Westerners tend to think of Chinese food as one type of cuisine. Some know the difference between Cantonese and Sichuan cooking, and may even have heard of China's eight great culinary styles. But in reality, there are dozens of distinct regional cuisines of China, and we are lucky to be able to find restaurants specialising in many of these right here in Melbourne.
Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven is one such restaurant. Or, more precisely, it is four such restaurants. The original was opened in Springvale a decade ago by Ilham (Eddie) Aziz. Since then, Aziz and a number of partners have opened three more, in the CBD, Box Hill and Carlton. The restaurants specialise in the food of the Uyghur ethnic minority from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in Northwest China, who are predominantly Muslim. The restaurants are halal, and lamb is the base of many dishes.
Xinjiang, in China's northwest corner, borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It is the link on the Silk Road between the Middle East and Asia, and much of the food of the region has more in common with Middle Eastern flavours than what many people think of as Chinese.
At Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven in the CBD, the "exotic lamb skewers" come with a heady aroma of cumin, and the lamb chops arrive over rolls of Turkish bread. There are steamed dumplings and buns, but there's also a dish called "Uyghur pastry", which is very much like a Middle Eastern meat pie: ground lamb shot through with black pepper and onion, encased in flaky pastry.
One of the region's most famous dishes is its hand-pulled noodles, made through a laborious process of rolling then pulling wheat dough until it achieves the desired length and stretch and texture. At Dolan, the noodles are made in-house, and they have a wonderfully resistance when you bite into them. The restaurant also serves short hand-pinched noodles, which are softer and especially well-suited to soups.
The menu at Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven tells the story of this fascinating cuisine, both through its offerings and also quite literally: a page is devoted to explaining the region and its people. But, as is so often the case, the more visceral path to understanding comes through tasting the food. Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven offers a delicious lesson in history and geography and culture.
Address 166 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, 03 9041 8802, dolanuyghurhalalrestaurant.com.au
Open Daily 11.30am-10pm (takeaway from 3pm-5pm only)
Bottom line Mains $10.80-$39.80
Must-order dishes: Oy Lagmeni (hand-pulled noodles with lamb) $14.80; Uyghur pastry $16.