Etles Uyghur restaurant Finchley Road
- Credit: Courtesy of Etles restaurant
Until a few years ago, most people wouldn’t have a clue if you’d asked who the Uyghurs were.
A best-guess might have been one of those Irish showbands from the Galtymore dance hall in Cricklewood. But this Turkic speaking, Muslim community from Xinjiang in China’s Northwest, has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Disturbing reports of state-sponsored persecution, albeit denied by the authorities, have propelled this sleepy central-Asian sub-culture to prominence.
Uyghurs in London probably number less than a few hundred. But in 2017, a flag was firmly planted when Mukkades Yadikar, and husband, Ablikim Rahman, opened the capital’s first Uyghur restaurant, Etles, in Walthamstow.
Mukkades left her hometown of Yili near the Kazakhstan border in 1998, to study in Beijing, before completing a linguistics masters in Istanbul, and joining her UK-based husband here. Capitalising on Walthamstow’s success, in December 2019 the couple opened a second restaurant on Finchley Road in Childs Hill - Etles references the multicoloured zig-zag patterned “Atlas” silks of their homeland. But the pandemic had other ideas and it has only recently relaunched under Mukkades’ supervision.
She was raised in the traditional environment where the kitchen was a female fiefdom and from the age of seven absorbed centuries-old skills. Uyghur cooking owes much to its geography. Located along the ancient silk road, culinary influences flowed back and forth for a thousand years. Aside from Chinese input, middle eastern notes are discernible, as are those from as far afield as Persia and India.
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Perhaps the most identifiable element is leghmen noodles. Big fat hand-rolled, super-sized snakes, Mukkades makes them fresh every morning. Inviting me into the kitchen for a leghmen 101, she slams down a piece of dough curled up like chorizo sausage, rolling it out with a familiarity bordering on nonchalance, while talking at me as if she’s simply stirring her tea.
Within seconds her hands are stretched outward, covered in reams of noodle, which are whirled rhythmically around and slapped about in a spectacle more like close-up magic than cookery. But that’s the thing here; there’s no corner-cutting or anglicised inventions, it’s all authentic.
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Among exotica one rarely encounters on a menu, were spicy lamb trotters and spiced beef tongue, which I needed nudging toward, but which turned out to be tender and tasty. And there were tripe dishes which no doubt would have confounded any prejudices if I'd tried them. Across that arc stretching from western China to Turkey, dumplings are a recurring feature. If the tripe and trotters are too offal to contemplate, manta dumplings, a Kyrgyz and Uyghur speciality, filled with mutton and pumpkin won’t disappoint, while lamb skewers, seasoned with cumin and other spices, proved a delicious take on the middle eastern staple.
The starter I’d revisit is chochure soup – an earthy broth with small tortellini-like lamb dumplings bobbing about in it. Samsa samosas were unlike the ones we’re familiar with, resembling mini-Cornish pasties, and while the pastry casing was perfectly cooked, the lamb filling was surprisingly un-spicy. Likewise, the small crusty nan bread has nothing in common with their Indian counterpart.
Leghmen topped with a spicy vegetable and meat sauce is probably the most ubiquitous Uyghur dish, though I preferred the stir-fried version, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Lamb Polo, a steamed rice dish with sultanas and carrots, shares its name with the famous Persian variant, although Mukkades bristles at the implication that it’s not Uyghur.
The current favourite dish among Uyghurs is "big plate chicken", another spicy stew with potatoes, this time, served on top of big flat noodles. Although seabass was on the menu, and vegetarian options plentiful, a cuisine nurtured at the heart of the biggest continent, inevitably has a carnivorous edge.
Etles is also B.Y.O. and with restaurants often marking up wine lists to nose-bleed levels, the opportunity to bring your own is never to be sniffed at. It can make dining at family-run restaurants like Etles, as affordable as it is enjoyable.
Once a month, Mukkades invites Uyghur women from their fledgling community to an afternoon get-together, where they eat, socialise, push the furniture aside…. and dance. It’s definitely not the Galtymore! But after they’ve moved the tables back, those in search of a unique culinary experience might want to get their feet underneath one.
Etles is at 424 Finchley Road, NW2. https://etlesfinchley.com/