In the culinary cornucopia that is Oakland, sometimes it's easy to trick ourselves into thinking we have it all, from the cuisines of Argentina to Zacatecas. But until recently, Oakland was completely devoid of Uyghur restaurants.
For the uninitiated, the Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic minority group who for centuries have inhabited the politically tense area known today as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. At the furthest northwest corner of China, Xinjiang's neighbors include Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Silk Road once passed through Xinjiang. Uyghur cuisine, which is also halal, draws from the broad range of cultures that border it and that have historically passed through it. Wheat features more heavily than rice, making an appearance in noodles, breads, and meat pies. Lamb is often the protein of choice. But comparisons to any of its neighboring cuisines don't really capture what Uyghur cuisine is all about — it's something that's best experienced firsthand.
Eden Silk Road, a casual counter-service restaurant that often blasts loud EDM pop music remixes from its doors, opened in Oakland Chinatown last fall. Prior to its opening, Oakland residents had to travel to Union City, Fremont, San Francisco, or San Jose to visit a Uyghur restaurant. Many of those restaurants are, in fact, other branches of Eden Silk Road.
Mars Zulpikar, who owns the Bay Area branches of Eden Silk Road with his business partner Kai Wei Li, is Uyghur. He was born in Xinjiang and moved to the United States as a teenager. His parents started the first Eden Silk Road in Xinjiang 20 years ago, and since then, the chain has grown to include 40 restaurants in China. Uyghur food is well-loved in many parts of China, but it's not widely available in the States.
"It's very easy to open restaurants in China because everyone likes it," Zulpikar said. "Here in America, no one knows what it is." For most of his customers, especially those who aren't Chinese, it's their first time trying Uyghur food.
A primer to Uyghur cuisine might start with lagman, a hand-pulled noodle dish that you'll find listed on Eden Silk Road's menu as a dry noodle bowl. "All the Uyghur people, they definitely eat it two or three times a week," Zulpikar explained.
After ordering at the counter, a noodle maker will uncover a spiral of dough and pull it, bit by bit, into a long, thin round strand, then wind the noodles around both hands and slap them against the counter. The noodles are briefly boiled, then dressed with your choice of meat — in my case, lamb — stewed veggies, a marinated hard-boiled egg, and raw toppings including lettuce, corn, and pecans. The noodles, unlike any other hand-pulled noodles I've tried, were the star of the dish: chewy, springy, and firm, with a delightfully silky texture. I also enjoyed the lamb, which was fragrant and tender. The stewed potatoes, string beans, mushrooms, and celery all soaked up the meaty, cumin-laden gravy quite nicely.
The raw corn, pecans, and lettuce didn't really mesh with the rest of the flavors, which was unsurprising since lagman traditionally doesn't include those toppings. After all, Zulpikar acknowledged, the toppings are intended to cater to American palates. Still, the toppings are easy enough to ignore, or ask to be omitted, if they're not to your liking.
The polo, listed on the menu as a rice bowl, also offers an unusual take on a popular Uyghur dish. At the base of the dish is polo, a carrot, raisin, and rice pilaf skillfully made using Zulpikar's mother's recipe. Carrots are fried in lamb fat, then left at the bottom of the pot while the rice cooks above the bed of carrots. "If by accident one of the rice [grains touches] the oil, the whole thing is messed up," Zulpikar said. The resulting rice was pleasantly al dente, with a hint of sweetness from the carrots and raisins.
While a lamb shank is a common accompaniment to polo, here you can choose from chicken, lamb, or beef. Zulpikar recommended the chicken, which consisted of flavorful, juicy chunks of dark meat. I found that some of the not-so-traditional toppings, like the chickpeas and black beans, added texture to the dish without distracting from the main flavors, while others, like steamed broccoli, pecans, and marinated hard boiled egg, seemed superfluous.
For a different take on hand-pulled noodles, try the dapanji, a dish with Hui origins (another Chinese Muslim ethnic group), made with wide, flat noodles and topped with a cuminy, slightly spicy stew with bone-in chicken, bell peppers, onions, and potatoes. Despite its not-so-impressive presentation in a compostable bowl, the fall-off-the bone chicken, the creamy potatoes, and the comfortingly spiced gravy made the dish repeat-worthy.
To round out your meal, try the succulent lamb kebabs, which are skewered on impressive rustic-looking, pointy red willow branches imported from Zulpikar's hometown in Xinjiang. The moisture from the wood, he said, helps to keep the lamb juicy, as does a 24-hour marinade. The lamb then gets seasoned with cumin, sesame seeds, and crushed red pepper. Or try the samsas: crisp, flaky square pastries stuffed with a juicy mixture of ground lamb, onions, and bell peppers, then topped with sesame seeds. Both are popular street foods in Xinjiang.
On my last visit, I tried the chow mein, made with hand-pulled noodles and topped with tender chunks of lamb and wok-wilted chives, garlic, onions, and bell peppers. Dried chiles and a sprinkling of sesames garnished the dish. The noodles and veggies were caramelized to a dark brown color. The dish had a subtly sweet flavor, with a manageable yet prominent level of spice. The sweetness, Zulpikar said, is a nod toward American tastes. Back home, the popular dish is devoid of sweetness, and the spice levels are cranked up. "The ones in China are real good," Zulpikar said. "I think I almost forgot [what] they taste like."
Eden Silk Road might not be the most traditional Uyghur restaurant in the Bay Area — and it's not trying to be — but the food still satisfies.