When Nuerjiang Mukelamu's children go to school in Vancouver, they don't know how to answer the question, "Where are you from?"
Although they're originally from China, they're Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group that inhabits the Xinjiang region in northwest China. Even Mukelamu faces challenges when she tells people she's from China but people become confused and tell her that she doesn't look Chinese or they have never heard of Uyghur people.
That's why she and her parents, Kasimu Nuerjiang and Tuerdi Asimguli, opened up Efendi Uyghur Restaurant at 1345 Kingsway on May 28.
In an interview in their 130-seat dining room, Mukelamu (who also goes by "Mina") explained that when her father moved to Vancouver, he couldn't find any Uyghur food, let alone any halal food he enjoyed. When he went to a community gathering for Nowruz (which is also known as Persian New Year and held on the vernal equinox, marking the beginning of spring), the homecooked Uyghur dishes that people brought made him upset that there wasn't a place in Vancouver to enjoy their traditional cuisine.
In response, the family, who came from Urumqi to Canada in 2011, wanted to create a social focal point for the community to gather, socialize, and to practice their language and culture in a setting that feels like Xinjiang.
Her father, she said, is afraid of cultural extinction and doesn't want their culture or language to disappear. She said he also doesn't want newcomers from Xinjiang to face some of the struggles that they had to go through when coming to Canada.
Yet they also want to share their culture and cuisine with others who have never had a chance to experience it.
Mukelamu explained in order to maintain authentic flavours, their dishes avoid too many additional ingredients and primarily focus on salt, cumin, and black pepper.
She said they also try to avoid using metal whenever possible. For example, she said that they use a wooden cutting board and bowl to make dough for handmade noodles because their traditional belief is that metal taints the taste of the dough and also can affect their health.
Their chicken laghman dish ($12.99) is made of handmade long noodles with stir-fried chicken and vegetables. Their ding ding noodle plate ($12.99) features handmade noodles diced into bite-sized pieces and fried with vegetables and beef. Another noodle dish is kurgak qop ($12.99), dry stir-fried handmade quarter-length noodles with garlic, chili, chives, and beef.
As the Uyghur people live in a desert environment, there isn't any seafood on the menu; consequently, meat dishes consist of lamb, beef, and chicken.
Mukelamu said Uyghur-style kebabs ($9.99 for 4 skewers) are also a traditional highlight of their cuisine. Serik ash kebab ($12.99) consists of cold spaghetti, lamb kebabs, and vegetables, and there are even kidney kebabs ($9.99 for two skewers).
There are several dishes that resemble Chinese cuisine. Petir manta ($9.99 for four pieces) looks like oversized steamed dim sum dumplings, with ground lamb and onion inside.
Rounding out the menu are salads, soup, and desserts, such as homemade yogurt.
What's more, Mukelamu is well poised to serve Vancouver's multicultural population.
The multilingual Mukelamu (who received her bachelor degree in China and her master degree in education psychology in Japan, despite the amazing fact that her parents, who are successful businesspeople, can neither read nor write) can speak Uyghur, Mandarin, Japanese, Turkish, and English. She is looking for more Uyghur staff (as her parents don't speak English and can't communicate in any other language).
Most of all, she said they want the world to know about Uyghur people which is why they are devoting their best effort to educating Vancouverites about their people and culture through their cuisine.
"We have to show people that we are kind, we are clean, we are nice, we are [a] good culture, we are educated, and we have [a] really beautiful culture that people can enjoy," she said of her father's mission.