New York has had a sparing number of Uyghur and related restaurants over the last decades, but incredibly, three new Uyghur restaurants have appeared in Flushing recently, offering a glimpse of the cuisine at very modest prices.
The menus look similar to that of Central Asian countries, centering on lamb, bread, soup, wheaten dumplings, tomatoes, and root vegetables, then seasoned with cumin, cilantro, onions, and sometimes chiles, both fresh and dried. The additions to Flushing’s dining scene is a surprise in part because the city has so few Ugyhur people, though they have been trickling into New York City in spite of the federal government’s ambivalent attitude toward the ethnic minority’s plight in China.
The Chinese government has lately been aggressively persecuting the Uyghurs, arresting them and imprisoning them in re-education camps. Estimates suggest that over 800,000 have been detained. According to Dr. Dru C. Gladney of Pomona College, an expert in Uyghur affairs, there are now an estimated 5,000 or fewer Uyghurs in the New York City area, while there are around 10,000 in Washington, DC and 1,000 in Los Angeles, out of a total of 20,000 Uyghurs in the U.S. By comparison, there are 11 million Uyghurs in China, and another million outside China.
Despite their small numbers outside of China, the influence of their cuisine is more vast. Aside from Kashkar in Brighton Beach, which opened in 2003, restaurants such as the East Village’s Jiang Diner and Lagman House in Sheepshead Bay, which represents the related cuisine of the Dungan people of Central Asia, serve dishes that pull from Uyghur culinary traditions. Other famous Uyghur dishes have made their way onto Chinese provincial menus, so that many New Yorkers are now familiar with the big tray chicken at Spicy Village on the Lower East Side and Henan Feng Wei in Flushing.
Still, there may only be about 20 Uyghur restaurants in the country overall, according to Uyghur historian Mettursun Beydulla, himself formerly imprisoned in China. Here are three Uyghur spots well worth visiting in New York.
Uyghur Apandi Food
This food court counter, which opened in December last year, lies underneath the Super HK supermarket complex, accessed via a wide stairway inside the front doors of the supermarket on Main Street just north of 38th Avenue. Channeling the 12th century itinerant scholar Nasirdin Apandi (apandi means “teacher” in Uyghur), Uyghur Apandi Food occupies stall #7, on the right after descending the steps, and was opened by owner Hati Man, who has been living in the U.S. for five years. The illustrated menu runs to 14 quintessential selections. On the counter lies a plate of samsa, sesame-seeded turnovers stuffed with lamb and onions that are a steal at $2 each.
A good introduction to the cuisine is polo ($9.99), the Uyghur term for the Central Asian dish called plov, doubtlessly inspired by Middle Eastern pilaf centuries ago. It is a simple dish of tender and flavorful lamb chunks on a bed of rice cooked in meat juices and studded with both orange and yellow carrots. It comes with a bowl of lamb broth floating a carrot sliver and cilantro, and pile of lightly pickled red and green peppers, making a very full meal.
Indeed, carrots are a big deal and the most prominent vegetable in Uyghur cooking. They also provide a major component of nan kordak ($14.99), the stall’s biggest feed. Once again offered with a bowl of insanely good lamb broth, the stew boasts a chile-laced broth, lamb, and other vegetables that include baby spinach leaves and a length of corn-on-the-cob, two vegetables not usually found in the stew back home if pictures on the web can be believed. But the main inclusion besides lamb are wedges of bread cut from the loaf on the counter, known as nan. The bread absorbs all the flavors, and becomes irresistible. I might mention that the halal lamb found at this counter is some of the tastiest in the city.
Other items available include the doughy dumplings called manti, lamb and chicken kebabs, and lagman hand-pulled noodles both in soup and stir fried. HK Supermarket basement food court, 37-11 Main Street, Flushing
Tarim Uyghur Cuisine
Before full-blown Uyghur restaurants hit town, many were familiar with Uyghur food through intermediary cuisines. Kebab carts have been familiar for nearly a decade in Flushing, Elmhurst, and even Manhattan Chinatown, where delicate dollar kebabs of lamb and chicken (and eventually, many other ingredients) are cooked over charcoal. These carts supposedly came by way of Beijing, according to rumor.
And cafes like Henan Feng Wei in Flushing and Spicy Village on the Lower East Side have long served the dish called “big tray chicken,” which is a bone-in chicken-and-potato stew in a chile oil broth fronded with cilantro and dotted with an incredible quantity of Sichuan peppercorns. Absolutely delicious! But maybe the Sichuan peppercorn were added somewhere along the route as the dish made its way from Xinjiang to Henan, and hence to Flushing.
Tarim Uyghur Cuisine offers its equivalent of big tray chicken (also known as dapanji), but also big tray lamb as the centerpiece of its 12-item menu, though the dish isn’t laced with peppercorns. In fact, it’s not really spicy, though some of the fresh green peppers that bob in its light broth are a bit spicy, while the red ones are red bell peppers, sweet but not spicy. The lamb version totally rocks, with its stout wheat noodles and big fatty hunks of lamb. In fact, the dish is so lamb-y, it feels like you’ve pressed your face into the flank of a sheep.
The balance of the menu features kebabs, lagman (the noodles that supposedly introduced Marco Polo to noodles), bean jelly salad, and chicken salad, the latter two reminiscent of Tibetan cooking. This stall is a newcomer to the New World Mall, Flushing’s largest and most popular food court. New World Mall, 136-20 Roosevelt Avenue, between Main and Union streets, Flushing
Nurlan lies at the southern edge of downtown Flushing, seven blocks from the crossroads of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue, steps from a Buddhist temple with a giant Buddha on the roof in a neighborhood with Afghan restaurants and grocery stores. It is the only one of the three Uyghur restaurants in Flushing that offers a conventional sit-down premises, while the others are stalls in food courts. The restaurant is run by Uyghurs Adil Nurdun and Arkin Ali.
The dining room is decorated with a plaque showing miniature Turkic musical instruments including a saz and dombra, while a massive painting depicts an ancient Silk Road market scene. Tables are covered with jazzy red, green, and yellow tablecloths with a diamond motif, and a swinging door leads to a gleaming kitchen at the rear. The menu is about twice the length of the other places, with many more kebab choices. Other unique dishes include dumplings shaped like ziggurats filled with lamb and seasoned with black pepper, flat irregular hand torn noodles, and a stuffed bread called gosh nan.
We tried pearl noodles ($11.99), small farinaceous nuggets stir fried with ground beef, minced vegetables (mainly carrot), and chile oil, which pooled at the bottom of the plate, though the noodles didn’t seem greasy when we ate them. The kebabs selection included lamb and lamb rib (both succulent but the latter preferred), chicken, and Asian eggplant in big rounds, all dusted with the same mixture of powdered cumin and dried chile found in local kebab carts.
Oh, but did I mention what might be a New York addition to the Uyghur kebab menu? A beef hot dog slit on the bias to add to its crisp surface and facilitate more rapid cooking, slightly charred and dusted with spices. Some day, this may be the first Uyghur dish served at a Mets game in nearby Citifield, we pondered as we ate this toothsome kebab. 43-39 Main St, between Cherry and Elder avenues, Flushing