December 8, 2015

As promised a couple of weeks back, here’s my Leicester Mercury review of Karamay, the new Western Chinese venue on London Road. As you’ll see, it not exactly fancy but it is interesting and definitely rewards curiousity:

Karamay Western China Cuisine
109 London Road
0116 319 6691

A few weeks back I wrote about how UK diners are becoming better educated, and being offered more choice, when it comes to our sometimes narrow view of cuisines of international cultures. Sure enough, shortly after writing about a new Keralan restaurant, a new Southern Indian restaurant with a focus on Tamil Nadu opened on London Road.

It’s not just Indian food that is now represented by a far wider range of styles. The pace of change in Chinese restaurants is becoming breakneck. Last year The Guardian newspaper ran a piece about the move away from Westernised versions of Cantonese food and the increasing diversity taking in Szechuan and Hunan styles. But the cuisine of Western China, and Xinjiang in particular, didn’t even seem to be on their radar. In fact, an online search for “Western” Chinese assumes you must be looking for Chow Mein and Chop Suey.

But now in Leicester we have the chance to know better. Also new on the increasingly vibrant London Road is Karamay. Named after the oil-rich boom town in Xinjiang’s Uighur Autonomous Region, this informal venue offers the fascinating food of China’s Uighur Muslim minority, a people with roots in Central Asia and a culture quite distinct from the Han and other groups in Eastern China. The food is a mix of influences that reflect the multicultural days of the old Silk Routes, with what appears to be a bit of Turkish influence here, a touch of Mongolian or Persian there, as well as some hints of more mainstream Chinese.

Karamay is fairly basic, cafe style place, but softened with some great artwork from back home and cultural artefacts on the wall. There’s a big window through to the kitchen too so you can see the chefs at work. The menu offers pictures of the Uighur specialities and also lists some of the more classic Chinese dishes available – naturally we focused on house specialities.

We ordered some lamb skewers (£1.50 each), nicely barbecues chunks of lamb seasoned with chilli, salt, pepper and cumin. These were every bit the equal of kebabs from a Turkish grill, as were meaty spicy chicken wings with sesame seeds and spring onions. We also tried Uighur samsa, which may or may not by etymologically linked to samosa, but what ever the case are tasty little meat or vegetable filled pastries. In this case, they were circular-shaped with puff pastry and filled with delicious spiced minced chicken – at a £1 a pop these were so good I came back for more the next day.

I had spoken to a friend who had worked in Xinjiang and she went misty-eyed at the thought of noodles. So naturally we ordered leghmen, a signature Uighur dish featuring hand-pullled noodles with a distinctive rough and ready appearance and a bit more bite than the packet stuff. We had them with fairly gently spiced beef, tomatoes, peppers and celery and enjoyed them immensely. Then there was kordak – a pleasingly rustic lamb stew with carrots and potatoes hat could have passed for a Lancashire hotpot or a French pot-au-feu, were it not for the presence of chilli and star anise and that it was served with a chapati rather than baguette. Be prepared to pick up and gnaw the bones.

BaoChaw chicken had deep-fried, heavily seasoned, diced meat with plenty of garlic, prodigious – amounts of red chilli (easily picked around if you wish – it didn’t permeate the dish excessively) and the odd hit of cumin. Lots of celery – the Uighurs like celery – and green pepper too. Subtle it wasn’t and it works better as one of a range of shared dishes but it was powerful and distinctive.

Karamay is fully halal and so there’s no pork dishes and no alcohol – though definitely recommended is the sour plum juice which is fair substitute for a glass of wine.

Service is friendly and advice will be given for the timorous. It is basic though – my plastic bottle of plum juice was placed unopened on the table and I waited a couple of minutes before deciding it probably wasn’t culturally insensitive to ask for a glass – which was brought with a smile.

There’s a fair number of this kind of venue that have sprung up around the city catering mainly for Chinese students and, in this case, local Muslims. For others, while its not exactly a smart night out, it is a welcome chance to enjoy a new food experience.

%d bloggers like this: