In western China, a white grape's raisin d'être

The superiority of Turpan raisins, a sweet-and-sour fruit, is among the few things that the Han and Uighur ethnic groups can agree on.

At the mayor of Urumchi's banquet, and at a gala roasted-mutton fest in a crowded Uighur restaurant, as well as at a meal in the home of a desert farmer - they are on hand. They sit humbly amid flashy kabobs, are crowded by thick corn chowders with melon, and show up in mixed rice and other delicacies of China's desert kingdom.

We speak of the Turpan raisin, a wrinkly translucent fruit - otherwise known as the "green pearl" of west China.

It doesn't make a big first impression in the overall political and strategic agenda of the region. The Turpan is, as we say, just a raisin - and appears at first glance a mismatch with its plumper California-bred cousin.

But in the far west of China, the green pearl is a source of pride and overseas income, a cheap delicacy, an everyman's staple - packed by camel herders and plant managers alike. It is the Vidalia onion, the Indian River ruby red, of west China's arbors.

In one local account, the Turpan raisin is "stepping toward the world together with China's economy." Well, that might deserve some editing down by the Xinjiang chamber of commerce. But in these parts, pro-Turpan raisin spin doctoring dates at least to the Jin Dynasty, when a poet spoke lovingly of the grapes that "taste sweeter than honey, and have no seeds."

We are talking about a 2,000-year-old snack, a dessert in the desert.

Chew on them awhile. In time, the sharp sweet-and-sour taste seems an ineffable match to the rugged arid region, more Central Asian and Persian in atmosphere than classic Chinese.

The raisin gets lauded even against stiff local competition. China's far west is called "home of fruits and melons." Apricots, cantaloupe, and pomegranates all have claims on the local palate, are heaped in local bazaars next to bins of saffron tea and walnuts, and are sent to Chinese markets in the east.

Yet a combination of low-lying lands, long hours of sunshine, cool nights, and hot days produce a seedless white grape inordinately sugary when harvested in August.

Forty days after being plucked from the trellis and dried in adobe houses, the green-pearl raisin is ready for shipment to Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Japan, and for eating here. May I say it? Kids love 'em.

In some parts of Asia, one finds piles of sunflower seeds in cafes or on airplane tray tables. Here, the pearl is a fast-food munchie.

Han and Uighur ethnic groups might not agree on much. Uighurs even operate on a different, unofficial time. A courthouse clock in dusty Hotan, for example, is set two hours later than the official time set by Beijing.

But everyone can agree about raisins. As a traditional industry, raisinmaking rivals gathering the white jade found on the riverbanks of Hotan, or silk and carpet production.

We heard it through the grapevine, moreover, that the drier green pearl retains its taste longer in an exposed outdoor market than do vacuum-packed moist and pampered California raisins. That was unconfirmed at the time of this writing, however.

For foreign journalists on an officially sponsored visit to Xinjiang, the raisin did offer a respite. Here, if you don't like mutton, you are sunk. It is the dish of choice; all mutton, all the time. Mutton kabobs give way to chunky sliced mutton plates, mutton stew, mutton-chili steamed rice, mutton in soup, eggs, potatoes.

One foreign correspondent began to swear she was being served a mutton-laced tea. After a few days, you reach for the fruit.

With bowls placed hospitably at conference tables, dipping into the raisins also proved a gracious substitute for finger-tapping by foreign journalists waiting for language translations. It takes some time to translate from Uighur to Mandarin, and from Mandarin to English. One also assumes something is, well, lost, as they say.

There are plenty of Uighur/English translators in Xinjiang. But we didn't meet any. There's probably a different raison d'être to that story.

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