Last year, I rushed to the Chinese province of Ningxia for Eid Al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. I watched, from the back of one the biggest mosques in the province, hundreds of men prostrating in worship and ending their month of fasting. There would be a feast at the end of the day at the homes of each family, typically consisting of mutton, dough, potatoes, and beef.
With a Muslim population of roughly 23 million, China has more followers of Islam than many Arab countries, and an entire subset of Chinese cuisine has developed as a result.
As is the case elsewhere in the world, Muslim restaurants in China adhere to halal standards. Pork is staunchly avoided and the meat from animals are slaughtered according to prescribed religious procedures. Because most of the Muslim community in China is located in the north where wheat is the staple crop, nearly all the restaurants focus intensely on noodles and flatbreads.
At night markets in Muslim-dominated cities, kebabs, or chuan er, are a regular fixture, usually doused with a thick coating of cumin, which is the most prevalent spice of the cuisine. Lamb is a favorite and everything, from the intestines to the brain, is cooked and consumed. Muslim Chinese food also has a tendency to err toward the spicy side, and a lot of New World crops like potatoes, tomatoes, and bell peppers have become an integral part of the cuisine.
There are two major Muslim ethnic groups in China: the Hui and the Uyghurs. While these two communities share the same religion and base ingredients, their respective cuisines are quite different.
The Hui Muslims—based primarily in Ningxia province and dispersed all throughout Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Tibet—are known for a dedication to beef and lamb noodles. Their restaurants are stereotyped for their immaculate cleanliness—a product of a religious commitment to hygiene and an avoidance of certain vices like cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling. With a 1,200-year-old history, the Huis are an ethnic minority in China, descendants of Arab and Persian traders who settled along the Silk Road and defined by their Islamic faith.
Throughout the years, they have assimilated so well into mainstream Chinese society that of the 56 officially designated nationality groups in China, their religion is the sole unifying criterion of identity. Their cuisine is called qingzhen — which translates to "pure truth." The word qing is also a homophone for the color blue-green, and the restaurants all have signs of that very color, which is a clear indication that the food is halal.
They are the main proprietors of Lanzhou beef noodle soup restaurants, named after the capital of the Gansu province of China. The dish is a clear soup, combined with slices of turnip and clean cuts of tender beef raised in farmlands just outside of Lanzhou, ladled on top of hand-pulled chewy noodles, mixed with a piquant saucy mix of chilies and peppercorns that both numbs and activates the tongue.
In 1915, a Muslim man of Hui descent named Mabaozi invented the dish and popularized it among the Hui people. There are now more than 20,000 Lanzhou noodle shops spread across the country, and that's a conservative estimate at best. There is no centralized chain or monopoly over the shops; the Lanzhou noodle reputation is bolstered by hundreds of individual entrepreneurs and it's an economy that thrives on the debate of what makes a good bowl of soup. Noodles are pulled entirely from scratch and require a great deal of finesse and skill.
The Huis also have a symbiotic culinary relationship with the Tibetan communities throughout China. In most Tibetan towns, I found small communities of Muslims who had been there for hundreds of years. They traditionally serve as the butchers, because Tibetans are discouraged from slaughtering their own meat because of their Buddhist background. Tibetans will sell their yaks directly to the Huis, the Huis will pay them in cash, slaughter the yaks, and sell them in the meat market.
In contrast, Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic group concentrated primarily in Xinjiang, a far northwest autonomous region in China that borders Russia, Afghanistan, and India. Unlike their Hui neighbors, they are more distinct in their Eurasian looks, have retained their own language, and enjoy a cuisine that draws from both Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese elements.
Pilaf, cooked with lamb fat, is a constant, as well as laghman—handmade noodles topped with a grace of tender ground lamb and potato, tomato, onion, and peppers. Unique to the Uyghurs is a dish called da pan ji—"big plate chicken"—a spicy stewed chicken dish with hot chilies and bell peppers, most commonly ladled over noodles. They also have their own version of naan bread, cooked in a tandoor oven. Baked goods are another integral part of Uyghur life. There's a bread called girda naan, which looks and tastes exactly like a bagel, and there is also quite a repertoire of pastries, often decorated with nuts and raisins.
In short, Muslim Chinese food is hearty, specific with its treatment of meat but inclusive in its range of flavors. Hui cuisine is focused on noodles and is more Chinese in taste, whereas Uyghur food has more of a Turkic influence. Both are heavy-handed in their use of lamb, beef, cumin, and wheat.
On one occasion in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, my friends and I met a 20-something guy on the street who gave us a lift and took us out for dinner at his favorite neighborhood restaurant.
There, we ate a spread of lamb, naan, and bell pepper-laced noodles. Mid-meal, I asked him how he would describe the food of his people.
"Comfort food," he said, smiling. "Guaranteed to make you full."