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.
Gary Soup is a blogger, tweeter and sometimes poster to foodie web sites, usually blathering about Chinese food. He is a retired transport planner with an abiding interest in all aspects of Asian and other ethnic foods and their place in the world. He has twice been married to Shanghainese women who happened to be good cooks and consequently is well-grounded in Shanghainese "jia chang" cuisine. He is based in San Francisco, but spends as much time as he can in Shanghai and New York and can sometimes be seen prowling the streets of Montreal. He is the author of two articles on food in the guidebook "Urbanatomy: Shanghai" and has been a guest blogger for the Asian Art Museum on the food of Shanghai. He currently maintains two Blogger blogs, and posts a lot to flickr. Some earlier online efforts of Mr. Soup drift about the World Wide Web as cyberspace junk.