Saturday, November 15, 2008

Xinjiang Matang -- an ancient and arty confection

Across the street from the hotel that was my home for a month in Shanghai is a mall with a plaza in front of it. This plaza, and the sidewalk along the entire block to the east, hosts an impromptu night market offering an ever-changing array of temptations ranging from knock-off handbags to stinky tofu. One night I spotted a curious sight on the plaza: a vendor with a flat-bed tricycle upon which sat what appeared to be a massive cake, partially cut away, and artfully decorated with candied fruit on the top. This sight rang a bell with me, and hastening to my computer I found a message board discussion I had seen before that identified this wonder as a Xinjiang confecton called matang (麻糖) sold by itinerant Uighur vendors.

I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but I ccoudn't resist returning and buying a hunk, meekly agreeing to the asking price and not complaining when he "accidentally" cut off a piece that was considerably heavier than the jin (0.5 Kg) I asked for. By then I was surrounded by other vendors who were either admiring my temerity or bemused by my naivete. Oh well, I ended up with a fine 20 oz. hunk of rare (and not too sweet) candy for around $5 in US money. As I found out later, the Xinjiang matang is pricey by anyone's standards because it's almost solid walnut paste in composition.

My vendor turned out to be one of a group of nine who had traveled together from Xinjiang. I found this out later from the restaurant proprietor when my Sister-in-Law and I went to dinner at our local Lanzhou La Mian joint and found four matang tricycles parked in front, their owners enjoying the fresh-pulled noodles. (Around the same time an "invasion" of another 10 or so vendors was reported by the media in Jiaxing, south of Shanghai; they were cited for lack of permits and ridden out of town on a rail, something that wouldn't happen in laissez-faire Shanghai.)

Subsequent Googling and machine translation of Chinese sources revealed the following about Xinjiang Matang: It's a specialty of the town of Hotan (or Khotan) in southwest Xinjiang, home of Xinjiang's famous thin-shelled walnuts and possessed of a large Uighur population. The basic process, passed down from generation to generation, seems to be to boil grapes (which the area is also noted for) down to a syrup, then add crushed walnuts and continue the boil. Later, when the mass achieves the right density, it is pressed into a mold and decorated with candied fruit. It's not surprising that the decoration is typically artistic, as this region is also famous for fine carpets.

1 comment:

johnswift67 said...

Really awesome! It's really artful.