An Islamic Chinese restaurant with charcoal roasted lamb skewers, Chinese style meat pies and a colossal stew that literally translates to big plate chicken.
Technically Tarim is a Chinese restaurant. All the chefs, the owners and most of the customers were born there. But it doesn’t look like a Chinese restaurant, not one most people would be used to anyway. None of the tables I can see have any Jasmine tea, few have any bowls of rice and certainly none have any pork. Many customers are wearing hijabs and the ones who aren’t are heavily moustached, wearing dopas (those round skullcaps worn by devout Islamic men) or both of the above.
Obviously, this isn’t a regular lemon chicken Chinese restaurant. The family who run Tarim are Uyghurs, an ethnic minority found mostly in far Western China, with smaller populations in the central Asian stans, Turkey, Canada and Russia. A small community has also settled around Auburn, no doubt due to the local mosque – as you may have guessed from the headgear and lack of pork here, Uyghurs are almost exclusively Islamic. In fact, most identify as Muslim more than they do as members of the wider Chinese community, unfortunately this has caused them, like many ethnic minorities in China, a great deal of strife.
In China their cuisine is mostly considered a cheap street food, like how many people interact with Thai and Turkish food here. I like to think this is because the cuisine feels like the burger and chips of Chinese food, a carb and meat heavy style of cooking that’s supremely accessible and just as hearty.
Their most famous culinary export is kawap, skewers of cumin and chilli dusted lamb shoulder. Like all great barbecued skewers, Tarim’s are smoky, tender and earthy from being slow cooked over a live charcoal grill.
As you’ll see on the Tarim tables, there’s little rice in Uyghur cuisine. Instead most people rely on noodles and bread as their dietary staples. Tarim particularly excel at the former. They make all their noodles inhouse – that long stretchy hand pulled style, duck your head in the kitchen and you’ll see them literally pulling the dough apart). The chewy strands are then wok-fried to order with lamb, cumin (a reoccurring ingredient here), cabbage, capsicum and a bit of lamb broth to make a salty, savoury noodle dish rather different to any other in China.
I’m told Xinjiang is a wonderland for breads, with more flavours, textures and fillings than you’d find in any local bakery but unfortunately Tarim doesn’t have the demand or labour power to warrant the extra baking. For a small insight ask for goshnan, which is also known as meat bread for good reason. It’s like a massive, exceptionally hearty meat pie with no gravy. It’s instead stuffed with a dry lamb, beef and onion mix. The dough encasing it has the crunchy to gooey stratigraphy that makes a good pastry great.
The only other hints of the Xinjiang bread tradition are Tarim’s nan breads (similar to the Indian naan) and their dumplings, thinly wrapped meaty parcels that taste like Middle Eastern flavoured jaozi (that’s the usual kind you find in non-yum cha dumpling restaurants around Sydney).
Nan is eaten with almost everything here but it’s most popular as a wrap for the kawap, and as a dipping tool for the restaurant’s signature dish, dapanji – literally big plate chicken. As the chilli-chicken stew (toho qordah on the menu) is both colossal in size and full of life’s most filling ingredients (potatoes, meat and doughy noodles) it’s best to eat this in a big group. If you manage to arrange a particularly big troupe of enthusiastic carnivores, do what I’ve always wanted to do and ask for a whole charcoal roasted lamb. If there’s twenty of you it’ll be $25 each but you’ll leave feeling either like an apex predator, a coma patient or both.
As Tarim has recently undergone a minor facelift it’s also one of Auburn’s prettier restaurants to dine in. That doesn’t mean it’s one of the more expensive options though, a plate of noodles will set you back $15.50, a 2-3-person dapanji is only $30.