Pollo or Pilaf 抓饭: Xinjiang’s Best Food

February 8 | 4 Comments

Local Name: “Pollo” or “Pulao”
Chinese Name: 抓饭 (zhuā fàn)
Alternate Names: Rice pilaf, Uyghur rice
Description:  Dish of rice mixed with carrots and various other ingredients usually topped with a sizable portion of lamb meat.

In Spanish, it means “chicken”, but for the Uyghur in Xinjiang it translates into a tasty plate of rice and lamb.  I have no numbers to back this theory up, but I would venture to guess that this dish (which is also called “pollo”, “zhua fan” or even “pilaf”) is the most popular cuisine from the Uyghur culture.  I’m sure anyone who has tasted it will agree with me – it’s some good stuff!

What’s In It?

A plate of Uyghur rice called pollo The main ingredients of pollo are fairly simple.  A bunch of rice, carrots, onions and chunks of lamb is cooked in a whole ton of oil – and I do mean a ton of oil.

You’re not going to find this dish on any weight-watchers list, that’s for sure.  Everything else is up to the individual cook.  Some people like to add other meats like chicken (but never pork!) while other people like to make it sweeter with raisins, apricots, or other small fruits.

Ordering in a Restaurant

First of all, any restaurant claiming to be a “Uyghur” or “Xinjiang” restaurant that doesn’t serve this dish isn’t authentic.  Get out of there immediately! It’d be like going to a Italian restaurant and finding out they don’t serve spaghetti – it just doesn’t happen.  Because of the comparatively long preparation time, though, it’s usually only served during lunch so don’t expect to be able to order it late at night.

It used to be that this was a community dish placed in the middle of a table for all to eat and although this still holds true for some places like Kashgar, most restaurants will serve each person their own plate.  Another former custom was to eat this dish with your hands

(hence the full Chinese name “手抓饭” meaning “rice eaten with hands”), but contrary to what you might read elsewhere this doesn’t happen much anymore.  Most restaurants will give you a spoon and everybody I’ve seen uses it.  Don’t embarrass yourself.

Because pollo is very heavy on the oil a small cold plate of cooked mixed vegetables soaked in vinegar and spices is usually served along side the dish.  If you’re lucky you might even get a complimentary bowl of Uyghur yoghurt, but don’t count on it.
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Can I Make It Myself?

A Uyghur woman making pollo (pilaf) A dish like this has got to be easy to make, right?  Well…kind of.   While usually pollo is cooked in a large wok I’ve also seen it prepared in a regular rice cooker.  It’s not as good, of course, but if you don’t live here how would you know!  The hardest part would be finding and selecting good lamb meat, the foundation of a great plate of pollo.  The rest is just dropping it in the pot (or wok) and stirring.

If you’re looking for a recipe though, I’m sorry to disappoint you.  My wife refuses to let me publish hers and I think that’s probably a good idea.  You need to just visit a good Xinjiang restaurant and try it yourself before attempting to botch up this excellent dish.  It took generations for the Uyghur to perfect pollo and you’re not going to replicate it with your electric stove or rice cooker.

Further Reading:

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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Leave a Comment

  1. Wow, got to love polo! When I cook it, I use boneless chicken breasts instead of mutton and it’s still great! Don’t forget to add the “yellow/green” raisins to give it a bit of sweetness – so much more delicious! You can add chopped potatoes, apples, or eggs too! In the last place I lived in XJ, they would add green peas – that’s about the only way I didn’t care for polo….


  2. Come on, Josh… there has to be some little hints your lovely wife can offer ;) I just happened to do a google search trying to come up with something a little XingJiang-esque to make for dinner tonight and your website was the first hit – go figure lol.


    Josh Summers on March 14th, 2018 at 4:20 am

    Haha! It’s interesting – while living here in Xinjiang my wife rarely cooks Uyghur food. We figure that it will taste so much better if we just walk out the door and eat at a local restaurant. :)