart but without being acidic. At the market in Shanghai, the raisins come in all shapes, sizes, and colours and are sold next to huge boxes of red dates, apricots, prunes, and almonds––another Xinjiang speciality.
Indeed many sweet stands sell almond-based cakes and nutty desserts that have clearly taken inspiration from baklava. I also try a kind of Xinjiang mille feuille filled with cream that melts in the mouth like spring snow.
But the star of the show at Shanghai's Xinjiang market is the Uyghur pilaf: rice and lamb cooked in a giant guo with carrots and onions (and sometimes yellow pepper or raisins.) The dish is heated slowly, allowing the rice to turn slightly yellow and the lamb to leech its fat out and eventually fall off the bone.
It's worth taking the 72-hour train from Shanghai to Urumqi to eat Uyghur pilaf, but considering it's available every Friday within the city limits, you'd be forgiven for not making the journey.
At around 1 PM, the devout leave the Huxi mosque, having finished the Dhuhr prayers. The long green prayer mats are rolled up and the congregation mills around outside. There are Hui and Uyghurs, as well as groups of Pakistani businessmen, foreign exchange students from every part of the Middle East, and a 6-foot 5-inch Somali guy in a flowing traditional gown, who towers above everyone. They talk convivially, mingling with fellow Muslims from every corner of the globe.
People eventually start to say their goodbyes, some heading towards the subway, but the majority turning the other way, towards the sound of hot embers and sizzling lamb.
Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.