Feasting on the Exotic Silk Road Food and Hospitality of the Uyghurs on Kingsway

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Mina Nur is an effusive ambassador for Uyghur cuisine. She greets new customers with a room-filling smile, a short lesson on the basics of their food, and a few recommendations to get you started. She never forgets a face and she will welcome you as if you have known her forever.

A couple of years ago, the Nur family opened Efendi Uyghur at its original location on Kingsway near Knight. Mere weeks after opening, the main cook and family matriarch – Guji Ajam – fell ill. It would take a few months of recovery before she was well enough to cook again. The family reopened Efendi at a new location further east on Kingsway in the Collingwood neighbourhood, this time with a simplified one-page menu (previously five or six pages at their original location).

Mina, Ajam’s daughter, runs the front of house as a server, busser, host, and sometimes cook. Most days after school, you will see her young kids at the corner table doing homework, playing with an iPad or watching TV. Because this is a family-run business, they do this seven days a week. Running a restaurant is hard. It’s even harder for a young immigrant family.

 

Efendi specializes in Uyghur cuisine, the food of the Islamic Turkic people of western China. It didn’t use to be that way. In 1949, Chinese communist forces – with the support of the Soviet Union – began the occupation of what was previously known as East Turkestan Republic. Under the false narrative of “liberating the Uyghurs”, the Chinese state implemented a terrible pogrom — massacres and executions of the Uyghur people. In 1955, China annexed this area and unironically called it the “Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.” The Chinese state promised the Uyghurs self-rule and independence but the concerted effort that has been called a “cultural genocide” by Uyghur leaders continues to this day. The Uyghur population in East Turkestan, which was nearly 90 percent in 1949, is now only 45 percent, while the Chinese population grew disproportionately due to state-sponsored mass settlement from around six percent in 1953 to the current 40 percent.

Uyghur food is “Turkic” and thus related to the cuisines of Turkish people, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and the other ethno-linguistic groups of that diaspora. It is also prepared Halal with the meat of choice being lamb. Historically, Xinjiang was a major segment in the Silk Road, which introduced spices such as cumin, black pepper, and chilis to the culinary vernacular.

 

Kebabs and polo (rice pilaf) are a great introduction to Uyghur food. Indeed, their lamb skewer ($3 each) – big chunks of beautifully charred lamb, dry spiced with chili and cumin – is one of the top meat skewers in the city and should not to be missed.

Another dish that you must order is the hand-pulled noodles called “laghman” — a word that has its roots in the Mandarin “lamian”. Hand-pulled noodles originated in this region, though likely from Islamic Chinese of the Hui ethnicity (they look “Chinese” and not “Turkic”). Efendi’s rendition is rustic and boldly flavoured.

Served on top of the Uyghur pilaf (starts at $15 for the small) is a lamb shank that is well seasoned all the way through. The lamb-filled steamed buns are so juicy that you need to be careful as you bite into them.

If you can commit to a larger party of say six or eight people, I would steer you to the large serving of lamb stew on naan bread (up to $59 for a large) or the big plate chicken ($39 for a large). Add a few small sides to complete the feast. For dessert, try the baklava — homemade by their Syrian supplier.

The Collingwood area where Efendi is located continues to impress. That there are TWO restaurants serving food from Xinjiang – Beijiang at the corner of Joyce is the other one – testifies to the diversity of the offerings hereabouts. I haven’t counted, but there must be two dozen different cuisines you can sample within a short stroll of here, and inexpensively! Show me a more interesting neighbourhood to eat in right now and I will buy you lunch!

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