Sunday, November 1, 2020

Uyghur Polo

Nadan qazangha qaraydu, tadan ochaqqa (qaraydu).

The words are spoken by Uyghurs, with a language that perhaps most closely resembles Uzbek, but also has similarities to Kazakh and Kyrgyz.  When translated, it reveals a proverb: "[t]he simple man looks at the serving dish, the cunning man at the oven."  It is related to the proverb of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who wrote "[g]ive a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

The similarity of a proverb cannot obscure the harsh reality that unfolds today in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Since 2017, the Communist Chinese government has detained over one million Uyghurs in re-education camps.  The "re-education" appears to nothing more than the forced stripping of the Uyghurs of what makes them who they are, that is, their cultural identity.  Detainees are forced to declare their loyalty to the Communist government, learn Mandarin and study communist propaganda. They are also compelled to denounce their moderate form of Sunni Islam and forgo speaking their own Turkic langauge. The Chinese authorities use torture to increase the effectiveness of the reeducation program.

The Chinese government claims that these camps are a countermeasure against religious extremism and terrorism. Such claims are nothing more than a thin veil to hide the eradication of the Ugyhur identity.  As the Council of Foreign Relations has found

"Many aspects of Muslim life have been erased, journalists reporting from Xinjiang have found. Communist Party members have been recruited since 2014 to stay in Uighur homes and report any perceived 'extremist' behaviors, including fasting during Ramadan. Officials have destroyed mosques, claiming the buildings were shoddily constructed and unsafe for worshippers.  Uighur and other minority women have reported forced sterilizations and intrauterine device insertions, and official shave threatened to detain anyone who has too many children.  Uighur parents are banned from giving their babies certain names, including Mohammed and Medina. Halal food, which is prepared according to Islamic law, has become harder to find in Urumqi [the provincial capital] as the local government has launched a campaign against it."

As the foregoing suggets, the Chinese goverment's campaign to strip the Uyghurs of their separate identity even extends to their cuisine. 

That cuisine has been described as "very rich, very different." Uyghur cuisine features various proteins (mutton, beef, camel [bactrian], chicken and goose), along with other ingredients such as carrots, onions, peppers, eggplant and various fruits.  These proteins and ingredients are featured in dishes that are emblematic of the cuisine, such as kebabs and laghman (a noodle dish).  Many of these dishes draw influences from surrounding cultures in Central Asia.  These influences can traced to the food and dishes of the Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. 

To be sure, there are Chinese influences in Uyghur cuisine (for obvious reasons), but the Central Asian influences are unmistakeble.  This most obvious example lies with the "King" of the Ugyhur table ... Polo.  It is the Uyghur version of the Central Asian plov.  While they vary from country to country (and from region to region within a country), a plov is a rice dish that typically includes carrots and meat.  

As one would expect with "royalty," there are certain traditions that have to observed.  For instance, there are the ingredients.  A traditional polo consists of a handful of ingredients: rice, lamb, carrots, onions and oil, along with salt, sugar and cumin to provide flavor. (There are other versions of polo that include other ingredients, such as raisins, apricots or chickpeas.) There is also the preparation. The carrots must be cut in a certain way.  The onion must be sliced in a certain way. The actual steps of cooking the dish must be followed in a certain way.  Careful attention must be given to the cooking process, tasting the dish along the way to ensure not only that it tastes right, but that there is a strong taste. 

Suprisingly (or not), there are few recipes for Uyghur Polo on the Internet.  I found a video on YouTube that described the process, which I have tried my best to translate into the recipe found below. The recipe produced a dish that resembles many of the pictures of Uyghur polo online (although my carrot-cutting and onion-slicing may be met with some disdain by Ugyhur cooks and chefs).  The resulting dish was also very delicious, although I would probably have added a little more cumin to further "strengthen" the taste. 


Recipe adapted from Dolan Chick

Serves 4


  • 2 pounds lamb, cut into cubes
  • 1pound of carrots, cut into sticks
  • 1 red or yellow onion, diced
  • 1 tablesppon cumin seed
  • Olive oil
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1 tablespoon of Kosher salt
  • 2 cups long grain rice

1. Brown the lamb.   Heat the oil in a deep pan on high heat.  Add the lamb and brown on all sides, for about four to five minutes. Add the onion, cumin and salt.  Cook for about 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Add the carrots to the pan. Cook about 10 minutes, stirring to mix the ingredients together and cover the carrots with the oil. 

2. Add the rice. Add enough water to cover the lamb, carrots and onions, as well as cook the rice, about 4 cups of water.  Bring to a boil.  Add the rice evenly in the pan.  Top with the raisins.  Lower the heat to low so that it is a simmer.  Cover and cook until the rice has absorbed the liquid, about 30 minutes.  Remove the cover and mix all of the ingredients and shred the lamb. 

3. Finish the dish. Spoon the rice with the carrots, lamb, onion and raisins into bowls. Serve immediate.  Serve with flatbread, yoghurt or a salad. 


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