While there are at least six different Uyghur restaurants in Aksaray, three of which are clearly visible from the tramline running down Turgut Ozel Millet Caddesi, there’s at least sixteen more in the neighborhood of Zeytinburnu. Enticed by the relative obscurity of Uyghur cuisine –it was only last year that the first Uyghur restaurant chain was introduced in America – and not exactly having the time or the patience to sample over twenty restaurants that were, after all, quite far from the center of Istanbul, I realized that I would need help.
Luckily I had two friends, Latif and Arunya, who were not only ethnic Uyghur, but were also quite savvy about the culinary arts. They agreed to plan an afternoon devoted to the tasting of authentic Uyghur dishes.
From our meet-up spot in Eminönü we took the tramline to the Haseki station, then walked to a two-story restaurant called Ipek Yolu Sofrasi (The Silk Road Kitchen). Arunya led us up to the second floor and got us a huge round table with a comfortable u-shaped booth near a window. As I surveyed the room to see what I was in for, I noticed that everyone was eating the exact same dish.
‘They’re eating Laghman, standard Uyghur fare.’ Latif explained. ‘The noodles are rolled by hand and boiled just before serving. The sauce is made from meat stock and garlic. It’s very tasty and cheap, but come on, we have much more interesting things to try here.’
While Latif and Arunya ordered the meal, I sat back and inspected the extensive menu. There were over sixty dishes to choose from, and although each had a colored photo and a translation into both Turkish and Russian, I knew that, had I been on my own, it would have easily taken me half an hour to decide.
Minutes after taking our order, the waiter brought two plates of samsa, a meat filled bun cooked in a tandir, or earthen oven. The outside crust was golden brown and crispy and had a nice crunch when bitten into. Tasty enough by itself, dipping it in a bit of the two sole condiments on the table, chilly oil and barley vinegar, gave it a nice tangy kick.
After the samsa, we are treated to thin crispy meat pie known in Uyghur as küsh-naan and translated into Turkish as etli ekmek. It reminded me of one of my favorite Circassian dishes: ficcin. This was accompanied by a refreshing dish of cold rice noodles in a sweet and sour sauce topped with shredded vegetables and fresh coriander. Called rampiza in Uyghur, it was given the unappealing name of hamur salatası (dough salad) in Turkish.
For the main course Arunya chose Uyghur kebab. After five years of eating at restaurants that served nothing but kebab, I was hesitant to order anything kebab-ish. My concerns evaporated, however, when I took the first bite of succulent chunks of lamb and kidney. The meat was tender and spiced well with chili and cumin. Along with the kebab, we enjoyed a huge plate of kavurmalı laghman (noodles with meat).
While the dishes were admittedly heavy on the meat, I didn’t feel full enough to protest when Arunya reminded us that we had one more restaurant to try.
‘This next place is known for its ciğer,’ said Arunya, on our fifteen minute journey down the tramway to Zeytinburnu station.
‘Liver,’ I said, slightly disappointed.
‘No, not that ciğer.’ She clarified. ‘The other one.’
I gave her a puzzled look before realizing that there were indeed two different types of ciğer.
‘They’re very nutritious,’ she managed through a sudden fit of giggling.
Sure enough, on a counter at the front of Nuriye Uygur Yemekleri sat a glass case full of freshly prepared lung. As we waited at our table for our portion to arrive, Arunya’s friend Aynur and her mother joined us for the feast.
Since the mother was obviously quite a bit older than anyone else at the table, we all rose from our seats and rearranged our order. After the mother was placed at the head of the table and Latif and myself at the end, it took a moment for Arunya and Aynur to argue about their birthdates before table’s true hierarchy could be determined.
‘Aynur has very high standards for Uygur cuisine.’ said Arunya. ‘She’ll put the question to rest whether the food here is authentic or not.’
Aynur raised an eyebrow and gave a firm nod.
When the first courses, arrived Latif noticed that we had already sampled them at the last restaurant and had them sent back. Then, as the server looked dejectedly over the unwanted food, I heard, or at least thought I heard, Arunya say the word ‘öfke’, the Turkish word for anger, several times.
‘You’re not angry at the server, are you?’ I inquired
‘No, I’m not angry.’
‘I heard you say öfke…’
After giving me a startled expression, Arunya began laughing hysterically. When she was finally able to control herself and translate what I had said, everyone else at the table joined her in laughing.
‘I was saying ‘öpke’, the Uyghur word for Lung.’ she clarified.
Luckily there was nothing about the lung to make one angry. Having expected something chewy and gamey, I was pleasantly surprised when, taking my first bite, I encountered a soft texture and mild flavor. It was maybe like a bean cake marinated in meat stock, though nothing I had ever eaten before could truly compare to it. The öpke came with the Uyghur version of mumbar dolması, stuffed sheep’s innards, which were also quite tasty.
When our guest Aynur made it known that her mother was proficient in preparing lung, I asked her for the recipe, naively thinking I might actually try to make it myself, and got my pen and notebook ready. But after first making the attempt to interview her mother in Turkish, the two quickly found it necessary to revert to their native Uygur. Nearly twenty minutes later Arunya threw her hands up and asserted that she was not capable of translating the recipe and that the immense task of preparing lung for human consumption would strain the patience of the most disciplined chef.
‘Basically,’ she said, turning to me. ‘It’s a lot of cleaning the inside of the lung. You have to keep filling them with water, kneading them and draining them and there’s the risk that they’ll burst and all your work will be for nothing.’
‘Well, that’s good to know,’ I said, putting away my pen and notebook. ‘And what about the lungs we’ve eaten today? How would you rate them?’
After conferring with her mother, Aynur smiled and raised two thumbs.
‘Very authentic,’ she quipped, ‘a little taste of Urumqi.’