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Toronto Star
14-12-05, 07:30
Uyghur food finally arrives

Dec. 14, 2005. 01:00 AM

Let me introduce you to Toronto's almost invisible minority.

They are Uyghurs and they number about 150. They have one political organization and one restaurant. They also have a knack for cooking fiery lamb kebabs and homemade noodles.

You might vaguely remember when the Uyghurs (pronounced wee-gers) first captured headlines here. It was June 2004 and seven Uyghur members of a Chinese acrobatic troupe defected and claimed refugee status, saying they were fleeing political persecution and ethnic discrimination.

See, Uyghurs are Muslim Turks whose Central Asian country, East Turkistan, was annexed by China and turned into a province called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955. The oil- and gas-rich region is four times the size of California. It claims borders with Russia and Mongolia on the north, China on the east (it's outside the Great Wall), Pakistan and India on the southwest, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan on the west, and Tibet on the south.

Like the Tibetans, Uyghurs want their country, culture, religion and language back. But instead of having the famous Dalai Lama as a champion, they have Rebiya Kadeer, a little-known human rights activist and former political prisoner now living in the United States.

And they have Mohamed Tohti, the Toronto-based president of the Uyghur Canadian Association. It's Tohti who invites me to the Silk Road Restaurant.

Toronto's first Uyghur restaurant is on a bland stretch of Horner Ave. east of Browns Line in an Italian area of Etobicoke. But that's okay by owner Hayrat Kurban, who opened Silk Road in September in the affordable area that he also calls home.

The space is Spartan, the menu small, the prices low, the meat halal. The menu is presented in Chinese or in photos. There's "lagman #1" and "lagman #2" — boiled handmade noodles with beef, lamb or vegetables. There are soups (lamb or chicken), shish kebabs (lamb or beef) and polos (rice platters, also called "pilows," with lamb or chicken). And there are four combo deals, for a top price of $12.59.

Tohti orders lamb shish kebabs and lagman with lamb. Kurban's teenage daughter Dildana Heyireti pours us Chinese black tea.

I fell for Uyghur food a few years ago in Beijing, where it's considered regional Chinese fare and is better known as Xinjiang food (Xinjiang means new territory/frontier). I was dubious that my cumin-spiked lamb kebabs and Afghani-style flatbreads would be thrilling, but the bewitching taste lingers. I ate in complete ignorance of Chinese-Uyghur politics.

"In Canada, we would like to make more of the public aware about Uyghurs and the problems, and we'd like to introduce our culture," allows Tohti. "Back home, we would like an opportunity for Uyghurs to decide the future peacefully. We would like to restore our independent nation."

The kebabs arrive on long, wide, silver skewers. Normally I'd use a fork to slide the meat off the skewers on to a plate, and then pop them into my mouth, but that's not the Uyghur way.

With one hand, Tohti raises the skewer parallel to his mouth, grips the kebab closest to the end with his teeth and deftly slides it off the pointed edge and into his mouth.

"You like the taste?" he asks.

I like the taste. The tender lamb has the right amount of flavour-boosting fat and is spiced with cumin seeds, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.

"Uyghurs are Muslim — we just don't eat pork," says Tohti. "We drink, we're quite liberal, but we don't eat pork regardless. Religion has never been a slogan for Uyghurs — just a lifestyle."

Most Uyghurs follow the moderate Sufi strain of Islam. (Tohti and Kurban later shake my hand, something traditional Muslim men would never do.)

Tohti was born in Kashgar at the crossroads of the Silk Road. He got a free university education in biology — thanks to the post-Cultural Revolution times — and went to teacher's college. He was later fired for teaching English and fled to Uyghur-friendly Istanbul in 1991. While at a conference in New York City in 1998, he stepped over the border and sought asylum in Canada.

He settled in Toronto, eventually sponsoring his wife and son to join him, and buying a house in Mississauga. Tohti, a microbiologist, now does contract marketing work for energy and telecommunications companies.

But his most important work has been founding the Uyghur Canadian Association in 2000 to help refugees (83 so far) settle in. Tohti says Toronto's 150 Uyghurs live mainly in Etobicoke and North York, with pockets in Mississauga, Scarborough and downtown. Montreal has about 180 Uyghurs (and two Uyghur restaurants). Vancouver has about 50, and Calgary has eight — for a total community of less than 400.

"We are just a very invisible minority in Canada," laments Tohti, whose association marked International Human Rights Day last Saturday with a protest at the Chinese consulate in Toronto.

It's a lot to chew on. And chew we do, as our lagman arrives.

Kurban's wife makes the noodles from flour, water and salt. The dough is divided into small balls and then stretched by hand. "This is more tasteful for me than spaghetti," says Kurban, "and easier to digest."

The noodles are boiled until very soft and then served under a bed of fried vegetables (bell and hot peppers, cabbage, onion, tomatoes) and meat (in this case lamb) with a lamb soup "sauce." We mix the elements together.

"Usually English people don't like it like this — they like it fried together," observes Kurban, who ran a restaurant in the oil city of Karamay. "All English people like soft noodles that are easier to eat." (He's generalizing about English-speaking Canadians.)

Adds Tohti: "For ourselves, we make it a little harder than this and thicker than this. We prefer to eat by chewing."

Tohti speaks Uyghur, not Mandarin. He says the 10 million Uyghurs back home are now minorities because of Chinese migrants. Political to the core, he refuses to eat Chinese food, even here. "As a nation we don't go to Chinese restaurants."

At home, his family eats only "Uyghur food" — wheat, meat and vegetables. Turkish-style breakfast is tea with home-baked bread, cheese, olives, honey, raisins and almonds. Lunch is fried vegetables with rice or noodles, dumplings or kebabs. Dinner features soup, lagman and polo (rice platters).

Kurban, meanwhile, hopes to expand Silk Road's menu. He won't let his no-frills restaurant be photographed until he moves somewhere larger and decorates it with Uyghur items.

Fair enough. At least we can all try Uyghur food now, and give some thought to the Uyghur situation here and in China.

"We are much united as a community,'' says Tohti. "If there's happiness, we share. If there's sadness, we share."

And if there's food, they share.

Email: jbain@thestar.ca.