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Islamic Dishes of China

June 19, 1988|MAX JACOBSON

China Islamic Restaurant, 7727 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead; (818) 288-4246. Open Thursday-Tuesday for lunch and dinner. No alcohol. Parking in lot. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Recommended dishes: sesame bread $4.60, green onion pies $1.25, beef buns $3.60 (4), lamb stew $6.75, lamb with green onions $6.25, spicy beef $4.50.

A word of advice to anyone intent on visiting China's Xinjiang province: Be prepared to eat your share of lamb and bread. Even a high ranking party official would be hard pressed to find much else at mealtime in northwest China.

Xinjiang is the home of the Uigur, an Islamic people distantly related to the Turks. To this day, the chief preoccupation of these nomads is tending the flocks of sheep that graze on the desolate grasslands. China's large, and little known, Islamic community originally trickled in through here, which may be why lamb plays such a large part in the traditional Islamic dishes of China.

You will find these dishes at the China Islamic Restaurant, prepared by the Ma family of Taiwan who have been practitioners of Islam for many generations. The spare and savory cuisine they dish up is a combination of many influences; it offers a wonderful selection of toothsome hand-sliced noodles, peerless northern-style dumplings, Shanghainese cold dishes, Cantonese style hot pots, and plenty of lamb. All food is halal (conforming to Islamic dietary laws), and all meats are purchased from halal butcher shops. No pork is allowed on the premises.

It's a plain, bright restaurant. You will be served by two sisters who cover their heads with light-blue foutas , (veil-like garments with the facial features exposed). Both speak fluent English.

Your eyes will be drawn to the giant round breads that dominate nearly every table. On the menu they are called "sesame bread," but that doesn't give you a clue as to what it is. You need at least four people to order one, because it is about 14 inches in diameter, and has the thickness of three double-crusted pizzas stacked together. The top shell is crusty and dotted with sesame, and inside there are about a dozen pull-apart layers.

This bread makes a perfect companion to lamb stew, a ceramic pot containing a concoction filled with chunks of meat still on the bone, ching tsai , a cabbage-like green, and a rich, salty broth. The Uigur have been braving the intemperate winters and blazing summers of Xinjiang with these foods for centuries, so the usual lightness of Chinese cuisine is missing from their soups and stews. Those who find that daunting may favor the many interesting alternatives.

Lamb with green onions has a gamy, wild taste, the shredded lamb wok-fried with equal parts of chopped scallions; it is better combined with plain rice than scooped up with bread. The many cold dishes are also on the lighter side. Five-spiced beef is as lean and moist as I've had anywhere, and the spicy ox-tripe is fired up with plenty of red-hot chili. Chicken and ground green bean sheets is a Chinese chicken salad with ground peanut dressing, mixed with translucent sheets made from the pounded flour of the green bean.

Steamed dumplings are popular everywhere in China, and although China Islamic doesn't make them with lamb as the Tibetans do, they make a yeasty, chewy prototype. Noodles are hand-cut daily, thick wheat noodles that are far superior to the dried version. I would favor the ones with beef, because the lamb noodles are a bit greasy.

The menu's selection of the more familiar Chinese dishes offer few surprises. Braised shrimp is generous, but overly sweet where it should be hot. Eggplant with brown sauce is spicy and pungent, but a bit heavy-handed in the cornstarch department. Deep-fried crispy chicken is crispy, all right, but far too dry. It is one of the few things at this restaurant that will seem familiar.

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