Uyghur Big Plate Fried Chicken

This is a quintessential Uyghur Dish. Stir-fried chicken, potatoes and bell peppers in a rich, savory sauce redolent with star anise and cinnamon. Roasted cumin flavors the base of the sauce, with black cardamom lending a smoky taste, and Sichuan pepper offering up a few bright, spicy lights. Interestingly, the heat of this dish is extremely variable and ranges from mild to four-alarm hot, although most people prefer the dish with moderate to high heat.  As written, the dish is moderately spicy and sure to please anyone who desires a taste of The Silk Road.

Uyghur Big Plate Chicken
Uyghur Big Plate Fried Chicken

Marinade
2 cups water
¼ cup light soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 cinnamon stick
3-4 whole black cardamom pods
2 star anise pods
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt

Ingredients
2 pounds of chicken (bone-in pieces or boneless breast meat)
3 tablespoons hsao xing rice wine
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons black rice vinegar
1 tablespoon broad bean paste (Doubanjiang) *
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper
3 – 4 star anise pods
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small bunch spring onions (6-8 stalks) roughly chopped **
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
1½ – 2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced or minced
1 heaping tablespoon Uyghur five-spice mix
6-8 dried mild-to-moderately hot red chili peppers ***
1 cup water
2-3 medium golden potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ -inch chunks
2 medium red bell peppers, cored and cut into chunks
2 tomatoes, diced

Method
Marinate the chicken. Mix the liquid marinade ingredients together in a large bowl. Break the cinnamon stick into pieces and lightly crush the black cardamom and the star anise pods before adding to the marinade. Add salt and stir well. Add chicken pieces and stir well to evenly coat the chicken with the marinade. Cover and rest at least overnight, stirring occasionally.

Preparing to cook. In a small bowl, mix together the hsao xing, light and dark soy sauces, black vinegar, bean paste, sugar and salt. Stir well until sugar and other solids are dissolved. Lightly crush the Szechuan pepper and the star anise pods and stir into the mixture. When other ingredients and prepared, drain chicken but do not rinse.

Cooking. Heat the oil in a wok on high heat and when the oil begins to smoke add the drained chicken pieces and stir fry for about 3-4 minutes or until the chicken becomes opaque and starts to color. Remove meat from the wok with a slotted spoon or strainer and set aside.

If necessary add a bit more oil to the wok and when it smokes, add the spring onions and stir fry for 1-2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic begins to swell and color. Add the ginger and stir for another minute or two. Add the Uyghur 5-spice mix and the whole chili peppers and stir well to coat the onion mix in the wok. Cook for 1 minute to warm the spices.

Add about 1/3 – to ½ cup of the water and stir. When the water has heated up, add the potato slices and stir well. Cover and cook for 6-8 minutes stirring occasionally. Add more water as necessary to keep the potatoes from burning.

Now add the bell peppers and tomatoes and stir – lifting more than stirring to keep the partially cooked potatoes intact. Give the hsao xing and soy sauce mixture a good stir to bring the solids back into solution and then pour into the wok and stir once more. Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes then add the chicken back into the wok and stir. Cover and cook another 3-5 minutes or until the chicken has warmed and the rest of the vegetables are cooked but still firm.

Plate and serve with rice, noodles, or naan flatbread.

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My favorite things about Big Plate Fried Chicken – called “Chong Tahsilik Tohu Qorimisi,” in Uyghur –  are the clear links the recipe has with Central Asian and Himalayan cuisines.  In particular, the rich star-anise laden sauce has many variants across Central Asia and the use of black cardamom is common in the Himalayas and parts of Central Asia.  That said, however, there are several clearly Chinese ingredients as well, such as black vinegar, broad bean paste and hsao xing rice wine.  Although Chinese in origin, Sichuan pepper has many close relatives (same genus, different species) that impart similar flavors in Himalayan cuisine as well, so it is difficult to know whether this ingredient links the recipe to China, or to the Himalayas.  The bottom line is that this is a UYGHUR dish, and as such it is a product of the Silk Road that joins ingredients and preparation methods from a variety of cultures to form its own unique recipe. Uyghur cuisine is a one of the world’s lesser-known fusion cuisines.

Big Plate Fried Chicken is available everywhere in Xinjiang Province. It is a standard in restaurants and is also a commonly prepared home-cooked meal.  It can be served as single main course –  which is the most common presentation at lunchtime – or it can be part of a larger multi-course (usually) evening meal.  With only a couple of changes, the sauce is used with lamb or mutton as well as chicken.

Some adjustments have been made in cooking to adjust for vessel shape and material.  Uyghurs usually prepare stews in a large cast iron pot with slightly slanted sides very much like the Uzbek qozon or cauldron.  These vessels can get blazingly hot, but like any cast-iron pot or pan, they take a long time to heat up and to cool down.  The meat and the potatoes cook much quicker Uyghur style than they do in a steel wok. Because of this, I suggest stir-frying the meat first, then removing it from the stew while the vegetables cook, and then returning it to heat up before serving.

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*   I used the kind that has few (if any) chili peppers in it (low heat).
** If you use the giant Asian spring onions, 1-2 should suffice.
*** Any mild-to-moderate red chili will work, but I used Japone chilies.

(Words, recipe and photograph of Uyghur Big Plate Chicken by Laura Kelley.)

Midday at the Oasis

Decorated Door in Turpan

Imagine yourself in a lush trellised garden of grape vines and mulberry trees. A brook babbles nearby and a light breeze filters through your leafy bower. Birds flit amongst the vines and provide music for your sojourn. You recline on a woven silk carpet of red and white that covers long wooden benches painted bright turquoise blue. Perhaps you sample the abundant local fruits and raisins while sipping locally produced wine. After a few hours of such pleasure, you have forgotten the harsh conditions that you travelled through to get here. After a few days you will once again be moving through the great sandy sea that surrounds this place. . . .

For some travelers along the Silk Road wanting to trade the unsurvivable Taklimakan desert for the inhospitable Gobi, this scene played out thousands of years ago. For me, it was last month during my visit to Turpan, China.

In April, the temperatures at nearby Flaming Mountain – the hottest place in China – topped 50 degrees centigrade. The extreme temperatures (which rise as high as 83°C) occur here because of the high iron content of the mountain and surrounding soil eroded from its great flanks, low elevation (500 feet below sea level) and in most places beyond Turpan, little to no ground cover. What is now desert was a little more fertile in the hey-day of the Silk Road, but still, the area beyond the Turpan oasis was a harsh place.

Flaming Mountain

The incredible fertility of the oases is made possible by a series of underground canals and surface wells called a Karez. Karez is a Persian irrigation system that was invented in the 1st millennium BCE and spread throughout desert countries or regions in the following centuries. Turpan’s Karez was constructed during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 24 CE), and is still in partial use today. In Turpan, it is fed by groundwater and by melting snow from Tian Shan mountains. According to a UNESCO study of Iraqi Karez, a single Karez can sustain 9000 people and provide water for 200 hectares of cropland.

Vines and Benches in Turpan’s Grape Valley

In Turpan and surrounding areas this means two things: grapes and corn. Other crops produced from irrigated lands in the region include melons, pears, and apricots, but grapes and corn are by far the most important agricultural products. Translating this to the table, Turpan is awash in a wide variety of sweet raisins and wine. As a Uyghur city, the raisins are enjoyed by everyone and the wine is for tourists and for the burgeoning Han population that is increasing in leaps and bounds as Xingjian province develops.

Interestingly, grapeleaves and cornstalks (supplemented with salt and sugar) also form the basis for much of the animal fodder in Turpan, and yes, the taste of the grapeleaves comes through in the tender, sweet mutton enjoyed in the area – the best pastorally derived meat I have ever tasted. Also, according to Muslim and Uyghur practice, lambs are not slaughtered too young, so by far, most of the meat eaten is from adult animals.

Grapes and Raisins

Turpan Grapes by Don Croner

I visited Turpan in the Spring, so the vines were just leafing out and climbing their frames from their long winter rest. Still they provided rare shade from the onslaught of the midday sun. The winter climate is so severe in Xinjiang that the vines are dug under and covered each autumn to protect them from the temperatures which can fall as low as -20°C and are accompanied by biting winds. The hot dry climate in the summer, however, provides a taste advantage when towards the end of the growing season irrigation is decreased and the sugars are allowed to set in the grapes.

There are over 50 kinds of grapes native to Xinjiang and several hundred more that have been introduced in recent decades. Of the native varieties, Turpan Seedless White is prized for its sweet flavor, color and fragrance. The Mare’s Teat is another variety that is large, sweet and succulent, and the sweet yet slightly tart Suosuo variety are small purple, seedless grapes – that resemble champagne grapes – between the size of a large peppercorn and a caper. These last raisins are an important ingredient in Uyghur medicines and are said to be good treatment for everything from measles in children to intestinal upsets in adults, blood disorders and qi problems. Because of these myriad medicinal uses, they are much more expensive than ordinary grapes or raisins.

Drying Raisins in a Qunje

Some grapes are harvested as early as July and some last on the vine until autumn. Grape growers store some of their grapes in cellars or storehouses so as to have fresh fruit during the winter and spring months, but even more grapes are dried for raisins. Grapes are dried in mud-brick buildings – checkered with holes to allow circulation of air – called qunje in Uyghur. The grapes are left in the qunje for thirty or forty days, by which time they have turned into full, succulent sweet raisins which still retain the color and luster of fresh grapes. Sometimes, the grapes are allowed to dry for a few days in the sun before being hung in the qunje to make a sweeter variety of raisin.

I sampled seven different types of raisins while I was in Turpan. In general, the lighter colored raisins – white and green were more sweet than the darker reddish varieties. Most were seedless, but a few had noticeable seeds. They were all sweet and delicious, but the seeded varieties seemed to have the most complex flavors – being tart and sweet at the same time.

Wine

Xinjiang Wines

After sampling several wines from Xinjiang and Gansu, I found all of the wines were clean and fresh. They are light to medium-bodied, and have a short to medium length finish. On the downside, they are thin on the palate with very little concentration or intensity, and next to no complexity. They are good, but at this point, by western standards, they are not great. However, they please the domestic market and have done so for the better part of two millennia so far. Whether they will ever become wines that sell on the international market remains to be seen. The Chinese are interested in developing wine tourism and an internationally marketable wine industry, and are taking steps to do so. When I was in Turpan, they had just had a consortium of Napa Valley winemakers visiting for consultation.

As we were leaving Grape Valley a spring Sandstorm sprung up and blew down several fully grown poplar trees lining the avenue to the oasis.  Despite the storm we kept on travelling south and west to make my train.  As the storm stopped we were far away from the lush valley and as I looked back I could see no trace of the green vines promising an abundant harvest that I had enjoyed only a few hours ago.  Was it perhaps just a mirage? (Words by Laura Kelley.  Photos of Decorated Door in Turpan, Flaming Mountain, and Vines and Benches in Turfan by Laura Kelley. Photo of Turpan Grapes by DonCroner, Photo of Drying Raisins in a Qunje and Xinjiang Wines from Wikimedia.)