As a mom, I look back on all the travel I experienced--apart from my family--before ever graduating from high school, and wonder if I'll be as brave as my parents to entrust my children in the hands of a non-profit organization in some developing nation? Hmmm...
No, my parents were not inattentive loons. They were always watchful and wise. This is how it all went down.
At age 14, I asked my parents if I could go on a trip overseas. I had all the information ready to hand them, and large pleading eyes fixed on their faces. They looked over the pamphlets. After discovering the cost was over $2700, they relaxed and casually stated I could go as long as I could raise the money. I'm sure they thought that would defuse the situation.
They knew my persistent nature, but completely underestimated my level of resolve. After several months of car washes, candy bar sales, and an assortment of other fund raisers, I was purchasing my Maleria pills and packing my bags...off to India!
After that I was hooked! Every summer through high school and college, an international adventure took place. At age 17, I spent a summer in China.
The China I know, is far different from what most tourists experience. Yes, we walked on the Great Wall, visited Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, and traveled down the Silk Road.
But we were there to study. Our group stayed in the North Western province of Xinjiang, in a city called Urumqi. Every day we took Mandarin language classes and Chinese History. Yet we also studied a second language, Uighur (or uyghur).
The Uighur language is spoken by, and named after, a select Turkish ethnic group in this far-removed area of China. The Uighur people are thought to be one of the oldest cultures in China, settling heavily in the North-west corner centuries ago. More recently, families have crossed over the Kazakhstan-China boarder in hope of a better life. The language, culture and food in Xinjiang province is extremely different from that of most other Chinese provinces. A delicate mingling of Chinese and Middle-Eastern thought and tradition.
We made friends by visiting the local university's "English Clubs" where students would meet to practice their English. You can imagine how excited they were when we showed up to chat.
Visiting dorms and apartments to hang out with our new friends; several girls taught me how to make traditional pork dumplings and various rice dishes. On another occasion, we taught them how to make fried chicken and home fries! That was my first experience dealing with a whole, head-and-all chicken!
Most of the food we ate was street food. This is where the Uighur culture took center stage. I can still see the bustling streets filled with vibrant colors, and vividly recall the noisy bantering, and fragrance of exotic spices simmering in hot oil. Freshly squeeze pomegranate juice, mutton with large, doughy stir-fired noodles, rice pilaf dishes, and naan with meat-on-a-stick were common fare! The street vendors were always happy to share their goods and educate us on their dishes.
I could truly go on and on about my experiences that summer, but I'll have to save the rest for another post, or we'd never get to the recipes! I'm STILL practicing slinging my noodles into submission, like they do in China. So for now, I'll share Uighur street meat and naan.
The meat used at these lively street carts was always mutton, or old goat, they would tell us. The fat was considered the choice cut, so each skewer was laced with a pattern of small morsels of meat and fat cubes. The skewers were then sprinkled with spice and grilled over open flames. As I don't have access to old goat, I often use well-marbled lamb steaks or beef chuck to replicate the fatty flavor.
The naan bread was cooked in a tandoori oven (or something like it) but was either a soft, bubbly oval, or a crisp, glossy circle--depending on which vendor you chose. After AMPLE naan sampling that summer, I determined I was partial to the soft, fold-able version.
Naan Disclaimer~ There are many variations in naan recipes. In some, eggs, milk, and baking powder are used. In others, yeast and yogurt. I am not a naan expert, but after many, MANY trials, this is the naan closest to what I remember. Sorry to naan purists that reject yeast! ;)
Spicy Uighur Street Meat and Buttered Naan
2 lbs. lamb chops or beef chuck
1 Tb, olive oil
1 Tb. cumin
1 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. ground pepper
1 tsp. salt
Wooden skewers, soaked in water 30+ minutes
Soak the wooden skewers in water for at least 30 minutes. Prepare grill to high heat. Cut the meat into 1 inch cubes and place in a bowl.
Add the next 5 items and massage into the meat. Place the lamb/beef cubes onto the skewers.
Grill the skewers 3 minutes per side--turning once.
Soft Uighur Naan
1 ½ Tb. dry active yeast
2 tsp. sugar
¾ cup warm water
3 ½ cups bread flour
2 tsp. salt
2 Tb. melted butter + extra for serving
½ cup plain yogurt
Attach the bread hook to your electric mixer. Add the yeast, sugar, and warm water to the mixing bowl and allow it to foam for 5 minutes.
Add the salt, butter and yogurt. Then slowly add the flour to the mixture. Allow the mixer to “knead” your dough for 5 minutes.
Oil the mixing bowl, then cover and let the dough rise until doubled in size—1-2 hours.
Preheat the oven AND two oiled pans to 450 degrees F. Baking stones work best! Dump the dough onto a floured surface. Cut the dough into 8 equal pieces.
Use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough into large ovals—about the length and size of a large shoe!
Place the ovals on parchment paper to rest. Once all the dough in ready, brush the tops with oil or melted butter and place on the HOT baking sheets.
Bake for 3-4 per side—flipping once. Serve warm, brushed with melted butter!