The regional origins of the food at Kiroran are hard to place at first. Heavily spiced lamb and tomato-based sauces make you think Turkey, but the spring onions, peppers, and other aromatic vegetables smell more East Asian. Puff pastry throws you off even more. The long laghman noodles are more of a tell. These hand-pulled noodles are a Uighur (sometimes spelled Uyghur) specialty, and can be found at a handful of other restaurants in the region including Dolan Uyghur in Cleveland Park and Eerkin’s, which has locations in Rockville, Fairfax, and Glover Park.
Uighur cuisine comes from Xinjiang, an autonomous province in far western China. The Uighur people are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority and speak their own Turkic language. There are up to 12 million Uighurs in Xinjiang, and since 2017, more than a million have been imprisoned in reeducation camps where there have been reports of waterboarding and sexual abuse. Those not detained are subject to extreme surveillance, religious restrictions, and forced sterilizations. A Foreign Policy report argues the treatment of the Uighur people meets the United Nations’ definition of genocide.
Local restaurant owners cite these camps as the reason they immigrated to the U.S. and opened their restaurants. They want to raise awareness about what’s happening at home. Uighurs here and around the world find themselves pulling noodles in order to hang onto their people and their culture.
Much of the traditional decor at Kiroran can also be found at Eerkin’s and Dolan, but here it comes to life in bright, warm colors. Shadiya, the chef and owner, happily points out and explains it all. (She requested to only be identified by her first name.) On the walls, there are replicas of tanburs—a traditional stringed instrument. Uighur people are famous across Asia for their music. Diners can also examine prints of Uighur dances and their traditional doppa hats.
Some doppa are black and embroidered with roses. Others feature geometric patterns rendered in silk. Growing up, at parties like Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration held on the vernal equinox, Shadiya says you could read someone’s doppa to learn what town they were from or who was single. They’re no longer a source of pride because of xenophobic fears, she explains with sadness. “We had a good childhood, but the kids growing up there now have to hide that type of thing,” she says.
Shadiya started Kiroran in 2015 after moving to the U.S. with her husband and kids. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, she used to feature more than 100 dishes from around East Asia on the menu, but in recent months, she’s pared it down to strictly Uighur options. In part, this was a business decision, but the move also tracks with the two reasons she opened her restaurant in the first place.
In addition to her desire to share Uighur cuisine with Washingtonians, Shadiya wants the world to know what the Chinese Communist Party says about Uighurs isn’t true. She says Uighurs are good, honest people, just like anyone else. “The Chinese government designates Uighur people as terrorists and criminals, and that’s why they say they have the camps, but it’s all lies,” she says. “The people they have are good people, hard-working parents who wouldn’t hurt an ant.”
Shadiya was difficult to reach. She admits that it crossed her mind that this reporter could be a representative of the CCP. Some Uighurs are understandably petrified of the potential consequences of speaking up. “You see how strong they are, even in the U.S.,” Shadiya says. “I can never forget what they did to my family. They broke our hearts, they broke me.”
Her English fails at points, but the tenor of her voice is hard to forget. She cooks professionally because she likes the communal nature of it and relishes seeing people enjoy her food. Like many chefs, she learned tricks and techniques by watching her mom, aunts, and grandmother in the kitchen. Her mother still bakes the nan (or naan) bread for the restaurant.
Shadiya runs Kiroran almost single-handedly and estimates that she’s been out of the building for a mere 20 days in the five years they’ve been open, aside from when they shut down during the pandemic. She arrives in the morning to pull noodles, and in the evening, she works the wok. “You see my arms?” she asks. “Uighur women are strong. We have to be.”
Some diners have told Shadiya her noodles are too long or her dishes are too spicy, but she just shrugs. Dishes like the spicy bean jelly or tintin noodles can make an eater’s tongue tingle. The heat in the spicy bean jelly noodles, garnished with chickpeas and cilantro, comes from red chili oil. Made from mung beans, the noodles are about as thick as Japanese udon. By comparison, the tintin noodles more closely resemble spaetzle and come with beef. The dish contains a touch of sweetness from the corn and bell pepper-based sauce.
Eerkin’s menu, on the other hand, reflects flavors from the Uighur diaspora. In addition to Uighur staples like laghman and braised chicken, they offer dishes like shakshuka, a tomato and egg dish with origins in the Middle East and North Africa, baba ganoush, a Levantine eggplant dip, and kibdah, a shallow-fried liver preparation popular in Egypt and Yemen.
Erkin Jan, a part-owner of the trio of restaurants, orders the gam bian soman and the Uighur kebab for dinner. The former is a laghman stir fry boasting noodles so long they run from serving dish, to plate, to mouth without breaking. Eerkin’s is open for dine-in service, but so far business is slow. Jans runs the Rockville location and laments that there’s no longer the rush of daytime patrons. He misses the lunchtime regulars who would come in and order kebabs by the dozen.
Inside each Eerkin’s, in addition to Westernized tables and chairs, there’s a traditional Uighur dining area. Diners leave their shoes at the foot of a small platform and step up to a low table, barely a foot off the ground. Burgundy velvet pillows embroidered with pink and blue flowers enliven the space. This is the “Turkish essence” Jan explains. It’s fashioned to resemble the area of his house growing up where kids did their homework and families held meetings.
Seated here, Jan looks more like the 22-year-old he is and less like a restaurateur.
Eerkin’s, like Kiroran and Dolan, is a family restaurant. Jan’s uncle carved the traditional Uighur table himself and his mom and aunts stitched tablecloths. The handcrafted kettles at the tea bar come from the family’s personal collection.
Jan’s father and uncle decided to start Eerkin’s in 2015 as more and more news flowed out of Xinjiang. They felt they had to do something considering their own brush with the CCP. Soon after Xinjiang was incorporated into China in 1949, Jan says the CCP disappeared one of his uncles. Erkin means “freedom” in Uighur.
“Everything you hear about Uighurs in China was nothing new to the family,” Jan says. They initially fled to Pakistan, where Jan was born. Jan’s younger cousin, Faezon, points to a picture of downtown Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, that hangs just inside the D.C. location. It shows a mosque and some women walking by out front. “You see that?” Faezon asks. “The mosque, those women in hijab? That’s all gone.”
Hamid Kermin, the owner of Dolan, can speak to this firsthand. He fled Urumqi in 2017. The morning he left, a friend caught him on the street outside his apartment. He mimics how she waved him over to her car, like she was hiding. She told him that the police had his name on the list for that day, and that if he could go, he should. He left that day for Guangzhou, China, and from there, South Korea. He remembers the date, April 9, exactly. “I won’t forget these days, brother,” he says.
Xinjiang, or East Turkestan as Kermin prefers to call it, is at the center of the Silk Road. In his old life, Kermin carried on that same tradition of facilitating trade between China and Turkic-speaking Asia, from Kazakhstan to Istanbul. He is still trying to accept all that he has lost. “Now I work hard, making noodles, cooking. I had to change my life,” he explains.
After a year of living in the U.S., taking some English courses, and trying to decide what to do for a living, Kermin bought Dolan from its previous Uighur owners in 2018. He liked the idea of having a business where he could also explain where he came from and what’s happening there now. That’s more important than money, he says.
“I cannot protest outside everyday saying I’m Uighur,” Kermin says. “But in here, at least 50,000 people [come in]. They eat this food, think about it, ask what this food is. It’s delicious and Uighur … You know [running] a restaurant isn’t easy, it’s very hard, but I think about this and I relax. I say, ‘Alhamdulillah, praise God.’”
Like Kiroran, Dolan serves more traditional Uighur food and its noodles are a must-try. To start, Kermin picks the sui rou laghman. These laghman are thin and chewy, like dan dan noodles. The restaurant serves them with beef and sautéed vegetables. It tastes homey, like a family recipe for bolognese. He also recommends the generously portioned hot chicken stew as an entrée. The Uighur-style braised chicken comes on a bed of unruly laghman and is meant to be shared.
Lamb is the Uighur meat of choice, but the leaders of Kiroran and Eerkin’s talk up their chicken too. Eerkin’s dish is also served with laghman, while Kiroran matches theirs with rough-cut potatoes. Shadiya uses 16 different spices in her preparation, and the heat sneaks through.
Kermin moved his family to the U.S. in 2016. His two kids were preschool-aged at the time and he hoped that a year in America would improve their English. Now it’s been nearly five years and the kids’ memory of where they were born is fading. The family still speaks Uighur at home, but Kermin hopes his kids will learn Mandarin as well.
He dreams of a day when his kids are grown and can sit across from CCP officials and ask them about what they’ve done.