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Looking for the night market? Just follow your nose

Cui Jia
Updated: Aug 29,2015 3:31 PM     China Daily

Barbecued eggs are one of the most famous specialties in Hotan. Eggs are buried in the burning coals, and vendors know exactly when to pluck them out.[Photo by Wang Zhuangfei/China Daily]

You don’t need to ask anyone how to get to the night food markets in the city of Hotan; just look for one thing, billowing smoke, and then take in the odor that comes from it: the fragrance of exotic delicacies being barbecued in the distance or just around the corner.

After that, follow your eyes until you see glowing lights, hundreds of them, from the dangling light bulbs hanging above every stall specializing in the local traditional food, much of which is unique, often creative and always delicious.

There are two night markets in the city, in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, and people simply refer to them as the old one and the new one. The old one is in streets along the banks of the Kashiyulong River, from which Hotan jade is taken.

The market expanded so much that roads were eventually clogged with cars, tractors and donkey carts parked on the streets so the local government decided to move some vendors to another location, in a square in front of a newly built apartment block. The look and smell test can be used to find either market.

Hotan is an oasis on the edge of the Taklimakan, the world’s second-largest desert. Oases near Hotan, small and large, provided sustenance to many ancient civilizations and kingdoms on the ancient Silk Road. Four of the 36 kingdoms and emperors in the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-AD24) are in the current Hotan prefecture, and counties such as Pishan and Yutian still carry names passed down from those days.

In all likelihood, such night food markets existed hundreds of years ago, too, packed with locals and merchants stopping by for replenishment of supplies. All kingdoms have long since been lost to the desert, but in Hotan many traditions such as bazaars and silk making are well and truly alive.

The majority of those who live in Hotan are Uygurs so the food in the night markets is full of authentic Uygur flavors. In Hotan the sun does not set until after 10 pm at the height of summer so the busiest time in the markets is after midnight, which stay open until 4 am.

The favorite food with locals is, undoubtedly, barbecued eggs, which are also a Hotan specialty. In the new night market, barbecued-egg sellers far outnumber those selling any other food. Perhaps surprisingly for visitors not used to such a warm climate, people are happy enough to sit around burning coals even on days when the temperature has climbed to 45 C, and on such days blazing heat can persist into the evening and the early morning.

Barbecue egg masters such as Turson Samat, 36, can cook eggs to the exacting demands of customers by adjusting how deep the eggs are buried in the burning coals, then pluck them out at just the right moment to deliver eggs from rare to well done to people sitting around intently watching the process.

Customers can choose from pigeon, chicken and goose eggs, which are neatly piled around the barbeque. Before burying the eggs, Turson removes the shell at the top and leaves a small opening so he can see what is going on inside. Customers can produce flavors to suit their own tastes by adding salt, pepper or honey through the small opening and eventually eat the contents with a small spoon.

In the barbecued egg business the premium deal is the three-in-one egg, Turson says. “Let me show you how it’s done,” he whispers as if this is all very top secret. First, he makes the small opening at the top of a goose egg then carefully removes the egg white. He later puts the yolks of a chicken egg and a pigeon egg into the goose egg and mixes the yolks.

He then places the goose egg on top of the coal. When the yolks are beginning to thicken he takes the mixture out and adds a little honey and a pinch of saffron. The egg is then put back in the coal and Turson keeps on stirring the mixture until the texture turns into something like creme brulee. The result is delicious.

Apart from barbecuing eggs, Hotan locals take pride in their barbecued “lamb’s eggs”, in reality lamb’s testicles. Every barbecue stall has the ingredient on the menu. “They’ve got to be fresh ones,” says Memetjon Abliz, 43. He sells at least 30 testicles a night, he says, adding: “It’s good for men.”

Wang Zhuangfei, a photographer who accompanied me to Hotan, says of a lamb’s egg he ate: “It is very meaty but softer than lamb’s meat and it tastes great.” He regret having only had one, he says.

After having a real egg as a starter and the lamb’s egg as a main course, it is time for a summer dessert.

“Come, my friend, and try the perfect summer dessert,” Rozgul Abulat, 20, says with a broad smile. He stands beside a big chunk of ice half her size. I notice something familiar in front of the ice, zongzi, or rice-dumplings wrapped in reed leaves, which people normally have during the Dragon Boat Festival celebrated by Han Chinese. People in Hotan love them, eating them almost daily, Rozgul says.

“We also love moon cakes and have them every day as snacks.”

Wasting no time she begins to prepare her signature dish. She uses a small pickaxe to scrape ice chips off the big ice chunk cut from the frozen river in winter. Then she puts the ice chips into a bowl and mixes them with yogurt and sugar syrup. Finally, she unwraps a plain zongzi and dumps it into the bowl. It is ready to serve, and proves to live up to Rozgul’s sales pitch.

Xinjiang produces the best and sweetest fruits in China because of the long daylight hours and the vast temperature differences between day and night. You can buy slices of melons at the night market and decide which one you like best.

Akbar Azmet’s melons were cooled in icy water at the back of his tractor. For him the heat wave is a godsend because the hotter it is the more melons he sells. After years of practice he can slice every piece of melon into almost exactly the same size.

As people just cannot resist a slice of chilled watermelon in the hot summer night, the 45-year-old has to keep on slicing watermelons to satisfy his customers waiting in line. After a customer finishes the first piece, Azmet puts another slice into his or her hand and says: “Come on. You know you want another piece.”

When you are in Hotan there are so many interesting things to watch out for, one of them being your weight.