A satisfying mix of freshly ground beef, cumin, and chili peppers.
Most buns in China are steamed or pan-fried, but in Xinjiang, the tandoor is the equipment of choice.
Oven-baked buns are a specialty of the Uyghur people. They can be found all over Central Asia and are usually sold on the street as a hot snack. These crispy parcels of meat are accented by the sharp flavors of chili peppers and cumin.
The bun’s main ingredient is wheat flour from Tianshan, a mountain range in Central Asia. It’s combined with water, salt, oil, and battered eggs, which act as a mild leavening agent.
After they’re mixed together, the dough is left to rest overnight before it’s kneaded out by hand and divided into individual pieces, which are then rolled out into thin wrappers. The meat is made with chunks of fresh beef.
“We go to the market to buy fresh meat and chili peppers,” says Yakop Chayhanisi, owner of Yakop Baked Bao House in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. “We go and buy these raw ingredients ourselves to get the best results.”
The beef is seasoned with three types of peppers—black, green, and red—along with cumin and salt. “It’s salty, sour, and spicy,” says Chayhanisi, who’s been making them for over five years. “Adults and kids like to eat it.”
After the filling is wrapped, the buns are baked in a tandoor. Because the walls of a tandoor are thicker than a convection oven, the inside temperature is much higher. The buns can be fully cooked in as little as 12 minutes.
“When we bake, we first adjust the temperature of the oven,” Chayhanisi says. “After we adjust the temperature, we spray water. Then, we spray saltwater.”
The saltwater helps the buns stick to the walls of the tandoor, while fresh water keeps them moist. When they’re done, the surface of the bread that’s stuck to the oven will cook to a crisp, while the other side fluffs up.
(Read more: How China made bagels 400 years ago)
For Chayhanisi, his path to the bun business was circuitous. He initially opened a barbecue restaurant and hired a chef to bake buns in the front as a way to make extra money from passersby. “I liked this job, so I started learning it myself,” he says.
After five years of baking, Chayhanisi has his own thoughts on what makes a good bun. “There should be the right amount of everything,” he says. “If there’s too little meat and too much oil and salt, it’s not good.”
Nowadays, his shop commands a loyal following. “The most fulfilling thing is when I succeed,” he says. “And I’ve succeeded in this business.”