The Xinjiang region of China goes relatively unnoticed for its distinct cuisine, though it has certainly garnered international attention in other respects.
Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, is home to some 11 million Uighur Muslims. The province butts up against the borders of multiple countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Over the past two years, its substantial Uighur population has been subject to an unprecedented crackdown, drawing a sharp rebuke from the United Nations Human Rights Council in November 2018. By the U.N. panel’s own account, in the name of combating religious extremism and separatist sentiment, China’s central government has detained up to 1 million Uighurs in “re-education centers.”
Uighur cuisine had long been popular outside of Xinjiang in China’s coastal cities. “There is a Mandarin expression that ‘Uighur food is food heaven,'” says Sirajidin Kerim, owner of restaurant SilkRoad Tarim, located right next to the glitzy Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel in Shinjuku Ward. “There used to be long queues outside Uighur restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing before the crackdown began two years ago,” he says.
Xinjiang’s halal produce was also highly regarded for its perceived cleanliness, and is said to have become especially popular after several notable food contamination scandals across China. Though the province has become all but inaccessible to visitors, its unique cuisine can still be enjoyed at several restaurants in Tokyo.
SilkRoad Tarim was one of the first Uighur restaurants to open in Tokyo. Its owner, Kerim, originally arrived in Japan in 2001 as an international student.
“When I told the Japanese I met that I was Uighur, they would ask if I meant I was Mongol. It was heartbreaking to me that Japanese people knew so little about the Uighurs,” he says, over tea in his restaurant.
“There was nowhere in Tokyo for cultural exchange between Japanese people and Uighurs.” Today, his restaurant functions as a resource center for Uighur residents in Tokyo looking for help with apartments and guarantors, or even just making friends. “They come here, and I make the introductions,” he says.
The paucity of halal options in Tokyo was also a key factor in motivating many of Tokyo’s Uighur restaurant owners to open up shop.
“When I first came to Japan as a student in 2001, there was barely a single halal restaurant. If I wanted to eat out, it had to be Turkish or Indian,” says Kerim. The lack of easily available halal foods is still frequently cited as major issue for Muslim travelers to Japan.
Not far from SilkRoad Tarim, in Takadanobaba, is Hamit Osman’s restaurant, Urumqi. The recent difficulties in Xinjiang indirectly spurred the opening of Osman’s restaurant in 2017. “After 3½ years working at a Japanese IT company, I started a company with my wife to offer support to Uighur students studying in Japan. However, the flow of international students completely stopped last year,” he says.
After the Chinese authorities began seizing passports from Uighurs as part of the crackdown, “the job became a dead end, so I started thinking maybe we could open a restaurant,” Osman continues.
Urumqi offers halal dining with no alcohol served on the premises. Some halal restaurants may offer alcohol to attract Japanese customers but, for more orthodox adherents to the practice, the presence of any alcohol may render the restaurant haram, or inappropriate.
For Reyhangul Alim, owner-chef of Reyhan’s Uyghur Restaurant in Sugamo, opening a restaurant in Tokyo was certainly tough, but had long been an ambition of hers. She first visited Japan in 2003 when her husband, Ilham, was studying here. “When I made food for Japanese friends, they kept telling me how delicious it was, and how much they loved Uighur cooking. I decided at that point that I would try to open a restaurant once I had moved to Japan permanently.”
The menus at Tokyo’s Uighur restaurants feature many of the same staples of the cuisine. Drawing on a unique blend of central Asian and Chinese culinary traditions, Uighur cuisine generally makes heavy use of lamb, and features various breads, dumplings and rice pilafs.
Popular dishes include laghman, a dish of hand-pulled noodles in a hearty lamb and vegetable sauce. The dough is slapped on the counter and spun through the air before cooking to give the noodles their unique springy texture.
Another Uighur favorite, dapanji, (literally “big plate chicken”) is a hearty, warming stew of chicken, vegetables and Sichuan chili peppers, said to have been invented by a migrant from Sichuan trying to recreate a taste of home.
Uighur cooking tends not to be especially spicy, but can be at some restaurants due to demand from Chinese customers. Especially popular with Chinese customers is the shish kebab, a skewer of marinated lamb cooked over a grill with cumin, salt and pepper, which gives the meat a pleasing, dry heat.
“I generally tone down the spice when I see that my customers at (Urumqi) are Japanese, compared to dishes for my Chinese customers,” says Osman.
Altogether, Osman estimates that there are roughly 3,000 Uighurs living in Japan, with a fairly tight-knit community in the Kanto region. In the face of all the troubles in Xinjiang, Tokyo’s Uighur restaurants still offer the culture’s unique cuisine and warm hospitality to customers of all origins.