Peter Carty runs short travel writing courses online and in London. As one of the UK’s most experienced travel writing teachers and coaches, his tailored approach is a staple of the travel writing scene. A one-day workshop, or four evening classes – Peter guarantees that he never pads out material as pretext for higher prices. His assignment allowed me to travel through Dilara, an Uyghur restaurant in Finchley.
Despite it being emphasised in thick black ink on the menu, I am assured 3 times further that Tugure dumplings will take 25 minutes, because every ingredient down to the dough is freshly made from scratch. The team at Dilara have clearly learned that patience is not a virtue harboured by London locale.
What started life as a Turkish restaurant 15 years ago, has now become an Uyghur hybrid, and although its new owners highlight the Uyghur heritage, the lead chef smiles over the counter at me as she explains that the cuisine is essentially “the same”.
Many of their chefs come armed with diplomas in their subjects, and as 1 of just 6 Uyghur restaurants in London, they’ve put the time into building strong foundations. Serving traditional dishes from Xinjiang, this region in north-western China has its own distinct flavours, heavily influenced by its position along the old Silk Road.
The open plan kitchen by the entrance boasts window displays of large plate chicken (a signature spiced dish), fried rice noodles and grilled meats. A popular dish is leghmen – hand-pulled noodles topped with stir-fried vegetables and mutton. Its name likely derives from the Chinese ‘lamian’, but its flavour and preparation are distinctly Uyghur. Here, there are no starters, but traditionally there is time for tea, naan, and fruit.
The minutes fly by, and steamed parcels of minced lamb and beef mixed with onions and herbs arrive, accompanied by a generous pot of traditional Uyghur tea. Dilara both live to eat and eat to live, balancing vitality of body and soul alike.
The steamy tonic is an antidote to the world that exists beyond the threshold, made with remedies promoting “relaxation and sleep”: wolfberries, dandelion, red dates, hawthorn, and rosebuds; Aromatic plants common to Unani – traditional Uyghur medicine. Historically used in the Mughal Empire, scholar Sir Percy Sykes described it as ‘based on the ancient Greek theory’.
As with their cuisine, Uyghur medicine is the science and synthesis of the wisdom of its people, being its own theoretical system combining practical experience with a unique method of diagnosis and treatment, which is still treasured by traditional Chinese craft. The Uyghur have long been skilled in the aromatic arts, wielding lavender, vanilla, safflower, coriander, chicory, clove, cardamom, and long pepper, as savoury sustenance and soothing spice.
For dessert I treat myself to the Uyghur milk tea, a sweetened black brew with butter, cream, and salt. Take-away cups aren’t part of the artillery, so it’s boxed up for later – timing is everything and “milk and herbs don’t mix”.
Glancing up to get the cheque, a carpeted wall bears a sombre ensemble – puppeteered by a silent score, leisurely placed beside a bright canvas of bacchanalia, beauty, and dance. Two of the most distinctive pieces of Uyghur art infuse the space with the tale of a lifetime, “because it portrays everything from our culture. Any expert would recognise it at once.”
Muqam by Ghazi Ahmet (1984) is considered an integral part of Uyghur life, and its identifying threads are woven throughout homes, restaurants, and establishments. From the world-famous Buddhist cave paintings of Dunhuang, traditional Uyghur art includes handicrafts, embroidery, carpet-making, and calligraphy. Modern Uyghur art is defined as beginning after 1933, representing the shift from artisan to artist. The most famous of these is the Uyghur Muqam.
‘Muqam’ refers to an accompaniment of musical arrangements, widespread throughout the communities of East Turkistan (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). A combination of songs, dances, and melodies characterised by their diversity of content, choreography, folk and classical styles, which have been cultivated throughout the centuries.
This distinctive community practice incorporates themes from many cultures in Central Asia, a legacy from the Eastern and Western exchanges of the Silk Road. The rewap and the dutar are notable string instruments, played by subjects in regional clothing, with each man bearing a doppa – the Uyghur hat.
By the side of the Muqam, the Meshrep from the same artist (1977), is infused with fertile femininity. Gaily dancing to the beat of their own drums, the celebrated piece is widely considered provocative, and has historically evoked criticism from those of a more conservative stance.
These iconic paintings are believed by many to highlight the history of their people, by sharing important insights with the contemporary culture of today. And the Uyghurs have good reason to be fierce in the face of their heritage. While many of Dilara’s clientele are Chinese, and are welcomed in fluent dialect, back home China’s genocidal policies have deprived a minority population of freedom and a voice.
According to human rights groups and first-hand accounts, between 1 and 2 million members of this Turkic ethnic group native to Xinjiang, alongside members of other ethnic minorities, are believed to be held in Chinese concentration camps where they are forced to study Marxism, renounce their religion, submit to slave labour, and face extensive abuse. Beijing claims that these extreme ‘re-education camps’ provide vocational training as anti-extremist measures.
The defence China has received from other countries reveals a greater reality: the convenience of supporting China benefits several nations at significant socioeconomic and political levels. This, apparently, outweighs the plight of the people. Leaving a solemn certitude to cleanse the palette.