The Uighurs are the Turkic Islamic people of China's western Xinxiang province, which borders eight countries, Kazakhstan being its most accessible neighbor. The Uighurs themselves do not acknowledge the sovereignty of China and call their homeland East Turkestan. Uighur cuisine can be situated within a continuum of Silk Road cuisines that includes Turkish, Afghan and Uzbek (which I wrote about earlier). There are overlapping food names and preparations in all these cuisines, with local variations.
I first tried Uighur food this summer, at Montreal's excellent Uyghur Restaurant. As I was dining alone, I could only scratch the surface of their large menu. Luckily, several of their appetizers, such as samsa (baked meat pie) and manty (steamed meat dumplings), were sold by the piece. A stunningly delicious and luxuriantly fatty lamb soup that was boldly seasoned with garlic and kumin was one of the great soups I have known. The soup was served as an accompaniment to the lamb shank, which is apparently cooked in the soup, but served on the side.
Cafe Kashkar paled by comparison. This time I had the opportunity to try a number of dishes, as there were eight of us. Unfortunately, several staples of the cuisine, such as samsa and pilaf, were not available. At Montreal's Uyghur Restaurant the pilaf is called polo, which is probably closer to the local name in East Turkestan. I believe the Uighur version is pretty similar to the Uzbek plov, rice cooked with lamb and carrots.
We started with a couple of salads. The shredded carrot salad with vinegar and sesame oil was quite good, as was an eggplant salad that would have been at home at a Turkish or Georgian restaurant. The manty at Kashkar were rather bland. A little more interesting was the khanum, manty skins stuffed with potato. The "national bread," lepeshka, was overly salty, so it tasted like a not-so-good soft pretzel.
We had noticed a large sausage-like item in the refrigerator case and asked the waitress about it. She said something about how it wasn't available, but that it was the same thing as a dish called naryn, which was available but looked different when it was served. Despite the cryptic description, we ordered it. What we got was a weird dish of bland cold sliced meat with slivers of cold bland dough. Also very bland was nokhat, a hot plate of chick peas with boiled lamb. We shared a variety of kebabs, and none really stood out.
I was a bit happier with the geiro lagman, a spaghetti-like noodle with meat and vegetables, than were most of my dinner companions. I liked its star anise seasoning, which set it apart from the rest of the flavors (or lack thereof) at the meal. Lagman is commonly served in a soup, but it might not have been available that night, and at any rate this drier version was easier to share.
There was only one dessert available, chak chak, which was a block of fried noodle and honey. One of them shared by eight of us was more than enough.
Cafe Kashkar has gotten some good reviews in the past, so perhaps it was an off night. Still, I'm not really inspired to give it another chance.
There's another Uighur restaurant in New York, Arzu, in Queens. Perhaps I'll give that one a try.
On general principle, I will say it's a good thing that there are two Uighur restaurants in New York. After all, when I was growing up in Brooklyn, in the sixties, we could never say, "Let's go out for Uighur."
Café Kashkar, 1141 Brighton Beach Ave. (between 14th & 15th Streets); (718) 743-7832.