The banquet-style dining room at Efendi Uyghur Restaurant is draped in red-silk tapestries, pink-satin slipcovers, long-necked lutes and portraits of ancient scholars that speak to the storied past of a repressed Turkic-Islamic ethnic group in the disputed Xinjiang region of China's far northwest.
But the fragrant mosaic of multicultural dishes coming from the kitchen – fatty lamb kebabs spiced with dry cumin, long hand-pulled noodles simmered in tongue-numbing Sichuan chili peppers, tart yogurt sprinkled with sugar – also offers a tantalizing glimpse of Vancouver's culinary future.
There has been much ado in the news of late about the recent wave of immigration from mainland China. (How's that for an understatement?) And yes, the wealthy newcomers from Shanghai, Beijing and Guangdong have definitely had an impact on local cuisine – witness the rise of foie-gras-stuffed chicken wings, black-truffle-dusted siu mai and $99 Peking duck. But as with other coverage (real estate, racism, foreign home-buyer taxes, what have you) there is so much more to the food side of this story, which we are just beginning to discover.
The new wave of Chinese immigrants, who are certainly not all millionaires, has also brought a rich diversity of regional cuisines. From Burnaby strip malls to the major food streets of Richmond, there has been a recent explosion of nutty Shandong noodles, pickled Hunan peppers and smoky Sichuan barbecue. And now, nestled among the great swath of mom-and-pop eateries along Vancouver's historic Kingsway, Efendi offers us the first taste of authentic Uyghur halal cuisine. (The Bei Jiang Restaurant on Richmond's Alexandra Road offers Han Chinese, not Uyghur, Xinjiang cuisine.)
Kasimu Nuerjiang and Tuerdi Asimguli opened their Vancouver restaurant at the end of May, a year after immigrating to Canada (first to Toronto). Although the chefs did own restaurants back home – in Urumqi, the provincial capital, and Karamay, one of China's richest cities, adjacent to the Gobi Desert oil wells – they had no plans of opening one here, explains their daughter, Mukelamu (Mina) Neurjiang, who is the only English-speaker in the family and runs the restaurant's front of house. But when they couldn't find any Uyghur food, let alone halal food that tasted familiar, they decided to open Efendi as a community service, of sorts.
Ms. Neurjiang would rather not talk about her family's past or the struggles of her people. "We don't want to cause any trouble for our relatives over there," she explains, adding, rather hauntingly, that her parents were afraid to simply go to the supermarket when they first arrived.
She says she would rather let the food speak for itself. And the interconnected flavours of her parents' dishes actually do say quite a lot about the revolving door of influences and turbulent history of their homeland, a remote Silk Road nexus between China and Central Asia that borders Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, India, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Many of the dishes, especially the lamb-heavy meat dishes, taste more typically Middle Eastern than Chinese. Polo, a huge hunk of bone-in lamb shank, is braised with a buttery saffron rice pilaf, studded with shredded carrots, onions and raisins.
Uyghur-style lamb kebabs (you can also get kidney) are thicker than Chinese yang rou chuan, generously threaded onto long metal skewers and mildly spiced with dry cumin and coarse salt. Although the kitchen isn't equipped with a traditional tanour brick oven, which would ideally give the meat a smoky char, the skewers are interlaced with just enough molten fat for juicy succulence.
Bread dumplings and sesame-seed-sprinkled naan lack the crisp, blistered exterior and meltingly soft interior that a charcoal-heated tanour would provide. (The owners are hoping to build an outdoor oven off-site.)
But the long, hand-pulled flour noodles – remember, this restaurant hails from the region where Marco Polo discovered pasta – are highly recommended. The noodles come with a variety of toppings. The legmen is a rich Euro-style vegetable ragout of bell peppers, onion, garlic, tomato and chicken, while the kurgak qop is more Sichuan in flavour, with garlic, chives, beef and tons of hot chili peppers.
The kerin sorpa soup is clear consommé, oily yet clean-flavoured, bobbing with bits of lamb heart and tripe, chili and cilantro. It almost tasted like Mexican barbacoa. Yet a similar mix of spices on thick, jellied mung-bean noodles tasted Sichuan.
Then there were the steamed petir manta dumplings, so similar to Shanghainese xiao long bao, but filled with juicy minced lamb and onions; and the baked-pastry samsa dumplings, stuffed with the same lamb filling, but much drier.
All in all, we probably referenced a dozen different global cuisines during the 10-course meal, which was finished with homemade yogurt so dense and sticky it dripped off the spoon in long, springy threads.
The spoons, along with bowls and chopsticks, were an ongoing dilemma. The table wasn't set with enough utensils, the dirty plates weren't refreshed, there was never enough water to quench our MSG-parched palates, the tables weren't cleaned and the bill was a long time coming.
Some of the service issues can be attributed to cultural differences. As Ms. Nuerjiang later explained, Uyghurs use forks, but Chinese use chopsticks, so she's never quite sure how to set the tables. "I never know what kind of customers will be coming in, so I just wait until they ask," she says. "And we never drink water with dinner, only tea, so I always forget."
There is also the fact that Ms. Neurjiang is pretty much running the dining room all by herself. "And our customers always have 1,000 questions about the food that I have to answer," she says with a laugh.
Given the circumstances, she is doing an admirable job as an ambassador for a fascinating regional cuisine that is new to Vancouver and well worth exploring.