When Bostonians think of “Chinese food,” roasted lamb, brick-oven baked naan bread, and hand-pulled flour noodles don’t typically come to mind. Yet these are the comfort foods that Adila Sadir, 27, grew up eating back home in mainland China.
After graduating from UMass Boston with a double major in biology and psychology and then working in a biology lab for a couple of years, Adila decided to join her family in opening the Boston area’s first Uyghur restaurant, Silk Road, in May 2017.
Just a short walk up Cambridge Street from the Lechmere T stop will lead you to tables draped with red, blue, and yellow atlas silk, a traditional Uyghur (pronounced WEE-gur) handicraft. There you will be served savory halal lamb kebab, noodle, and dumpling dishes that are quintessentially Uyghur.
“I always wanted to have a business that let people know about our culture,” says Adila. “In college, you know, many people would ask ‘Where are you from? What is a Uyghur? What is your language?’ ”
The 11 million ethnic Uyghurs of China’s northwest Xinjiang Province are well known among human rights watchdogs. According to Human Rights Watch, The People’s Republic of China has sent an estimated 1 million of the Muslim minority, or 9 percent of the total Uyghur population in Xinjiang, to “re-education camps” from which allegations of torture have leaked out. Few know the truth of what’s really happening in the tightly controlled detention camps of China’s westernmost province. Adila says she has no idea what’s become of her father, who’s been detained since June 2018.
“Until now there is not any new information about him,” she says.
After the government shut down Internet access in the province for 10 months in 2009 in a bid to cut lines of communication within the protesting Uyghur community, Adila’s father helped her acquire a US student visa and get out of the country.
“I got the visa and immediately I came here,” she recalls, “I didn’t even wait one day.”
Her mother, sister, and brother followed her to Boston a couple years later. But she has since lost contact with the rest of her family members, 30 of whom she says are currently detained.
Though she’s quick to point out that her issue is purely with the Chinese government, her hope is that through good food she can share the human face of the Uyghur people, rather than tally their numbers like so many news articles about the resistance and suppression.
“When you want to introduce Uyghurs to people only by protest or anything else, it’s so hard, but when you are introduced by the food — like, Uyghur food is really good and people really like it,” says Adila. In turn, she believes the food will be a gateway to learning about the culture.
The Uyghur cultural hub of Ürümqi is situated in the middle of the historic Silk Road, the overland trade route linking the Mediterranean and Yellow seas. The result is a culture infused with Turkish, Central Asian, and Chinese traditions.
“People in Boston, they like to try new stuff, new food, and if they like it, they will continue to learn about it,” says Adila. “They’ll go online and check out “What is Uyghur?’ ”
You don’t have to research on your own — this crossroads of culture is on display at the Silk Road restaurant, where traditional doppa skullcaps and brightly colored Uyghur porcelain hangs proudly on the walls and guests are offered an intimate taste of eclectic Uyghur cuisine — hand-rolled samosa dumplings stuffed with minced beef and onions and eye-wateringly spicy laghman noodles, hand-pulled and bathed in the Sadir family’s own secret hot sauce.
Adila says another main goal has been to “make the restaurant taste like home,” and many of the recipes are her mother’s own, like the Scallion and Lamb plate or the naan bread stuffed with lamb and onions. In fact, Mother Sadir still bakes all the naan from scratch — 100 of the boule-like loaves each week.
And yet, even as the Silk Road introduces guests to authentic Uyghur culinary arts, the food has also adjusted to local tastes.
“For us, we grow up eating lamb, like, every single dish in Xinjiang is lamb,” explains Adila. “The lamb is very important in our traditional cuisine, but after we opened the restaurant we found out that many people here like beef over lamb so we switched a lot of dishes to beef.”
Another accommodation has been vegetarianism, something unheard of in Xinjiang.
“In the beginning we didn’t really know a lot about vegetarians, because it’s so weird in Xinjiang that someone does not eat meat,” she recalls, though she and her family realized there were traditional herbivorous options — like pumpkin manto, a sweet dumpling-like appetizer, or entrées like stir-fried leek. They will be expanding their vegetarian offerings soon, including a traditional Chinese Tiger Salad, akin to a garden salad.
But there’s one staple of Uyghur cuisine Adila says Silk Road can’t do without — lamb. Incredibly, you can order an ENTIRE 30-pound lamb, marinated with onions and served kebab style — you’ll just need to give the kitchen 48-hour notice to prepare it.
“Actually, we get a lot of non-Uyghur orders of the whole lamb,” mentions Adila. It’s a hit at Uyghur wedding parties, she says, but if you’re not looking to serve 20 people, Silk Road offers lamb in three sizes: whole, half, or just a leg.
Josh Coe can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaCoe.