I have been looking forward to this experience for months. Before we ever made it to Istanbul, I read an article on a food blog for Istanbul, about a Uyghur restaurant. I knew I wanted to try it out and see what it was like. I enjoy food as a way to learn something about other cultures. I don’t know if its a very accurate way to learn about other people, but my stomach certainly enjoys it.
So, today myself, Richie and our friends Steve and Erika set out on our second trek to this Uyghur restaurant and culture centre. Last time we attempted this journey, we did in fact find the place, but we thought it was closed, so we didn’t go in. Today we went for lunch. You enter the courtyard of a mosque and to the right of the entrance was a glass door with an ‘Open’ sign hanging there. The restaurant is in what used to be a medrese, or an Islamic school. When you enter the restaurant, you feel like you could be in any sort of church kitchen or community centre, and that’s exactly where you are. An old man greeted us kindly and we went to sit down. He asked us if we wanted manti, which is a Turkish dish somewhat like tortellini, and we said yes. A young boy brought out cups of green tea, and we waited. I could see into the kitchen from where I sat, and the man had a long thin noodle that he seemed to be stretching and stretching and neatly pulling into a bundle of noodle. On the walls were pictures of Uyghur historical figures, the East Turkistan flag (which is designed just like the Turkish flag, but its sky blue instead of red) and on pictures and documents you could see Uyghur script, which is an adapted form of Arabic script.
There were a few other people eating in this small dining area. Uyghurs are a Turkic people who live primarily in the Xinjiang province of northwest China. This region also borders Mongolia. It was interesting to see the mix of facial features of the diners there, blending ‘asian’ and ‘turkish’ characteristics, if you know what I mean. I think I read somewhere that Turkish people kind of see the Uyghur as the ‘original’ Turks, coming from the place in the world where the Turkic people first came from, so I think they have perhaps a sort of symbolic and somewhat mythic importance. I’m not sure if this is true, but it kind of seems to be the case, based on a few things I’ve read and seen at the Turkish military museum about the migration of the Turkic peoples.
Anyway, the people were very friendly, and one girl at the table next to us asked where we were from because she heard us speaking English. She spoke such good English and told us where she was from, and I assumed the city was in Xinjiang, that she had studied for a while in Malasia and was now living in Istanbul. She was learning Turkish at the Uyghur Culture Centre to prepare to go to a university in Turkey. She was lovely, and I wish we could have talked to her more.
Our food arrived just then, and it was great. Big, fat dumplings, like you might find in Chinese or Korean cooking, filled with a sort of lamb and onion mixture and served with a healthy portion of yogurt in the Turkish way. They were delicious, and as much as I like Turkish food, it was great to eat some other kind of authentic cuisine, rather than pretend Indian food or fast food or something. Then we had some more green tea to wash it down.
We took a look at the culture centre, to see if there was a kind of museum or anything. A man came to greet us and explained that the centre is a kind of school for Uyghurs living in Istanbul. It seems they go there to learn Turkish and to find assistance with settling or studying in Turkey.
I definitely want to go back there again as soon as we can. There are only three things on the menu, but they are home-cooked and tasty. I would also like to go more than once and maybe strike up a conversation or two to learn a bit more about and from the people there. It seems like a very unique opportunity to meet someone from a culture relatively few people know about and a place few people ever get to travel to. (And I really want to try the spicy meat and noodles!)
My curiosity has been piqued by this small dose of Uyghur-ness and I plan to do a bit more reading about their culture and the current political situation in China between the Uyghur and the Chinese government. I’ll share my findings with you soon!