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Flash in the Pan

Bottoms up in Central Asia

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Chinese authorities may have shut down the dog restaurants in Beijing before the start of the Olympics, but I still scored a great piece of ass in Dunhuang, a city in western China. Stir-fried with carrots and peppers, the donkey flesh tasted like beef, only leaner.

I’m writing from Central Asia, smack in the middle of the world’s largest continent, and as far from the ocean as you can get. I’ve joined a group of Beijing-based astronomers that’s come west to watch the August 1 solar eclipse, the path of which passes near the village of Yiwu in Xinjiang, China’s most remote province.

North of Tibet, west of Mongolia, south of Russia and east of Khazakstan, Xinjiang contains some of the world’s largest deserts, including the Taklimakan, Gurbantunggut, a section of the Gobi and others. The region is also home to some of the world’s highest mountains. That means melting snow and glaciers create lush valleys and oases in the otherwise barren moonscape, where melons, fruit trees, grapes and cotton are grown.

This is Uyghur (pronounced wee-ger) country, home to Arab-speaking Muslim people of Turkic descent. They wear square skullcaps, prepare some of the tastiest lamb dishes I’ve ever eaten and still resent being annexed by China. As is the case in Tibet, China’s majority Han population has immigrated here in droves, making a minority of the region’s original inhabitants. Beijing has an enormous military presence here, as well, in part to manage stirrings among a Uyghur separatist movement. There are rumors of Al-Qaida cells taking root in the region, but my experiences with the Uyghur have been only positive. Indeed, my keyboard takes a drool bath at the memory of Uyghur roast lamb, served alongside little piles of cumin and chili powder.

Being a fan of red wine with my red meat, I was excited to learn that this area, of similar latitude to France’s Bordeaux region, is said to produce some excellent wines. I was not, unfortunately, able to confirm this, even after buying five different—but equally disappointing—bottles.

Another Uyghur specialty is lamian, or pulled noodles, which are cut from a piece of dough that’s kneaded, slammed, twisted, pounded and pulled into a long noodle, then cut to manageable lengths. The process takes just a few minutes in the hands of an experienced noodle-puller (see picture above). Good pulled noodles have a soft yet firm, chewy texture that holds even in soup, which is how it’s often served.

The day I ate the stir-fried ass was otherwise spent checking out the Mogao Grottoes, hundreds of caves full of Buddhist treasures and art that were excavated from beneath the advancing sand dunes of the Kumtag desert. In addition to the ass, we ate fried chicken—head included—and qing jiao tu dou si, a dish of shredded potatoes marinated in chili vinegar and briefly fried. Our driver nibbled politely at these offerings and then ordered a bowl of lamian with pepper and tomato sauce. Slurping loudly, he made quick work of his bowl.

On August 1, we made our way towards Yiwu for the eclipse. The road from Hami featured a uniformed soldier stationed about every kilometer, and twice we had to stop for bag searches due to Chinese fears of Uyghur terrorist attacks. (With the Olympics starting in less than a week, these fears were peaked.) Our bus was one of hundreds converging on Yiwu, which has been identified as the best place in China to watch this eclipse.

The scene was a bit surreal—kind of like Burning Man for nerds. Hundreds of astronomers from around the world were busily setting up telescopes, cameras and all manner of fancy gear. Thousands more were milling about the barren landscape, visiting a monumental Astroturf-lined plaza built for the occasion and drinking lots of water in the 110-degree heat. Provoking even more sweat were a few puffy clouds. Though the sky was mostly clear, one small cloud could ruin the day by obscuring the two-minute eclipse.

About 10 minutes before the event, a cloud moved in front of the sun and the eclipse chasers chattered in disbelief. Oblivious to the drama, a Chinese television crew approached me for an interview, asking if I was satisfied with my eclipse experience here in Yiwu, and what I had eaten for lunch.

“Garlic flowers with lamb and chili peppers,” I said, adding I’d be satisfied with my experience if that cloud would go away.

Thousands of astronomers were moaning and shouting at the little cloud, begging, demanding, cursing and otherwise bidding it farewell. And less than a minute before the total eclipse, with the blocked sun causing temperatures to drop, the cloud shrunk and the crescent sun slid into view.

The ambient light got dim, and very strange, and then vanished altogether as the sun became a black disk surrounded by a ring of fire. The stars came out, the astronomers cheered, and two minutes of a total eclipse flashed by in an instant. When it was over, we passed around a bottle of hot, mediocre red wine and basked in the afterglow.


Ask Ari: Pointed question

Q: Dear Flash,

Do you have any recommendations for knives?

—Cutting Right to the Point


A: Well, you can spend a lot of money on fancy knives, CRTTP, and there are two types of people who generally do so: those who need them because they can really cook, and those who want them because they can’t, and believe that fancy knives will give them skills. There are many more of the former than the latter, but good knives won’t turn you into a cook any more than Air Jordans will get you into the NBA. Good chefs, like good hoopsters, can shine with whatever gear is on hand, and it’s a poor workman who blames his tools.

That said, if you’re a pro, and have to cut major quantities in short order, day after day—or otherwise do a lot of cooking—then sure, good knives can make a faster, safer and more comfortable experience in the kitchen. Characteristics like how the handle fits in your hand, or how the balance and shape of the knife creates the rhythm and roll of the chop-chop-chop action, can impact your cooking experience, but the most important attribute of a knife, be it a German Wusthof or a beater you pick up at Goodwill, is that it be sharp.

Good steel will hold its edge better than cheap steel. But if you’re in the habit of throwing your knives into the hard-surfaced sink, or using the blade-edge to scrape your chopped veggies into a pile on the cutting board (instead of turning the knife upside-down and using the top of the blade to do the scraping, with the sharpened edge facing up), then any knife will quickly dull. A sharp knife is a safe knife, and it will get the job done.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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