The World of Naan

Dan Bender and Rick Halpern
Naan bread from Xin Jiang Restaurant

The naan bread at Xin Jiang Restaurant is pillowy, its crust toothy and perfectly charred in places from the heat of the tandoor. Like the cumin aroma that rises from the accompanying lamb stew, the taste of naan, and the technique of making it, reach across the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan Mountains toward the South Asian subcontinent and the Hindukush cultural crossroads of Afghanistan.

The “desert fish,” another specialty of this Scarborough restaurant, is swimming in an oil made from chili and Szechuan peppercorn—actually the dried flower of the prickly ash—and flecked with stir-fried meats. It hints tantalizingly at the sandy desert at the heart of Xinjiang province on China’s northwestern frontier—a frontier abutting Russia, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, Mongolia and India. This is where East and South Asia meet Central Asia, and the foodways of the province show it.

The juicy pan-fried dumplings on our table sit, in culinary geography, halfway along the trail of dumplings that stretches from the alluvial low-lands of China’s east all the way across the vasts of Central Asia to manti, the leek-filled and yogurt-bathed dumplings of central Turkey.

Xin Jiang Restaurant offers regional Chinese cooking, of course, but its range of dishes challenges the simple equation of nationality with cuisine.

Xinjiang province’s hand-pulled noodles and tandoor-baked breads are the edible evidence of a centuries-long history of cultural encounter and mobility. Nomadic peoples, human migrations, and trade routes have shaped Xinjiang’s religious and ethnic diversity. Uyghur, Turkic and other Muslim communities connect to Central and South Asia. Here, at the borders, distinctions between Chinese, Central Asian and South Asian foodways dissolve: dumplings reappear as a featureless characteristic of Chinese foodways than of long-distance trade along the Silk Route. And the presence of the tandoor reveals religious, economic and cultural ties across the world’s highest mountain passes.

Yet much is invested in the idea that nations produce cuisine, and can be closely identified with their foodways—in other contexts, what is France without its foods? The notion of a shared cuisine lends the nation legitimacy, especially given the large spaces and ethnic diversity of, for example, China. But this restaurant encourages customers to taste cuisine from the edges and rethink the nation, all at the same time.

Moistened by the stew’s spiced sauces and wok-fried onions, Xin Jiang ’s naan invites a meditation about connection and encounter, rather than an easier imagining of distinct cuisines neatly divided by national borders.

Dan Bender is the Canada Research Chair in Cultural History and Analysis. Rick Halpern is Dean & Vice-Principal, Academic.

Xin Jiang Restaurant
3636 Steeles Ave. E. Markham