Editor's note: Since this review was posted, Wulumuchi has closed down for reasons unknown.
‘Special marinated mixed vegetables’ doesn’t sound particularly special, but the platter of green leaves, peppers and onions (£4.50) at Chinatown’s newest restaurant tastes less insipid than it sounds: drizzled and sizzled with spicy, punchy, eye-wateringly hot chilli dressing spiked with cumin, it will leave you craving for more.
Wait a minute, cumin in Chinese food? Yes, indeed. London’s Chinese restaurants were once almost exclusively Cantonese, but Sichuanese and Hunanese have become more popular in recent years. Now Wulumuchi, owned by the group behind the ‘Legends’ restaurants such as Leong’s Legends, brings the lesser-known dishes of Xinjiang Uyghur region of north-west China to the capital.
‘Wulumuchi’ is based on a version of the name of the region’s capital city, Urumqi, which is surrounded by, among others, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – so influences from these countries abound in its cooking.
Xinjiang cooks make use not only of cumin, but also other spices like red chilli flakes, cassia and star anise. The cuisine is characterised by the use of wheat instead of rice to make dumplings and noodles; and there’s also speciality Xinjiang naan bread (available here for £3).
With its large population of Turkic Uyghur Muslims, the region shuns pork in favour of lamb; and a mixture of Chinese, Turkish and Persian words are used to describe the dishes. Alongside the Turkic flatbreads and kebabs, you’ll also find sweet and savoury goat’s milk tea – something of an acquired taste – to be drunk with the meal. Go on, be adventurous and try some!
Decked out with wooden trellis, colourful chiffon curtains, decorative lanterns and kitsch knick-knacks, the restaurant looks like the inside of a yurt. Friendly waitresses are dressed in brightly coloured and sequinned traditional Turkic costumes.
Specialities here include mutton ribs (£10.50), ding ding hand-diced noodles (£7.50), and lamb skewers pepped up with cumin and chilli flakes (£9.80). You’ll also find the region’s most famous dish, classic da pan ji (which translates as ‘big plate of chicken’): a large platter of spicy chicken on the bone with red and green chillies, potatoes and tomatoes, served with thick ‘belt’ noodles (£25).
There are imaginative vegetarian options too, such as stir-fried daylilies with black fungus (£7), a mellow-flavoured dish with a great variety of textures; wonderfully crisp, spicy stir-fried lotus root (£7.50), and delicious sweetcorn and pine kernel egg fried rice (£6.50). Sweet offerings, strictly for fans of Asian desserts, include wobbly raisin and milk jelly that’s comfort food par excellence, and slightly salty red date and sweet potato pudding (both £3.50).
There’s some debate about whether dumplings (here the lovely vegetarian, lamb and chicken versions are priced between £4.50 to £5) historically originated in this region of China and then travelled to Turkey, or the other way round. Whatever the truth, the unfamiliar dishes of this regional Chinese offer plenty of food for thought.
Wulumuchi is located at 16 Lisle Street, WC2H 7BE, 020 7287 6606
By Sejal Sukhadwala
See also: Top 10 Chinatown eats