Replicating a Uyghur tonur baking experience in an American oven

As you may know, over the past many years I have been experimenting with baking techniques that replicate the traditional Uyghur tonur oven. Those experiments tended to include the use of a broiler, and/or a super hot and dense cooking vessel like a Baking Steel. Here was post from 2015 on samsa under a broiler, and here was a post on my early attempts at Uyghur bazaar-style nan. Since my last posts on the subject I’ve learned several things and have found some new devices to help make that experience a bit closer to my goal. It’s still a little wonky, but I’m getting closer. If you’ve come to appreciate outstanding Uyghur tonur-baked items, you may be interested in my journey…

Uyghur baker working with a tonur oven in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, photo David Dettmann

First of all, I’ll reiterate what it is that I’m trying to replicate. The tonur (Uy. تونۇر) is a bell-shaped outdoor oven that is commonly used to make breads, buns, meat pies. In the Uyghur region these ovens are often made of a fired alkaline clay, though they can also be made of iron or any other food-grade materials that have a large thermal mass that will enable the walls to hold heat. If you visit a Uyghur bakery you can usually see the ovens in front of or beside the shops, usually encased by a box that the bakers can use to get up on in order to gain better access to the oven’s walls. This kind of oven was widely adopted all across Eurasia, and you can see legacies of the concept in existing baking traditions in many far-flung places. Georgians call it “tone”, Persians and Uyghurs call it “tonur”, and it is generally known in post-Soviet Central Asia as “tandir”. Perhaps needless to say, the South Asian cousin to this oven is the tandoor, which is the version best known here in the US (but more for grilled meats than breads) of Indian restaurant menus.

Fishing a golden nan from the tonur. Photo David Dettmann

The tonur baking process begins by stoking a strong fire on the floor of the oven. Over time, the walls absorb the intense heat of the fire. Once the walls of the oven are hot enough to bake with, the fire is no longer fed. There is still heat in the fire, but is largely coming from embers and not big flames. The baker inverts flatbreads onto a padded dome-shaped cushion (where the baker is resting his left hand in the top image). Water or saltwater is spread on the underside of the bread, and the baker sticks the nan directly to the tonur wall. The intense heat transfer that occurs creates oven spring in the bread, and the nan are golden in a matter of minutes. A long bread pliers or hook is used to extract the bread from the wall, and it is ejected onto the top of the oven box to cool. The finished breads are crispy on the exterior, and rock a little because they are concave in shape due to the rounded and domed oven walls. Once cool, they stack nicely.

Replicating the above in a standard American oven comes with several challenges. Two things are kind of out of the question, a live wood fire, and temperatures that go well above 500 degrees. Aside from those, finding a device with substantial thermal mass that can shock the bread and produce adequate oven spring is a challenge that home bakers have found solutions to through using pizza stones, cast iron skillets, and more recently the Baking Steel. These are all great starts for making delicious breads, and I had been achieving pretty decent results with a Baking Steel, using a floured pizza peel strategy of sliding breads onto the hot steel for great oven spring. But that really worked best for firmer quick breads, and wasn’t ideal for longer ferments (i.e. more flavorful doughs that had a more slackened texture).

Last year I found an enormous cast iron “wok” online. It was designed to be used as an accessory to an outdoor stove, called the Solo Stove, as part of its “Ranger Fire Pit” cooking system. The curvature seemed to be pretty close to the internal concave shape of a medium-sized Uyghur tonur, so I acquired one to try baking on (NOTE this is not how this was intended to be used, so test at your own risk). I was thrilled with my first try, and excitedly posted a video on Instagram (see here for alternate video link if you are not on Instagram). I found two things were achievable with this new tool. I could now make nan with concave shapes, and I could start making larger nan, up to around 15” wide rounds! Again, like with the Baking Steel, for quick breads (3 hour ferments, for example) the dough was stiff enough to work with a pizza peel, but I had trouble trying to get slacker doughs onto the device without ruining them in a crumpled mess.

First attempt at a large sized nan on a hot Solo Stove wok under a broiler

Uyghur bakers use a special tool for sticking round breads to a tonur oven wall, something that looks like a round leather cushion that has a handle on the back, or a pocket for a hand to go in. Sadly, this tool was not among the many cooking implements I brought home with me from my last trip to Kashgar and Hotan in 2018.

So, enter today’s innovation. I found inspiration from South Asian chefs showing how to DIY “gaddi pads” on YouTube (see here for an example–a gaddi is meant for sicking roti into a tandoor), and I created a nan cushion to be able to use to apply round bread to the cast iron, maintaining the circular shape. I built mine using a flat wooden lid for a 14″ cast iron wok. I rolled, coiled, and stacked a few Thai phakhaoma (ผ้าขาวม้า) fabrics inside in kind of a ziggurat shape, and wrapped and covered it with another phakhaoma. In Thailand they say there are 101 uses for this cloth. I guess this makes use number 102. 

So, my process was the following… [UPDATE 10 Apr 2023: I finally filmed all steps and put them up on YouTube. Check that out here.] Preheat the oven as hot as it goes, with the Solo Stove wok as high in the oven as is comfortable to periodically fetch. After the breads are shaped and generally formed, one is put onto a wooden pizza peel and its center is punctured repeatedly with a bread punch (tükchä, a.k.a. chäkküch, see past blog post), and then topped with finely chopped onion.

The bread is then inverted (onions and all) onto the DIY cushion. Situate the bread so that it is as round as possible. Dampen what will be the bread’s underside. I did this by dipping my hands in saltwater and patting it on. Put the cushion with the ready bread in a place that can easily be grabbed with one hand in order to press it onto the hot steel. Next carefully take out the blistering hot wok and put it on top of the stove. With one adequately gloved hand (the steel is hot enough to melt materials that are not fire resistant fabric), tilt the wok up on its side as if it is a wall in a tonur oven. Then, with the bread cushion in the other hand, apply the bread to the wok’s surface. Put the cushion down and re-situate the wok on top of the stove briefly, get a pot holder for each hand and get it into the oven. Spray the walls of the oven briefly with a spray bottle of water to steam up the oven to encourage the dough to spring. Check on it after a few minutes and rotate if necessary if one side is browning faster than the other. 

The results were pretty successful. This time I didn’t put the broiler on (my oven’s broiler won’t even activate if the oven is over 450F, apparently a safety feature that thwarts experiments like the kind I like to do.  I shaped two 12″ onion breads and baked them at 550F for less than 10 minutes each, or until they risked burning. The underside crust was exactly was I was shooting for:

The flavor and texture of today’s experiment were better than my best past attempts. The process explained above may seem super convoluted–for sure, this is an obsessive rabbit hole that I’ve taken you down. One advantage that I found for using a “nan cushion” as opposed to a pizza peel in this process is that the bread relaxes for a moment and spreads out a little more, and evenly. When using the peel, nan tends to scrunch together more when it is “flicked” off of the peel.

In short I’m excited to experiment more. Future attempts will include larger thinner tonur breads like Uyghur kakcha (كاكچا) or the “anise breads” (noni toqiy) I found in a Bukharan Jewish cookbook Classic Central Asian Jewish Cuisine and Customs by Ammun Kimyagarov (2010).

[UPDATE 10 Apr 2023] See below for a video I put together to visually explain my process. At the end of the video I also tried some sesame nan and daman nan (a bread that resembles a bagel with a wide hole, popular in the Southern Tarim, especially for festivals like Ramadan):

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Unique food traditions, Central Asia/Uyghur food | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

This year’s new Asian markets and closed markets that will be missed

One of the new Philly Asian markets to open in late 2019 was the two-story Asianfresh 家和超市, where Imperial Inn used to be at 144 N. 10th St. in Chinatown

Happy New Year! This past year has been brutal for much of Philadelphia’s food scene, with so many restaurants and bars having been forced to close. That said, our Asian markets seem to at least be scraping by, and in some cases even doing well. The only markets that I know of that closed in late 2019 and 2020 did so for reasons other than the pandemic. I was particularly sad to see some Chinatown markets go, and the Big 8 Supermarket in the Hoa Binh plaza in South Philly will also be missed. On the other hand, we have gained some nice new shopping options as well. This post will highlight some notable openings and closings from the end of 2019 to the present.

Over the past few months I have been venturing out a lot more (at least two market trips per week), and I have made big updates to my Map of Philly Asian Markets. Take a look at that map and let me know if your local go-to market is on it! I’d be happy to hear updates from you. In fact this past year some of you reached out with very welcome news of openings and closings–thank you for letting me know, and please continue to do so!


Asia Supermarket (aka Chinatown Food Market, “the underground market”, 亞洲超級市場), 143 N 11th St, closed since late 2019 (?)

This cavernous store was one of my favorite markets for after-work shopping, and its situation being underground on the corner of 11th and Race made it a fun destination. They maintained offerings of many old school Cantonese staples, and they had a nice vegetable selection. I loved their pots and plates section as well. It was great for a quick stop–they had everything, and the space was so nicely spread out it was so convenient to get in and out. Other markets in Chinatown are often not so convenient.

I only realized this place closed in early 2020, just before Philadelphia businesses went into lockdown for the first time.

Siêu Thị Big 8 (aka Big 8 Supermarket – 八大超級市場), 1601 Washington Ave, closed in 2020

The Big 8 Supermarket (and the rest of the businesses in the Hoa Binh plaza) were denied lease renewals after the block was obtained by a developer who is putting up luxury condos in its place. Since 2019 there have been demonstrations by the community (led by organizations like VietLead), demanding the city allow locals and existing business to have a say in the matter. But it didn’t happen in the end (to my knowledge). The Hòa Bình Plaza was the first plaza of its kind to be developed in 1990 by Vietnamese-American entrepreneurs. This plaza model of a grocery store surrounded by shops and restaurants was later implemented several blocks east by other Southeast Asian immigrant community entrepreneurs along the Washington Ave corridor in the Wing Phat Plaza at 12th and Washington and the Maxim Plaza at 6th and Washington. The Big 8 Supermarket had a range of offerings that sustained a very diverse customer base. For me, this was a valuable market because it was the closest market with decent herbs that I could bike to after work from the university for a one-stop-shop. They had most Southeast Asian and Chinese bases covered. There was a great selection of East/Southeast Asian potted plants outside too, and their “utensil” aisle was considerable.

Great World Supermarket (aka No. 1 Supermarket, 大世界超市), 927 Arch St, closed in late 2019

The Great World Supermarket was very handy for me on bad weather days when I had to take regional rail trains back home. Jefferson Station (the last Center City stop on the way back home) is only a few minutes away from this location, and their selection of vegetables and fruits here was considerable. If I had a 40 minute wait on a train, I could easily skip over here for some nice produce. Now there is a Chinese kebab (chuar 串儿) restaurant there called “friendship BBQ” or youqing kechuan 友情客串:

A string of new businesses on Arch: “Friendship BBQ” 友情客串, Jia Mei Chu Shang Spicy 厨尚麻辣, and the ubiquitous South Korean chain Paris Baguette


Hmart Philadelphia (aka H마트 or H超市), 6201 N Front St

Hmart Philadelphia open as of September 2020

Over the past few decades Hmart has become a huge chain in the US, and a huge new location was added at 6201 N Front St. making 4 for the Philadelphia region (the other locations being 69th St terminal in Upper Darby, on Cheltenham in Elkins Park, and a location in Cherry Hill, NJ).

While I’m surprised they put in another store not terribly far from the Elkins Park location, I’m happy they did. It is a gem. It is the largest Hmart I’ve ever been in, and everything is so spaced out (which is especially welcome under the current pandemic). The layout and lighting is very inviting. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the store’s planning to make for a very pleasurable shopping experience. See Google images to get a sense of what I mean. There is a food court inside, as well as yet another Paris Baguette store. They also sell alcohol! I think it is the first Asian market in Philadelphia that sells Asian alcohol. They have a growing selection of Japanese sakes and of course Korean soju (though not as many brands as I would have thought). They also carry beer and wine, though mostly mainstream US stuff.

This is one of two new large stores in Northeast Philadelphia that is pretty clearly targeting the existing Korean community in the area as well as the growing Chinese community in the Northeast (notice the Chinese name on the right side).

Hung Vuong Food Market Mayfair 恒发超市 [in Chinese: Heng Fa Supermarket], 6410 Frankford Ave

“Mayfair Market by Hung Vuong Food Market (恒发超市)”
[in Chinese: Heng Fa Supermarket], 6410 Frankford Ave, opened at the end of 2019

The other large market to open up in the past year was the Mayfair Market by Hung Vuong Food Market in the Mayfair Shopping Center complex off Frankford Ave (taking the place of a Shop n Bag store. In Chinese this market is “Heng Fa Supermarket” 恒发超市, like the one at 10th and Cherry in Chinatown. But the English name contains the name of a pretty well-known Sino-Vietnamese market at 12th and Washington Ave, Hung Vuong, which seems to have now become a sub-brand of the burgeoning Heng Fa empire, which has grown to well beyond Philadelphia in Allentown and also Cherry Hill, NJ.

When I moved to Philly in 2013, I found three markets that were called “Heng Fa” in Chinese: the B & K Market at Adams and Tabor in near Northeast Philly, and the two King Market locations across the street from each other in Chinatown (where Xun Yu Si Kao and Vivi Bubble Tea are now). It seems like this brand was reformulated in 2015 to the current Heng Fa iteration (also interestingly this is when the name changed in Chinese from traditional to simplified Chinese characters). Not log after the new Heng Fa in Chinatown opened, a limited partnership was established in 2016 with the Hung Vuong Supermarket on Washington Ave (Siêu Thị Hùng Vương 雄王超級市場, named after the legendary rulers of ancient Vietnam). If you paid attention to the Chinese on the signs and bags there, you would have noticed everything changed to “Heng Fa”. I feel like there has also been a noticeable increase in spoken Chinese at that South Philly location. That said, the store inventory has remained largely intact, targeting a Chinese and Southeast Asian clientele.

Here are some recent purchases showcasing some of the specialized and obscure food items that can be found at this market:

This new market in Mayfair Shopping Center is beautiful, and it is nicely organized. While it has a heavy focus on Chinese customers with some very specialized new imports from the PRC and Taiwan, it also covers bases for most Southeast Asian tastes as well (like the location in South Philly). For example, the Southeast Asian herb selection is considerable, and they carry green papayas, etc. Like the new Hmart, this store is spacious and comfortable for shopping under a pandemic.

The Hung Vuong brand of Heng Fa market has also opened a huge new store in Cherry Hill, NJ (I have not yet visited that location, but it looks gorgeous) and apparently also Allentown, PA, according to a news report on 6ABC News in September.

Asianfresh 家和超市, at 144 N. 10th St.

While Chinatown lost two markets recently, it gained a big new one. Asianfresh 家和超市, at 144 N. 10th St. opened in late 2019. It took the space of the closed Imperial Inn, and is a two-storied market with produce, meats, and seafood on the first floor and non-perishables and refrigerated sections upstairs. It’s a pretty nice market and it carries a lot of new imports from China. It can get a little congested at times, though checkout tends to be very fast moving.

Kalaya Market กัลยา พานิช, 922 S. 9th St.

Kalaya, the new and beloved Thai restaurant in the Italian Market neighborhood spawned a 2nd location in fall 2020 as Kalaya Market กัลยา พานิช, 922 S. 9th St.

While it isn’t a full-scale grocery store, Kalaya Market appeared this past fall as a store with takeaway prepared food items, and several uniquely Thai non-perishables. At one point this fall they even had kaffir (makrut) limes and calamansi! They also carry some novelties like the Thai Lays potato chip flavors, as well as Thai-style binto lunchboxes. Check out Kalaya Market’s Instagram feed for samples of their offerings and updates.

Do you have a favorite new market, or is your local go-to market closing? Please let me know, and best regards for a great new year 2021.

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets, - Guides, Chinese food, Korean food, Thai/Lao food | 4 Comments

Breakfast tsuivan submerged in hot milk tea

“Smells like Mongolian spirit, man!” This is my favorite line from Nargie’s Mongolian Cuisine‘s tsuivan episode (see link below). I now realize this was most likely a reference to Nirvana’s hit single as Nargie is clearly a big fan, but it is still a profound statement highlighting the status of this beloved comfort food in Mongolia. In honor of Nargie and this favorite dish, today I’m submerging some leftover tsuivan (цуйван) in hot milk tea for breakfast here in Philadelphia. It’s a perfect hot breakfast for these cool mornings.

If you are not familiar with that YouTube show from ArtGer, check it out. It’s a very enjoyable show to watch–the videos are often funny, but they are carefully produced and go to great lengths to respectfully highlight Mongolia’s fascinating food culture(s). Here is the episode I referenced above with my quote. Watch Nargie enjoy his leftovers on a brisk morning in Darkhan at the 13:28 mark:

During my last visit to Darkhan in spring 2019, I had the pleasure of meeting the channel’s (and the show’s) creator Javkhlantugs Ragchaasuren (aka Javkha Ara). Javkha showed me around Darkhan and introduced me to his fledgling studio inside of the Zaluuchuud Theatre. Javkha’s work hints at his background in TV and journalism, and he is slowly gaining acclaim nationally and internationally for his remarkable documentaries. Within social media ArtGer is seriously gaining traction with over 60 million views on YouTube. If you have a serious interest in food culture of North Asia or Mongolia, I recommend checking out the ArtGer channel. They also produce a program called “Views”, which are basically food anthropology videos from around Mongolia.

Back to the theme of today’s post, [Mongolian] milk-tea tsuivan

Milk-tea tsuivan in my fancy Genghis Khan bowl

Tsuivan (цуйван, ᠴᠤᠶᠢᠪᠢᠩ) is a Mongolian comfort food that I last wrote about in 2015. Since that post, I’ve been back to Mongolia several times and have stumbled across a whole lot more media on the topic. I’ve also eaten a lot more tsuivan! Milk-tea tsuivan (which we could perhaps call сүүтэй цайтай цуйван in Mongolia–it comes up in Google image searches anyway) is not a common item among Mongolia’s many low-brow eateries; my sense is that it is something Mongols might do at home with leftovers for a rich breakfast.

That said, I did find it at one of the Modern Nomads chains in a menu item titled “The Japanese Tourist” (see here for an image of that menu page). The name is supposedly in honor of a Japanese tourist in Mongolia who ate the combination once (perhaps in a home-stay situation) and then struggled to ever find this “dish” again:

The “Japanese Tourist” at Modern Nomads with beef, sheep tail, sliced noodle tsuivan, topped with milk tea.

The etymology of tsuivan points to a North China food item, 炒饼 chaobing (stir-fried “bing”). For that dish, a thin flatbread is fried on a flat top stove, and then shredded into fine strips and added to a stir-fry meat/vegetable combination. In Mongolia today, a lot of folks prefer to just roll out and cut noodles, and pile them onto the stir fry in process and cover until cooked and chewy. You can see a nice video example of that from Altaa’s Kitchen. Oh, if you are interested, Modern Nomads has an over-the-top version of this classic in a dish they call “the nomad”, where multi-colored “noodle” shreds are steamed under thin slices of meat. That is featured in another Nargie’s Mongolian Cuisine, HERE.

When I cooked this dish previously, I either partially boiled noodles in the stew or steamed and shredded the noodles separately for inclusion. Yesterday I wanted to try that other method for making the “noodles”, replicating how nomadic families dry fry noodle sheets on the flat top of a nomadic stove. It occurred to me that I could simulate a flat top stove and accommodate for a large noodle sheet by heating my Baking Steel on top of my stove. The results were good, though may have been more time consuming and trouble than it was worth. The noodle textures were similar to my previous attempts.

Milk-tea tsuivan Сүүтэй цайтай цуйван ᠰᠦᠨ ᠲᠡᠢ ᠴᠠᠢ ᠲᠠᠢ ᠴᠤᠶᠢᠪᠢᠩ

Tsuivan for dinner the night before, prepared from farmer’s market ingredients: beef from Brophy’s Spring Hollow Farm, cabbage, long hots, cucumbers from McCann’s, kohlrabi, carrots from Everwild Farm
Enjoy dinner and then keep a portion for breakfast tomorrow

Hope you enjoy this unique dish!

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, Mongolian food | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The East Falls Farmers’ Market

It has been a while since my last blog post. My apologies–home/work life has gotten busy. I never mentioned this on the blog before, but in addition to my job at the university, since Fall 2019 I took over as Market Manager at the East Falls Farmers’ Market (EFFM). Out of convenience and necessity, this Saturday market under the Twin Bridges in downtown East Falls has gradually become the source for most of our food at home. Today I’d like to introduce you to our farmers and maybe give you some ideas of how you can use local farmers’ market produce to make some great Asian-influenced meals at home.

The vibrant East Falls Farmers’ Market–Safe shopping during a global pandemic

Since the lock down, the East Falls Farmers’ Market (4100 Ridge Ave) has become my primary source for fresh produce, fruit, meats, yogurt, cheese, wine, beer, etc. My wife and I still cook primarily Thai and East Asia inspired foods on a daily basis, but we have largely adapted to what is available at the market. That does generally mean fresher and more flavorful ingredients compared to what we can get from any nearby mainstream big-box grocery stores, though we have access to fewer specialty Asian items. That said, the products are local and in season, harvested with care and even produced with environmental and ethical considerations. It feels good to be able to support our local talented and hardworking farmers and food vendors while (finally) learning how to cook more according to what is in season for our region.

McCann’s Farm (of Elk Township, NJ), a longtime cornerstone of the EFFM. From fruit to gourds, they have a lot of stuff. We are often getting peppers, eggplants, cabbages, lettuces here. See bottom of post for more images of McCann’s produce
Anita McCann is in charge of the farm’s market activities this year while her sister Nancy is working at the farm
Jim and Roberta represent Betty’s Acres (Bloomsburg, PA) and sell milk, yogurt, chevre, feta, and even fudge and ice cream, all made from goat’s milk! I’m a big fan of the rich milk and drinkable yogurt (which is also great in salad dressings). One of my favorite uses of that unsweeted yogurt is to cover hot boiled dumplings (imagine Tukish mantı but larger) with a scattering of Laoganma chile oil. It is comfort food, trust me.

In March the EFFM took quick precautions to move vendors to online pre-order and pickup models, and we implemented safe social distancing measures. Because of those steps, we were able to stay open every weekend, even during those dark and challenging days early on in the lock down. Now vendors are back to day-of sales, though distancing precautions remain. The market has grown substantially this year, both in terms of farmers and food vendors, and also in terms of a stronger customer base. In short, the market is doing well, and frequent new offerings along with open air safe distancing make it an increasingly desirable place to shop for locals. This has got to be one of the few positive outcomes of an otherwise incredibly distressing time.

Nathan Brophy is from Spring Hollow Farm, way up in Benton, PA. His meats (all frozen) are fresh and extremely flavorful. He’s holding up one of our favorite items, pork belly. We get all of our meats from Nathan: beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. See below for some examples of cooking with pork belly, ground pork, lamb ribs, beef brisket, etc.

Since I’m down at the market every Saturday (year-round!) helping to get vendors situated and otherwise ensure the market runs smoothly, I’ve made Saturday my main food shopping day. Occasionally I supplement my farmers’ market purchases with a visit to relatively nearby favorite Asian markets like Seng Hong (a great Southeast Asia-focused market in N Philly) or the H-Mart in Elkins Park for any necessary specialized Asian ingredients. I do miss visits to the city’s many small corner stores (especially South Philly’s great Southeast Asian stores). As things begin to open up, I look forward to continued explorations of our city’s many markets.

Tim Pearsall from Everwild Farm, Ambler, PA. Everwild joined EFFM last winter, and has several items common in East Asian cooking! We’re regularly getting garlic, scallions, chiles and stir-fry greens here. See bottom of post for more images of Everwild’s produce.
Thom and Tim Pearsall, of Everwild Farm

I hope you take advantage of your local farmers’ market offerings (if you are lucky enough to have one). You are welcome to come visit ours too! The East Falls Farmers’ Market (4100 Ridge Ave) is open every Saturday, 10am-2pm. In Mid-late December we expect to again shift to a 2-hour market, 11am-1pm until it starts getting warm again, i.e. May. Hope to see you there!

Some examples of the farmers’ market products in our meals under quarantine

Dtam dtaeng ตําแตง (“bashed cucumber” salad)

Dtam dtaeng is a funky and sour salad very similar to som tam (green papaya salad). For this we used McCann’s Kirby cucumbers, tomatoes and chicken eggs, together with Everwild’s fresh garlic, Thai chiles and Mesclun salad mix. We ate it together with some homemade Thai herbal sausage and smoked jerk chicken wings from Side of the Road in East Falls.

Guilin mifen 桂林米粉 with ground beef and maitake mushrooms

Half of the ingredients for this came out of the pantry (dried rice noodles, pickled long beans, homemade airfried soy nuts, and a Sichuanese crispy chile in oil (川南油辣子), some braised meat stock came out of the freezer. Farmers’ market ingredients included ground beef made into meat balls from Brophy’s Spring Hollow Farm, and maitake mushrooms and cilantro from McCanns.

Stir-fried kabocha squash with pork belly and Thai basil ฟักทองผัดหมูสามชั้น (with a side of fried kale)

This Thai-style weekday meal was prepared almost entirely (except salt, garlic, and fish sauce) from EFFM ingredients: Kabocha squash, kale, and long hots from McCann’s, eggs and pork belly from Spring Hollow Farm and Thai basil from Susan Schnee’s herbs (Susan was a vendor in 2019).

Fried pom pom (aka lion’s mane) mushrooms

Sometimes there are some more unusual mushrooms at the market! Pom pom mushrooms fry wonderfully in some oil with salt and pepper. The result is also like a scallop or something. Really delicious and great as a side to anything.

Isaan-style chicken stew with oyster mushrooms and dill อ่อมไก่ aum gai

This is a great dish that freezes well for nice fall weekday meals. Soup chicken (layer chicken) from Spring Hollow Farm, oyster mushrooms, chiles, and dill from McCann’s. Lemongrass and galangal came out of the freezer for this one. Kaffir lime leaves came from our tree!

Stir-fried Asian cauliflower with pork belly

This year Everwild Farm had long-stemmed cauliflower, just like the kinds you can get at Philly Asian markets! Stirfried with Nathan’s pork belly.

Grilled pork chops with Thai-style nam jim sauce, and grilled eggplant with ground pork, along with grilled corn, long hots, and zucchinis with flowers

This one was also nearly entirely EFFM materials, and was a collaboration with Alex, a chef who’s quarantining in the neighborhood. Alex grilled the pork chops (and decorated them with several edible flowers from his garden) and made the nam jim sauce, and we grilled some Japanese eggplants and corn and made the eggplant ground pork dish. Meats were from Spring Hollow Farms, corn and eggs were from McCann’s, and peppers, Japanese eggplants, and zucchinis from Everwild Farm.

Rapid-fire gallery of much more eye candy

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Delicious grains: millets of China, Mongolia, and Central Asia

A fried foxtail millet pilaf with sweet and savory Chinese sausage and pickled mustard greens

The millets of China, Mongolia, and Central Asia are hearty crops that can be sustained in very arid climates. For tens of thousands of years they have served as important staple crops for many of those region’s food cultures (especially before the widespread use of wheat). Today I am writing about two of the most common types of millet that have ancient Eurasian roots, but can be easily found in Philadelphia Chinese markets: foxtail millet (Setaricia italica) and broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum). Both are nutty, delicious, and nutritious, and both are definitely worth checking out as a an interesting alternative to other grains.

If you don’t know what to expect with attempting to cook these millets, I find their tastes and textures remind me very much of a starchy couscous (in fact, in Chinese, couscous is often called by the same word used to refer to foxtail millet 小米, despite the fact that couscous is not a grain but a type of pasta). In porridge forms, the taste and texture is reminiscent of Cream of Wheat (for me this isn’t a negative connotation). The millet grains that I describe below are smaller than rice, and they cook faster than rice too. These would be versatile in pilaf or porridge preparations, savory or sweet. Both have “glutinous” (I presume those would be best in porridge-type preparations) and “regular” forms in Philadelphia markets. I’ll be focusing on the non-glutinous types today.

Two types (out of four available, including glutinous varieties of each of these) of millet purchased at Heng Fa market on Washington Ave (aka Hung Vuong). Wise Wife brand “Northeastern big yellow grain” and Merry Group brand “Northeastern small grain”

I took several weeks to research as many millet-focused recipes as I could find from my Chinese, Mongolian, Uyghur, Uzbek, and Kazakh language cookbook collection, and some existing resources online. Most recipes that I found were for porridge preparations, like a sweet snack or hot breakfast recipe. There were also several pilaf-like preparations that intrigued me. As I’ve been home-bound for several weeks now due to the COVID-19 related lockdown in Philadelphia, I decided to try several millet-based dishes, and I share some of my millet adventures below.

Foxtail millet (Setaricia italica), 小米, qonaq, shar budaa, etc.

Foxtail millet was domesticated in north-central China some 10,000 years ago1 (in the same region that is the Chinese wheat heartland of breads and noodles along the Yellow River) and is still an important crop there. The grain is also now common in Central Asian and Mongolian food cultures.  In Chinese this is commonly referred to as “little grain” 小米, as opposed to the “big grain” 大米 (which is a common way to refer to rice). It is also sometimes referred to as 粟米 or 谷[子]米.

Broomcorn millet (L) and the smaller foxtail millet (R), a side-by-side comparison

According to my dictionaries, Central Asian Turkic languages near China refer to foxtail millet as: қонақ/قوناق (Kazakh) qo’noq/қўнақ (Uzbek), конок (Kyrgyz), and چۈچگۈن قوناق (Uyghur). It is interesting that the unclassified cognate qonaq in Uyghur refers to corn/maize instead of millet, but in all other languages it seems to point specifically to millet.

In Mongolian this grain is commonly referred to as “yellow grain” шар будаа ᠰᠢᠷ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭ᠎ᠠ, or “day grain” хоног будаа ᠬᠣᠨᠤᠭ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭ᠎ᠠ. Is it possible that the Mongolian khonog might be a cognate to Turkic qonaq?

Broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), 黄米, tariq, tari, khar budaa, etc.

Broomcorn millet was likely domesticated in Central Asia2, again in ancient times, but it has long been used in Chinese and Mongolian food cultures as well. This is known commonly called “yellow grain” 黄米 in Chinese. It is a little fatter than foxtail millet, and it is a little starchier. It works as a starchy grain stand-in as part of a broader meal, but it is likely best suited as a porridge grain.

In Mongolian, this is called “black grain” хар будаа ᠬᠠᠷ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭ᠎ᠠ. In nearby Turkic languages it is known as тары/تارى (Kazakh), tariq/тариқ (Uzbek), таруу (Kyrgyz), and تېرىق (Uyghur).

A very simple foxtail millet porridge 小米粥. Put a small amount of millet (start with 1/2 cup or so for 1-2 people) and cover with water. Bring to boil, and keep adding boiling water as needed to cover the grains. Boil for 20 or 30 minutes until the grains start to break. In China sugar is often added, and sometimes red goji berries. I kept mine plain as a nutty alternative to rice porridge

In my search for recipes in various modern Central Asian language cookbooks, it was evident that primarily China focused on the difference between these two grains. In almost all of my non-Chinese language cookbooks, the types of millet were not specified. Instead a generic term for millet (or perhaps the meaning is “groats”?) was generally used: сөқ/سوك (Kazakh), so’q/сўқ (Uzbek), سۆك (Uyghur). 

A breakfast of foxtail millet porridge, boiled with water and goat milk (thanks Betty’s Acres!) with salted butter and a touch of sugar. The name of this dish is “yellow grain zutan” шар будааны зутан ᠰᠢᠷ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭᠠᠨ ᠤ ᠵᠤᠲᠠᠩ and it is a classic recipe from the Nomads restuarant chain cookbook 99 Recipes of Traditional Mongolian Foods Уламжлалт монгол хоолны 99 жор. Imagine a chewier Cream of Wheat, but 100 times richer…

Making a pilaf-style dish with millet

This can be done a few different ways. A “fried rice” approach (i.e. the image below) may be the easiest starting point. You can simply par-boil the grains to your desired consistency (just before al-dente would be good). Then you can drain, cool, and set aside until you are ready to stir fry with the other ingredients. Or you can put in the hot drained grains right into the stir fry preparation. The grains would go in last, just to season and finish. If your grains are fully cooked, an overnight rest in the fridge would make them perfect for a fried “rice” (just like day-old rice is always better for fried rice).

This was loosely based on Northwestern-style [i.e. Shaanxi province] fried [par-boiled] millet “rice”, with egg, gai lan, chile, scallion, and ground venison from Wisconsin. Plus salt and pepper and a touch of pickling vinegar. It was really delicious.

Alternatively, you could start by frying all of the other pilaf ingredients, and then dumping in pre-soaked (30 mins) and drained millet before frying it together. You would then need to add some boiling water as you cook all of the ingredients together, just enough to bring the grains to boil/steam to fully cooked. It might take 10-15 minutes or so. I did that process below with a recipe very loosely based on a Shaanxi dish I saw for “Millet fried sheep parts” 谷米炒羊杂. Instead of sheep organ meat, I used a sweet and savory Chinese sausage.

A Uyghur-style millet “rice” with lamb stir fry سۆك ئېشى

Millet can also be prepared as a separate starch to eat together with stir fried things. I found one such recipe in the Rice cookbook of the “Uyghur food and drink culture” series (2007 by Yunus Hemdulla ئۇيغۇر يېمەك – ئىچمەك مەدەنىيىتى – گۈرۈچ تائاملىرى). The recipe is called “millet rice” soek eshi سۆك ئېشى 黄米饭 and it was delicious. I boiled pre-soaked (for 30 mins) broomcorn millet in just enough water to ensure it cooked through. I kept adding boiling water and kept stirring until water was absorbed and the grains were not too crunchy. I also added a little butter. Based on the image from the cookbook, I was actually going for this slightly sticky texture. I can’t say for certain if it is more commonly presented as independent grains. It was delicious in any case, and the near mashed potato consistency was a great pair to the lamb and pepper stir fry.

I should note that in the Uyghur cookbook, the millet was steamed in a bowl. That process may be easier to control the cooking time of the millet and better protect against burning on the bottom of the pan.

These are trying times as the world faces a pandemic. Stay strong everyone, and eat well when you can.


1,2E.N. Anderson, Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. (pages referenced 36-37)

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Central Asia-focused market in NE Philadelphia

Vatan Market in Bustleton

I was thrilled to learn about a new market that opened up in NE Philly this past year–a market that caters to Central Asian tastes! It is called Vatan Market and it is located at 11726A Bustleton Ave, just across the street from the large NetCost market that I previously highlighted. Vatan means “homeland” in several Central Asian languages (like Uzbek, Tajik, and Uyghur, for example), and the market clearly caters to these groups. Much of the products come from neighboring countries with stronger imports to the US, notably Russia, Turkey, and Iran. It is a great mix, and there are a lot of rare items here!

As you might imagine, a key genre of food for this market is dried Central Asian fruits and nuts (i.e. items best consumed along with flatbread and tea) They have an AMAZING selection. They have all sorts of items for teatime, including special rock sugars and also several candies from Russia. I came home with some large dried raisins and dried mulberries:

The market also stocks cookware, including some nice heavy kazan pots, best for cooking delicious Central Asian rice pilaf (aka as polo, plov, palaw). They even sell charcoal cookers for the full experience!

Charcoal cooker with heavy kazan for cooking amazing rice pilaf!

Finally, they had an ingredient I’ve been long in search of, ever since I started getting into Karim Mahmudov’s books (I highly recommend Boris Ushumirskiy’s translation for newbies): G’o’raob (ғўраоб), a sour grape juice that has been left to ferment. It is an important ingredient in many Uzbek salad preparations, and I’ve never seen it in US markets (even at Brighton Beach’s amazing Tashkent Supermarket).

G’o’raob found!

From what I understand, in Uzbekistan this was a traditional food ingredient and medicine and it is produced by harvesting unripe grapes, juicing them, and then bottling them to sit in the sun for several weeks. Today, many Uzbek observant Muslims do not use it because it may contain alcohol. The version I got above was produced in Iran, and has no alcohol. After viewing some Persian language YouTube videos it looks like the processing for this is simply bringing sour grape juice to brought to boil and then bottling it. I don’t know how different it will be to the fermented-in-the-sun one, but I’m still happy to try cooking with it!

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Fragrant and crispy peppers, for snacking on

A recent attempt at replicating Yunnan-style fragrant and crispy peppers. They are not as spicy as they look–those are sesame seeds, not pepper seeds

In recent years an interesting snack seems to be trending all around China: fried “fragrant and crispy” peppers (香脆椒, aka 香辣酥), sometimes translated into English as “fried chile crisp”, or “magic chili”. I don’t recall seeing these in the 90s when I lived in Guangzhou, but it was probably already a thing at least in Sichuan, if not the broader Southwest. Now you can find iterations of this snack at corner stores and groceries all over the country, as well as in the US.

This snack is most commonly available in China in plastic jars like the image to the left. Peppers are cut into little cylinders, packed and tossed with sesame seeds, starch, salt, sugar, (and often MSG), and deep fried and mixed with peanuts.

The example on the left is a Beijing-produced 香辣酥, found at a Chinese shop in Ulaanbaatar a few years ago.

My second attempt at this snack, this time mixed with dry roasted peanuts. This is basically the same process as the recipe at the end of this post, but with a final mixing of peanuts (either dry roasted or deep fried). See the Magic Ingredients video for more details. Beware that chile seeds have a better chance of remaining in the pods with this cutting style, so you might consider boiling the chiles separately or using a larger chile.

Among rare discussions of this food item online (primarily in Chinese), it seems like this snack ultimately came from Sichuan as a drinking food. Some, like this “history” page by a local Sichuan brand 陈大妈, suspect the food item should date from at least the time of the creation of “governors chicken” (宫保鸡丁). Other discussions hint at the natural evolution as Sichuan is home to some of the best baijiu liquors in China, and hence a need for local drinking foods.

Last summer I noticed this item on the “Chinese only” chalkboard specials menu at Philadelphia’s Xi’an Sizzling Woks. The dish was basically a fried chicken recombined in a hot wok with a generous handful of Huangfeihong “magic chili” (or it is possible they made their own in house). I was with a large group of people, and several ranked it as their favorite dish on the table! I was late to snap a poorly focused image but this may give you some idea:

A special menu item in Summer 2018 at Chinatown’s Xi’an Sizzling Woks: fried chicken and 香脆椒

Earlier this year, our family in Thailand sent us a new food product from Bangkok, Tony’s Kitchen BKK brand “peppers for munching” พริกเบรคแตก. They were really addictive, and the ingredient list was exceedingly simple: peppers, salt, sesame seeds, and sesame oil. Chile skins were curled around sesame seeds. So basic, yet so delicious!

This jar is empty, and I didn’t snap any pics of the chiles before we finished them. Here is a Google image search to give you some idea.

That Thai chile snack looked exactly like a style of snack typical in Yunnan. Here you can find a YouTube video from Xiangcun Yige, a traveler from Hunan to a shop in Yunnan where he documents product preparation:

After tasting some delicious iterations of this snack (with my favorite version above not yet available in the US) I decided to figure out how to make them at home. It turns out the process is remarkably simple.

Recipe: Yunnan-style fragrant and crispy peppers 云南式香脆椒

There are several videos on YouTube showing how to make versions of this snack, though they are focused on the style with starches (sometimes even a batter) and peanuts (i.e. the style that can be best witnessed in the HuangFeiHong example above). As always, I recommend viewing as many versions of a recipe as you can, to get a sense of what the essentials are for any given recipe. This snack was highlighted on the very popular CCTV food show “everyday cuisine” 天天饮食. I’d also highly recommend the just-published video from Magic Ingredients (her videos are always clear and carefully produced). And if you are interested in having a crispy peanut as part of your chile snack, I’d highly recommend the video detailing peanut preparation by 美味小舍. All of those examples are in Chinese, but you can learn a lot by simply watching the process. The powders used are starch, salt, sugar, MSG, and sometimes custard powder is added too (that would be the yellow powder if you are puzzled).

  1. Select your chiles. Cut or break the chiles in half to discard the seeds. Because the seeds are discarded, this snack is probably not as spicy as you might think it would be. I used the chiles below, imports from China:

2. Soak the chiles in water for 30 minutes. If you watch that Magic Ingredients video above, she soaks in boiling water and then further boils the chile skins before mixing with seasonings in order to remove most of the pungent hotness. I wasn’t worried about that.

3. After the chiles are soft, squeeze the water out. You’ll also likely get rid of more seeds with the draining process. Slice or scissor cut the chile pods lengthwise on the bias to make two long pieces. That cut will ensure the chiles curl when they are fried.

4. Mix together with fine salt, a little bit of sugar, a generous amount of quality sesame seeds, and a little bit of flour or starch of your choice. MSG and other powders (like custard powder) are common additions. In hindsight, I think garlic powder would also be great here. Gently toss the peppers with your seasonings, and you’ll notice the sesame seeds and powders will be attracted to the insides of the chile. That is exactly what you want, basically a sesame seed-packed pod.

5. Deep fry on medium low for about 7 or 8 minutes until the chiles turn golden. Don’t overcook! Strain the chiles and let cool.


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Dough covered meals of the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Mongols

A Uyghur-style qordaq stew topped with a thick noodle skin. In Uyghur this might be called simply yapma, or by qualifying the type of dough toping: petir yapma or Qumul yapmisi

Greetings after a long hiatus! Even though I haven’t been reporting here as much as I’d have liked, since my last post I have been continuing on my journey through culinary traditions on the frontiers of Turkic, Mongolian, and Tibetan food culture. Today’s theme is a style of cooking that is shared among three cultures between Xinjiang and Mongolia: Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Mongols. It is “covered” meals–i.e. a soup, stew, or stir fry topped with either an unleavened noodle or leavened bread dough. The resulting dish pairs a savory dish underneath with either a gummy noodle or something more like a braised bread dumpling on top.

The same stew from above, but topped with a braised flatbread instead of a noodle. In Uyghur this is called bolaq yapma, or Mori yapmisi.

I imagine this cooking method would make a lot of sense for those hoping to maximize cooking fuel while being able to cook all meal components in the same pot. As the stew simmers or as a stir fry cooks, a dough cover (or even multiple covers) can be draped over the top to steam and/or braise until cooked. This produces a noodle or bread with a slightly gummy texture that is a hearty and pleasant complement to the stew, soup, or fry. Perhaps needless to say, this cooking technique would be particularly apt for cooking with a kazan or togoo (i.e. the heavy cauldron typical among Central and Inner Asian nomadic peoples over a stove) in a ger or yurt.

a favorite in my collection: “99 Recipes of Traditional Mongolian foods”

I first came in contact with this genre of food with a fabulous Mongolian language cookbook find in 2016 published by the restaurant chain Nomads (Уламжлалт монгол хоолны 99 жор [99 Recipes of Traditional Mongolian Foods], Admon publishing). In that book, several braised meats, stews and soups are topped with a thick noodle, either while cooking in the cooking pot, or steamed separately and then tented over the dish as it is served. Mongolian examples include classic dishes like жимбий, “jimbiy” (see here for a nice Facebook video demo by Bayan Kitchen, and битүү шөл “covered soup”. For a beautiful short film of that home-style recipe, check out a recent video from ARTGER and Nargie’s Mongolian Cuisine.

I’ve found several parallel dishes to those Mongolian recipes in Eastern Xinjiang in Uyghur and Kazakh food culture in cookbooks and DVDs that I collected from my bittersweet trip to Kashgar and Hotan last year. Ultimately I think the link between these dishes is nomadic cooking, with both the meat stew and staple starch together in the same pot. I theorize this came into Uyghur food culture via the Kazakhs, as the dish seems to be most common in Eastern Xinjiang regions near Kazakh communities.

It is often even identified with Kazakh place names when talking about dishes in Uyghur and Chinese. For example, the stew topped with a leavened bread is sometimes referred to as Mori yapmisi after the Mori Kazakh Autonomous County north of Turpan. In Chinese, the thinner noodle-topped stew is often referred to as “Barkol braised noodles” 巴里坤羊肉焖饼, after the Barkol Kazakh Autonomous County. Hunan’s MangoTV recently posted a video about this dish featured at an Urumchi restaurant called 九胜 that specializes in NE Xinjiang food. As seems to happen often in Chinese tourist videos of Xinjiang, the host is for some reason obliged to dress up like a Uyghur dancer before she tries this specialty.

Kazakh examples of this type of dish are harder to locate online. That said, I did find that Uyghur word yapma ياپما that implies “covered” has a cognate in Kazakh with jappa جاپپا or жаппа. This dish known as jappa is usually a dry-fried meat, onion, and root vegetable preparation known as quwirdaq (қуырдақ is also a cognate to the Uyghur qordaq!), topped during cooking with a flat noodle, and then plated by inserting the dry-fried stuffing into a noodle envelope. That dish is illustrated in this very short Facebook video from the Almaty restaurant Қуырдақ көкесі in Kazakhstan.

Recipe: Uyghur-style yapma (2 ways) – Uyghur yapmisi ئۇيغۇر ياپمىسى

Though a Mongolian friend recently referred to this as a “lazy” dish, I find it very charming and satisfying. Recipes for this dish vary greatly based on regions and ingredients available. That said, Uyghur recipes for the stew underneath closely resemble classic qordaq (see here for a past post on that theme) home-style stews of mutton, beef, or chicken, with onions, root vegetables, and spices.

The process is simple. Bring a stew to near completion before topping with a noodle or bread dough. If you are using a leavened bread dough, lay the bread atop the stew or braise for 20 minutes before finishing). Noodle doughs need much less time, but thick noodles might take up to 10 minutes. Hopefully your stew has enough stuff poking out of the water that your noodle or bread is steaming more than boiling. That would likely be easier in a kazan or wok, but make sure you have a lid that fits!

For the recipe below, I first cooked flat noodles atop the qordaq stew and removed them to a plate before finishing the stew with a leavened bread dough, in order to show two separate presentations. For either dough used about 1 cup of flour.

Stew ingredients:


See image captions for more instructions. For a noodle dough, 1 cup of flour will make 2 wide discs or one thicker flatbread. In either case, add about 1/2 tsp salt to the flour and enough water (likely less than 1/2 cup) to hydrate the dough. For the bread dough, use 1/2 tsp or less yeast, and let rest to rise.

Fry ingredients, top with water and simmer as you would any other stew preparation.

Add root vegetables and prepare your dough topping by rolling or pressing it out. Let rest briefly before rolling it out more to fully cover your pan.

Finish stew with any final tender ingredients (i.e. herbs). Many traditional Uyghur yapma recipes include spinach, and this would be the time to put it in. I had some young watercress handy and just wilted the whole bag’s contents into the stew. In hindsight, I found the flavor and texture of this watercress to be similar to a traditional Uyghur green vegetable bedae بېدە (usually translated as “alfalfa”). It was a nice touch.


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Gundruk: an essential food staple and flavor in Nepali cooking


A quick gundruk and soybean “pickle” (Gundruk ko achar गुन्द्रुकको अचार)

Over the past several months I have been slowly exploring Nepali food and cooking with rare items from our local supplier of foodstuffs from Nepal, Friendly Market on S. 7th St. in South Philly (see here for my 2014 introduction to that market). Every time I go in there I come away with at least one new ingredient or condiment that opens my eyes to a new culinary horizon. The shop owners Julio and Sovannary are always happy to talk about how their very specialized stock of ingredients can be used, and I always learn good things about Burmese and Nepali food when chatting with them. They have recently acquired some cookbooks to have on hand to help shoppers get a sense of how some of these exotic ingredients come together in Nepali and Burmese dishes (ask to take a look at them–they’re behind the counter).

Sovannary, Julio, and their daughter at Friendly Market

One very important Nepali ingredient and flavor that I have been obsessed with lately is gundruk गुन्द्रुक, a fermented and then sun dried mix of leafy greens (and sometimes roots). It is a very intensely flavored ingredient, full of funk and umami. Although the vegetables used to make gundruk are quite familiar to me (these are leaves and stems of saag vegetables: mustard greens, radish, cauliflower leaves), the taste of the end product is utterly unique. After the dried leaves are re-hydrated briefly in hot water, they can be used in salads or “pickles” (i.e. achar), and dry leaves can be added to directly to soups. When tasted, there is a slight “barnyard” flavor at the outset, followed by a heavy and addictive umami. In sampling this ingredient in soup preparations I am reminded of the savory pleasure of a great Korean soybean stew (doenjang jjigae) or Northern Thai stew with “rotten bean sheets” (see here for a past post on that item). As a salad/achar preparation I am reminded of the punch and tang of Burmese tea leaf salads (see here for my prior post on that item). Gundruk’s bold flavor would be perfectly matched with rice and some comparatively less flavor heavy sides of lentils.


Gundruk, green leaves darkened by drying in the sun

This important ingredient and food staple in Nepal is produced by fermenting leafy saag vegetables and/or roots for a week or more and then drying the sour vegetables in the sun. As you might imagine, high up in the Himalayan Mountains there is a relatively short window on a green vegetable growing season. Traditionally, this preservation technique helped to carry important vegetable nutrients into winter. That is still the case with gundruk, but over the years it has pretty clearly taken on important identity for food culture as a staple foodstuff for year-round cooking. Many talk about it as if it is a national cultural heritage. For example, I came across an interesting Nepali food blog by Prashanta Khanal simply called–that might also give you a sense of the weight this ingredient carries in Nepali culture!


Gundruk soup (gundruk ko jhol गुन्द्रुकको झोल), made with dried fish, soybeans, and potatoes

I thoroughly enjoyed gundruk on my first try (which was as the soup above–see recipes in resources below), but I can imagine how the “barnyardy” smell may be a little off-putting to some. It’s kind of like fish sauce or shrimp paste is to uninitiated novices in Southeast Asian cooking. To those who brave the smell and try cooking with it anyway, you’ll know that the smell will take a back seat as other bold desirable flavors move forward. This case is no different. Be brave and you will be rewarded!


Over the past year there have been several videos uploaded to YouTube that explain the process for making gundruk. For a few nice examples, check out Chef Kunal Kapur’s informative video as part of his “nation of pickles campaign”. There is also a high quality multi-day video from harvesting to drying fermented mustard greens from Virtual Nepali.


A selection of Nepal-focused cookbooks

There are several food blogs and YouTube video recipes available online using gundruk. Most of those were for making either a type of gundruk soup or a type of gundruk “pickle”.  Yummy Food World has very clear, high quality English subtitled videos for a gundruk soup with potatoes and soybeans, and a for gundruk achar. I’ve also been collecting Nepal and Himalaya-focused cookbooks to research and compare recipe patterns. Of the books, Jyoti Pathak’s Taste of Nepal is far and away the most definitive source for recipes and detailed information about Nepal’s culinary cultures. Her blog by the same name is also a treasure trove of images and information. The Nepal Cookbook is another favorite of mine. It is much simpler than Pathak’s work, but contains a nice balance of recipes. By the way, Friendly Market has a copy of Taste of Nepal too–browse it next time you’re in the neighborhood.

Recipe: Gundruk “pickle” (or salad) – Gundruk ko achar गुन्द्रुकको अचार

In researching recipes for this dish I found a lot of diversity with preparation and spice. I settled on a combination of the ingredient list from my Association of Nepalis in the Americas cookbook and a video recipe by Yummy Nepali Kitchen.

See below for an image of what I included. Clockwise from the bottom I had jimbu, timur (those can also be found at Friendly Market) and 2 dried chiles, fenugreek seeds (all three of those little cups would be my tempering spices in oil at the end of the recipe), about 1 cup of dried gundruk, mustard oil, turmeric, some cherry tomatoes and a few fresh chiles, dried soybeans, lime, and salt (not pictured–start with 1/2 tsp or so).

Boil some water and steep the gundruk for about 10 minutes. Drain and squeeze water out and transfer it to a cutting board. Carefully feel around for tough stems and rip or cut those out. In a soup preparation this would be less important, but I really prefer not getting stuck with gundruk jerky. After tough bits are out, coarsely chop the gundruk and transfer it to a mixing bowl.

Next, prepare your dried soybeans. Note: you can also “soy nuts” for this, and those wouldn’t need to be prepared further. If you are using dried and uncooked soybeans, they need to be soaked and then fried in oil until they are crunchy. I find this is best done on a low flame, rolling them frequently over about 10 minutes.

Roast the tomatoes and chiles. I put mine under the broiler (sorry no image). Then remove skins of tomatoes and chiles. Mash those in a mortar and pestle.

Finally, heat some mustard oil in a pan and fry the fenugreek seeds, jimbu, timur and dried chiles to impart those flavors to the oil and until fenugreek seeds are browned.

Put all of ingredients (including salt and turmeric powder) into the mixing bowl and top with the hot oil and tempered spices.

Mix, and taste for seasoning. Add lime juice and salt to taste.


I also prepared some rice and black dal to accompany the gundruk pickle. For a recipe of that black dal, see here for my prior post on Nepal-style black dal.



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Some reflections on a recent food trip to Xinjiang, China


One of my favorite things in the world. Home-style laghman from a small restaurant Teweruk ta’amliri (“Legacy foods”) on Nobishi Road in Kashgar

Great laghman (لەغمەن) is well worth obsessing over. Hand-pulled and perfectly chewy wheat noodles are boiled, drained, and then topped with a hot stir fry of fatty mutton, garlic, tomato, and peppers with any seasonal vegetables. Check out my 2015 post on the topic if you want to learn more, or even make these at home. The noodles pictured above were perfect–it looked like a large plate of noodles, but I devoured them in an instant. They were so good. While laghman is one of the most delicious and ubiquitous foods of Uyghur Xinjiang, I was actually on a self-imposed mission to explore the foods that I knew much less about. Because of that goal, this was one of my only laghman experiences during my whole trip earlier this year in March. That said, my subsequent meals and snacks were no less intriguing.

Regular readers of this blog will be at least somewhat aware that the foods of Xinjiang (and adjacent Muslim regions just to the east) represent a fascinating mix of cultures. Turkic and Persian Central Asia, China, Russia, Tibet, and Mongolia all meet and mingle in this vast region famous for its own legendary agricultural products to forge a delectable culinary landscape.

Much to my dismay, my long-anticipated food trip return to Kashgar’s Old City was met with many closed restaurants, empty food stalls, and boarded-up storefronts. It seemed like half of the bustling businesses in the Old City were now closed or shuttered. The streets were unusually devoid of activity, aside from the parts that were adjacent to the streets with roving police vans with their blaring sirens and soldiers conducting military drills. Ever since the neighborhood’s streets were closed to car traffic a year or so ago as police checkpoints were installed on every block, far fewer people are out selling things and far fewer people are out buying things too.

Among the small handful of open restaurants that I found upon my arrival, one small restaurant seemed to be doing a brisk business. I went up to the locked doors and pressed the doorbell to be let in. Inside customers were quietly eating, keeping largely to themselves with few rare conversations. The waiter directed me to an empty chair at a shared table with an elderly woman and her son and brought me a teapot and bowl. “Nime yeysiz?” he asked. I responded with a dish that I had been dreaming about for a long time, which was also happened to be one of the restaurant’s specialties. “Öy leghmini yeymen–I’ll have the home-style laghman.”


“Teweruk ta’amliri”, a welcome sight and one of a handful of small restaurants operating in March on Nobishi road. Note: this image is from the morning after, the boy is preparing steamed breads outside for morning/lunch service while watering the street (a neighborhood initiative to fight dusty streets)

I was first introduced to the wonders of Uyghur food with travels to Xinjiang in the late 1990s, a time that followed a period of great economic and political opening that nurtured a flourishing intellectual and artistic curiosity throughout the PRC. Printing houses even in rural provinces were publishing new books like crazy, and you could find very interesting scholarly and layman works focused on all sorts of topics, including Uyghur culture and history, both in Chinese and in Uyghur. It was a thrilling time to be there—a time when anything seemed possible. Socially outgoing Uyghurs would often initiate conversation with a cheery “hello!” in English. I found that if I engaged in conversation, that undoubtedly would lead to the famous Uyghur hospitality: invitations to meals, drinks, and even home stay situations. Those extremely positive memories are part of what drove me to do Central Asian Studies in graduate school.

I knew that this trip would be different. The social and political climate in southern Xinjiang has been deeply affected by the “Strike Hard”-related police/military surveillance, as well as by the detainment and forced migrations of a substantial portion of the population. What I didn’t know was how widespread these effects would be, and how much they would influence daily life for Uyghur locals, and even their interactions with tourists like myself.


Kashgar’s night market, summer 2010

After I finished my plate of noodles, I took a long walk and ended up at Kashgar’s famous night market. The last time I visited in 2010, the market was alongside Liberation Road (Jiefang Lu), and it was thrilling—I was excited to return. Now the market has been relocated to a courtyard further down Orda Ishik Road (欧尔达西克路). It was clearly moved and modified to fit the “tourist village” redesign that the Old City has been undergoing for the past decade or so. The vendor stalls were built with identical styles, and they were placed together in a small labyrinth meant for tourists to explore. There were very few locals eating out at this market (unlike my trip in 2010), but there was a small handful of Chinese tourists as customers.

Sadly, only about half the stalls were occupied with vendors, and some of my favorite night market foods weren’t even there. I enjoyed what was there in any case, the offerings of opke-hesip ئۆپكە – ھېسىپ (boiled and chopped stuffed lungs and sausages) and hoshang خوشاڭ (pan fried meat pies), as well as freshly squeezed pomegranate juice:

I noticed something curious with the opke-hesip vendor. The butcher knife he used to cut up the offal pieces was locked with a chain to the bench. I noticed other vendors had the same setup. This, it turned out, was a new policy for food vendors (as well as butchers) as knives are under strict control throughout the province and are treated as weapons.

I didn’t capture an image of the empty stalls, but someone who came back to Kashgar just after I left, Gene Bunin, commented on that, and the lack of that most famous Uyghur dish polo in a Facebook post (see here for my 2014 post on that dish, with a recipe):

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So… why are so many restaurants and shops closed, and where are many of the food vendors? As Uyghurs who were born in Xinjiang have been forcibly recalled back to their hometowns (places where their hukou were registered) over the past few years for several government initiatives meant to control their movements, most were not allowed to return to where they were working–whether to the cities of the Far East or even cities in other parts of Xinjiang. Local business owners in Kashgar were challenged with continuing without staff, and some couldn’t make it and had to close. Other businesses are forcibly shuttered by local authorities (see example below left) because owners are under suspicion of some illegal activity or even “wrong thoughts”. Due to the sorts of people who are put into reeducation, are arrested, and/or disappeared, ranging from Uyghur folklore scholars to Uyghur pop singers, threatening people seem to include political and religious moderates who have a respected and/or influential voice in Uyghur society.

If my mention of the above forced migrations, arrests, and disappearances in Xinjiang comes as a jarring surprise to you, there have been several news stories and publications in recent months that do a decent job of explaining what has happened. The restrictions are based in the government’s move to clamp down on “illegal activities”, which can include anything from religious gatherings to promoting Uyghur culture (as well as any sort of violence, of course). There has been a pretty steady stream of articles this year highlighting the situation in news outlets like Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times (sorry, these are mostly pay-walled). For some free links, here is a recent summary of events from Vox, and here is a very illustrative video report showing what police and military checkpoints look like from Josh Chin for WSJ on surveillance in Xinjiang.IMG_8298

I gleefully sought out every [open] bookstore I could find, to browse for cookbooks or anything new pertaining to Uyghur or Xinjiang culture, language, or food. Not too much has been published in Uyghur in the past two years (outside an enormous display of communist writings), and all of the Uyghur language bookstores I could find in Hotan were sadly shuttered. I visited Chinese language bookstores with the same excited anticipation, but this time I was unable to find ANY Chinese language books on Xinjiang or Uyghur culture, food, or language. Let that sink in for a moment. Isn’t that strange?

I was able to go home with some treasured souvenirs however: reprints of the entire “Uyghur food and drink culture” series, and a 2016 10-disc set of cooking DVDs focused on important and favorite dishes of the Uyghurs (see image on the right).

Despite a narrower range of options in restaurants and market stalls since my last trip and the despite the palpable somber mood of local customers, I was able to find my way to some pleasant and even joyful food experiences in Kashgar and Hotan. Many of these experiences will form the themes of separate posts in the coming fall, but I wanted to share a handful of memorable meals here…

Kawap كاۋاپ and somen سومەن from the restaurant beneath the 100 year teahouse, on Seybazar road:

A mug of mutton soup gangza shorpisi گاڭزا شورپىسى and a girde گىردە bread from a shop in the Grand Bazaar:


A beautiful selection of dried Xinjiang dried peppers from the Grand Bazaar, including the shriveled kind famous in “big plate chicken” from Shihezi:


A fascinating take on cooking with dry day-old flatbread where meat and root veg is piled on top and it is steamed until cooked into a rich breakfast: qazan kawap قازان كاۋاپ

Fancy street food! A spin on the Northwestern Chinese favorite Liangpi 凉皮 (cold skin noodles with gluten and dressing, or as it is known in Uyghur as rangpiza راڭ پىزا —Check out that fancy bowl!:


Mutton kebabs on red willow branches from Hotan’s new (and kind of disappointing) indoor “night market”):


Stay tuned for future posts that will delve more into the wonders of Uyghur cuisine…

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Guides, Central Asia/Uyghur food, Chinese food | 2 Comments