We in London have always been open to diverse cuisines. The fish and chips that are considered to be so iconic are a melange of other European dishes but because we appreciated their delicious qualities we didn’t hesitate to make them our own. Then there was chicken tikka masala, which was a hybrid from the curry-house stable. The British have long had a culinary love affair with Chinese food, be it the dubious sweet and sour pork of high-street take-aways or the refined and elegant dining of polished city restaurants. Now we can add Wulumuchi to the epicurean tapestry that China has presented to us.
Most Chinese restaurants in the UK are in fact Cantonese. Their menu comprises mellow dishes that make good use of soy sauce and oyster sauce, and they offer predictable foods that are usual, typical, expected from your local restaurant. Wulumuchi introduces the diner to a different palate of ingredients, prepared using cooking methods not often practised in a Cantonese kitchen.
Wulumuchi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The restaurant is nothing like your paper-lantern-hung, dragon-infested venue that one might find elsewhere in Chinatown; nor is it, one suspects, like restaurants anywhere outside that north-western part of China. This is the inside of a yurt with canvas and wood trellis, leather cushions and an Islamic fountain welcoming the visitor. It offers Xinjiang-style cooking.
The menu will be unfamiliar to all but the most extensively travelled. Even the drinks selection has surprises. Goat’s milk tea was a prospect a little challenging to even this hardy reviewer but in reality it’s nothing alarming. The tall glass of innocent-looking tea was rich and tangy. I had ordered the sweet version and it was refreshing, and the hint of goatyness was recognisable only in the suspicion of an aftertaste. If you enjoy goat’s cheese then it’s likely you could become accustomed to this unique beverage.
Take time to read the menu and ask questions. You will notice that the predominant meat is lamb rather than pork. Turkic Uyghur Muslims are the largest ethnic group in the region and therefore their food reflects their dietary laws. Agriculture has also played its part. Breads, noodles and dumplings rather than rice are the staples and the common spices are cumin and chilli, giving this cuisine a unique flavour. We more often associate cumin with India, and the chilli is used here as a seasoning rather than the predominant flavour as with, say, Sichuan cuisine.
Preserved egg-stuffed chicken thigh sounded intriguing. You will have seen numerous travelogues showing the intrepid or more usually, timid, gastro-roamer being confronted by a dark and jelly-like orb containing a green-marbled centre. Seldom do we see the voyager actually consume the “hundred-year-old egg” so I have remained none the wiser as to its gastronomic virtues …or lack thereof. It’s a snack traditionally made by preserving eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months. The yolk changes colour, and develops a hard-boiled consistency and the white becomes a dark brown, translucent jelly with a slightly salty flavour. I found these to be strikingly beautiful and they would surely be a talking point on any buffet. Be brave and try this delicate dish: Wulumuchi offers a rare opportunity and you could become addicted.
The lamb dumplings were dim sum-sized dough-wrapped steamed morsels that look just the same as the dim sum in Cantonese restaurants, but those are more usually filled with chicken or pork. You won’t find pork on the menu here but the lamb version is tender and delicious dipped in the piquant sauce.
Crunchy cucumber was a light starter but it’s equally good to enjoy along with some of the main dishes. These spiral-cut vegetables had a garnish of chopped red pepper and a sweet and sour vinegar dressing similar to that found in some eastern European salads. Refreshing on these hot summer days.
The most popular dish in the restaurant is Da Pan Ji – ‘Big plate chicken’. It’s a Xinjiang speciality and indicates the style of hospitality here. Legend has it that this was first made in the restaurants along the main roads, as a sustaining meal for hungry lorry drivers. Its fame spread and it became a regional favourite. That “big plate” is in reality a “huge bowl”. There is a medium version which is still startling in its proportions and I would estimate that it could feed, perhaps with some naan bread, four diners. All portions at Wulumuchi are generous, as if the management are expecting guests to have had a hunger-inducing day erecting yurts and herding camels, rather than having had just a pleasant ramble around Chinatown. It’s a dish of chicken with hand-made ‘belt noodles’ which are rustic and substantial. Potatoes and carrots are the garnish and all served in a broth spiced with chilli and perhaps a hint of cinnamon and cumin. A worthy signature dish that reflects much of the taste palate of the Uyghur people, who must have considerable appetites.
The boiled mutton ribs had intense flavour that was much more robust than you would find in a regular lamb dish. Think old-fashioned Lancashire Hot-pot and you will get a picture of the taste and the texture. The broth was well-laced with mutton fat but that’s the carrier of all that flavour. Not over-spiced but hearty and warming, it’s one for the boys. Those who are less adventurous would be well-served by the stir-fried spicy beef that had more in common with Chinese food from your favourite high-street restaurant.
Other Xinjiang specialities include, for starters, grilled skewers of diced lamb. These are coated with a good sprinkle of cumin and chilli. They were aromatic rather than searingly spicy and were accompanied by salad and naan bread for wrapping, with a drizzle of plum sauce to add even more flavour. Also try the stir-fried lamb with Chinese herbs, marinated aubergines which were charred and flavoursome with a melting texture, and Ding-Ding – fried diced noodles with minced lamb, onion, celery and chilli. The fragrant sizzling onion lamb platter was particularly noteworthy.
It’s unlikely you will have room for dessert but if you still have a vacant nook then try the light and creamy milk jelly served with a garnish of raisins, although even that comes in a large glass bowl.
Anyone interested in regional Chinese cuisine will have Wulumuchi high on their list of must-try London restaurants. The food is unexpected and a delicious adventure, and served by charming and smiling staff. You will possibly have the most memorable Chinese meal ever.
16 Lisle Street,
London WC2H 7BE
Phone: 020 7287 6606
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018