Despite crackdown in China, Uighurs continue halal food traditions abroad

The Chinese government is bent on changing what's being served on the traditional Uighur table. But Australian Uighurs want the halal meat pies, hand-pulled noodles and lamb kebabs to stay on the menu.

Sultan Hiwilla
Chef Sultan Hiwilla left his native Xinjiang, China in 2005. He now runs a halal Uighur restaurant in Sydney, Australia and speaks out about the mistreatment of Uighurs in China. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW

In the kitchen of Tarim Uyghur Restaurant in Sydney, Australia, Sultan Hiwilla throws hand-pulled noodles, each of them a couple of feet long, into a pot of boiling water. When the chewy noodles are cooked, he arranges them carefully in a bowl and adds lamb and bell peppers sautéed in oil, garlic and spices.

“This is lagman,” says Hiwilla. “We make the noodles by hand with flour and water. That’s it.”

Most of the dishes on the menu here involve tasty homemade noodles. There is lamb square noodle soup. Dry noodles are fried with fragrant Sichuan peppercorns, onions and chives. Broad boiled flat noodles are served in a stew of cinnamon, ginger, chili peppers and chicken that is falling off the bone.

You won’t find pork and alcohol at Tarim Uyghur. That’s because everything Hiwilla serves is halal, prepared according to strict Islamic rules. The recipes and preparations come from his native Xinjiang, a region in western China that is home to more than 10 million Uighurs belonging to the ethnic Turkic minority. Most of the people who live in mainland China are ethnically Han Chinese.

Hand-pulled noodles
Each noodle served at Tarim Uyghur is pulled from a batch of homemade dough. A single noodle is often more than a foot long. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW

Besides being halal, Hiwilla says Uighur food differs from other Chinese cuisines because of its Central Asian roots. The ancient trade routes that make up the Silk Road pass through Xinjiang, connecting China to the Middle East. “We not only have different food, we have a different culture,” says Hiwilla. “That’s why China sees us as a threat. Because we are totally different people. They want to make us Han Chinese.”

There have been ethnic tensions in Xinjiang since China began governing the region in 1949. Anti-government protests have occasionally become violent. Now some separatists want to establish an independent state in Xinjiang called East Turkestan.

Over the past decade, the Chinese government has made a significant effort to keep control of the Xinjiang region and to encourage Uighurs to be more loyal to the Chinese nation. Authorities released a list of 75 signs of religious extremism citizens should watch out for. Men growing beards, women who refuse to shake hands with men, and anyone abstaining from drinking alcohol all made the list.

In April 2017, the Chinese government stepped up the campaign. Tens of thousands of Uighurs were swept up and detained in internment camps. Now as many as 2 million members of Muslim minority groups are being held in hundreds of camps in western China, according to recent US State Department estimates. The Chinese government calls these camps re-education centers that are aimed at stamping out terrorism and religious extremism.

Pretty things from Xinjiang decorate Tarim Uighur Restaurant: delicate hollowed-out gourds, tea sets decorated in irate patterns and a plate with a picture of a one busy Id Kah Mosque mosque in Kashgar.
Pretty things from Xinjiang decorate Tarim Uyghur Restaurant: Delicate hollowed-out gourds, tea sets with ikat patterns and colorful embroidered doppa hats. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW

As a result of the crackdown, the number of Uighurs living abroad with missing relatives is on the rise.

“My dad is in one of the camps … I don’t know why he was taken,” says one Uighur Australian woman who used to work at Tarim Uyghur Restaurant in Sydney. She spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation from the Chinese government.

She says while her parents were on a business trip in China last year, the government took their passports away. Soon after, she learned her father had disappeared.

“I just want to go back to China now to see my mom to see how she’s doing and to know information about my dad,” the 25-year-old woman says. “But every time I bring up on the phone going back, my mom will say, ‘No way. Just stay there, don’t ever come back.’ You’re not allowed to speak about these things. You can’t tell anyone if any of your relatives are in the camps.”

Lagman
A hearty bowl of lagman. The very long noodles are the vehicle for sautéed lamb, bell peppers, garlic and spices. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW

At a recent hearing on human rights in the Senate chamber in Washington, officials discussed the harsh conditions in camps reported by Chinese Muslim detainees, from torture and beatings to being force-fed pork and alcohol.

“Praying and other religious practices are forbidden,” said Scott Busby, a senior US State Department official. “The apparent goal is to force detainees to renounce Islam and embrace the Chinese Communist Party.”

At the hearing, Colorado Republican Cory Gardner and Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey called for China to reverse its policies and release Uighur detainees.

“We are talking about one of the most significant trade partners this country and many countries around the globe have with over 1 billion people,” said Senator Gardner. “We’re not talking about some tin-pot dictatorship. We’re talking about a country that people look to more and more for leadership around the globe. What you have described are damning evidence of horrendous human right violations.”

The Australian government has also expressed concern for the growing number of Uighurs in camps. Increasingly, Uighur Australians are speaking out because the situation in Xinjiang is so dire. Several thousand Uighurs from China now call Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide home.

“What was their crime? Just being a Uighur?” asks Nurmuhammad Majid, a Uighur human rights activist who moved to Australia from China in 2004. “If you bring a human into the detention camps, you change someone by force. It’s not called a modernization. It’s called dehumanization.”

Goshnan
Nan is one of the mainstays of Uighur cuisine. Here, the goshnan, or “meat bread,” in Uyghur. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW

Majid lives in Adelaide and travels around Australia to help migrants apply for visas and residency. He carries nan, a savory bread that is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, on his travels and shares it with the people he meets.

“Nan bread. I have it in my suitcase in my car,” Majid says. “I always carry nan for my breakfast. Without nan, a Uighur doesn’t have breakfast.”

Back at Tarim Uyghur Restaurant in Sydney, Sultan Hiwilla brings goshnan to the table, its pretty fluted crust puffing with steam. Goshnan means “meat bread” in Uighur. Hiwilla’s version is two pieces of thin dough filled with minced lamb, onions, cumin and other spices, fried like a giant pancake over very low heat.

Finally, the lamb kebabs arrive, tender marinated pieces of meat that are grilled over charcoal and dusted with more cumin. They slide easily off skewers onto the plate. As we eat, we cast an eye around the restaurant, at the pretty things from Xinjiang: stringed long-necked lutes called dutars, delicate hollowed-out gourds, colorful silk ikat fabrics, embroidered doppa hats. There is also a postcard of the Id Kah Mosque mosque in Kashgar, which once held 20,000 worshippers and is now shuttered.

“Enjoy,” said Hiwilla. “The food is getting cold.”

Try Uighur food at Omar’s Xinjiang Halal in San Gabriel and Silk Road Garden in Rowland Heights.

All photos by Stan Lee, Fried Chicken Sandwich Studios and 2016 James Beard Foundation visual storytelling award winner. This post made possible with help from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.