It’s all about the lamb. On yet another freezing afternoon, I biked over to the Dongsi 东四 area with a friend and gorged on mutton at Crescent Moon Uighur Muslim Restaurant (Wanwan yueliang 弯弯月亮), a Xinjiang restaurant. Quite apropos as Xinjiang, located at the northwesternmost corner of China, is even colder than Beijing, and Xinjiang Uighur food is awfully cozy. Mutton, naan and noodles dominate the menu, with vegetables usually popping up in the form of onions, tomatoes, and peppers. And of course, there’s the famous dapanji 大盘鸡, directly translated as “big plate of chicken.” This is not an aggrandizement nor false advertising. My first encounter with this dish was on my travels in Urumqi, and the big plate o’ food that arrived on the table was the size of a large hubcap and held a whole chicken – including head, neck and feet, which was dumped on top of enough noodles for six. Magic.
But today was dedicated to lamb, and I can’t say I regretted it.
Lamb Skewers (yangrou chuan’r 羊肉串)
There is no shortage of grilled lamb skewers on the streets of Beijing, of various quality. Recently, a friend warned me of the rumored fake lamb skewers floating around town, so I laid off these snacks for a while. It wasn’t a huge loss, as most street stalls sell ghetto skewers high on scraps of gristle, fat, and not much meat – albeit for only RMB 1.5/20 cents per skewer.
Crescent Moon is frequently touted as one of the best Xinjiang restaurants in Beijing, and I wholeheartedly agree. The skewers at Crescent Moon are nothing like their streetside brethren. First off, it’s real lamb, and they are impressively giant meaty chunks, with one wedge of creamy fat sandwiched in the middle of the skewer. The seared drippings from the fat add extra flavor and coat the meat, and I’m not ashamed to admit I love munching on the crunchy fat. Seasoned simply with Xinjiang chuan’r spice, which is dominated by cumin and red pepper flakes, the cumin and lamb pairing are so perfectly consonant, it’s easy to see why lamb skewers are so popular around town. For RMB 6 a skewer, don’t waste your time on potential fake street skewers and just go to Crescent Moon.
Lamb Stew and Naan (nangbaorou 囊包肉）
More lamb. More yum. This is a stew of lamb ribs braised in a rich tomato-based sauce, tossed with onion and carrot slivers, and dished up on top of a freshly baked round of naan. Uighur naan is different from Indian naan in that it is a bit denser, and often enriched with some sesame oil and sesame seeds. The bread soaks up the sauce and the lamb is tender but still firm enough to really gnaw at the bone. It’s an unpretentious stew, simple in flavors and high on the comfort factor.
The dry version of this dish is a little more exciting, mainly cause of added grease. It consists of lamb cubes stir-fried with deep-fried pieces of naan, tossed with the cuminy chuan’r (barbecue) spices. It’s also uncommonly delicious, but alas, there were only two of us eating.
Yogurt and Cucumber Salad
So, it’s not lamb, but these two other dishes are lovely and cooling to the palate. Crescent Moon makes their own yogurt, and for those who have not had the fresh homemade stuff, it is fantastic. With a thick, unctuous texture similar to Greek yogurt, you can dollop it on lamb, dunk naan into it, get your recommended daily intake of calcium. Sometimes it’s served with its own little packet of sugar, as a dessert. If you’re smart, you can get an extra order, bring it home, and make your own yogurt. Unlike most yogurt you get in China, it’s unsweetened. However, it does not come in a cute little ceramic jar.
Xinjiang salad is a simple cold appetizer that consists of cucumbers, onions, and a sliver or two of tomato. It’s tossed in nothing more than some vinegar and salt (and perhaps MSG). So plain, and so refreshing next to the hearty lamb dishes.
There’s a ton of other tasty dishes, but alas, we ran out of stomach.
Crescent Moon Uighur Muslim Restaurant (弯弯月亮): 16 Dongsiliutiao (just off Dongsi Bei Dajie), Dongcheng District. 东城区东四六条16号（东四北大街附近). It’s hidden in the hutong, but just look for the minaret.