Abdul Samad removes the tandoor lid to inspect his samsas. “Two more minutes and they’ll have better color,” he says. He waits quietly, watching as the delicately folded pockets of dough, stuffed with minced lamb, onions, and spices, cling to the walls of the cylindrical oven. Already leopard-spotted by the first blast of heat, they slowly turn golden brown.
This is Restaurant Miran, located in a Saint-Laurent strip mall near the future Bois-Franc REM station. When it opened in December, it became Montreal’s fourth Uyghur restaurant. That’s a remarkable feat for a community that numbered 360 in 2016 (according to census data) and has, by rough estimates, grown to a few hundred families in recent years — a community that is fighting for the survival of its culture and language in the face of repression in its homeland.
Samad is an old hand at this — one of the third generation in a family of bakers that come from Hotan, an ancient oasis town in China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang. Like nearly everyone from Hotan, he is Uyghur, a people whose culture and language are a product of the Silk Road that once stretched from China to Europe. His language is Turkic in origin, written in a version of Arabic script that emerged with the introduction of Islam around a thousand years ago. His food reflects the journey of ingredients and influences along historic trade routes. There are tandoor-baked breads and roasted kebabs, but also juicy steamed dumplings, rice pilaf, wok-fried dishes, and satisfyingly chewy hand-pulled wheat noodles.
When he was younger, Samad branched out from baking to open a restaurant in Hotan that served traditional Uyghur dishes made with chicken, quail, and wild game birds. It was enough of a success that he expanded his business to Ürümqi, the provincial capital, and opened two more restaurants, each with several hundred seats.
The situation in Xinjiang changed when, eight years ago, China began waging war against Uyghur culture. Since then, religious activities have been restricted, the Uyghur language is being suppressed, and families are placed under near-total surveillance, with police checkpoints every few hundred meters in Uyghur neighbourhoods. More than a million Uyghurs have been forcibly relocated to internment camps, where detainees allege torture and systematic sexual abuse. China has defended the camps, claiming they are vocational training centres meant to eradicate Islamic extremism and help Uyghurs improve their Chinese language skills. Human rights groups call the situation a genocide.
In 2017, Samad left for Turkey, which is home to a large community of Uyghur exiles. The following year, he made it to Montreal, where he had friends, and helped set up Le Taklamakan, a Uyghur restaurant in Lasalle. Now he has his very own restaurant.
“Everyone [in the community] knows each other,” says Jan, who came here as a teenager in 2001 and is helping Samad as a business advisor. (Following this article’s publication, Jan requested Eater not use his full name due to security concerns.) Over the years, he has watched the Uyghur community ebb and flow. Some newcomers arrive and plant roots, while others decamp for places with larger Uyghur populations like Toronto and Vancouver. The first Uyghur families from Xinjiang settled in Lasalle decades ago, but over the years the community has spread to the South Shore, near Abattoir Emin, an Uyghur-run slaughterhouse in Kahnawake where families buy locally raised halal lamb. Many Uyghurs from Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan live in Saint-Léonard and Anjou.
Uyghurs have no designated community center or mosque in Montreal, but what they do have are restaurants. Likely one of Montreal’s first Uyghur restaurants, Arzou Express, opened in 2005, and there was also Restaurant Uyghur in Chinatown. These have since closed. Then came Le Taklamakan, named after the vast desert — almost the size of Germany — that dominates most of Xinjiang.
The restaurant got its start three years ago, when a Uyghur truck driver named Elzat Elham decided he was tired of life on the road. “I had three kids — now four — and I didn’t want to leave them alone all the time,” he says. “Having a restaurant is much better.” There was just one problem. “I had never touched a kitchen,” he says, laughing. Luckily for him, Samad had just arrived in town and spent months building the restaurant’s menu and teaching Elham how to cook.
It was a successful effort. Despite a discreet location in a strip mall on Newman Boulevard, Le Taklamakan has become renowned for its kebabs and samsas, along with a greatest-hits assortment of other Uyghur dishes, including petir manta — steamed dumplings filled with lamb — a baked meat pie known as goshnan, and polo, a kind of lamb pilaf. There’s also big plate chicken, known as da pan ji in Mandarin and chong texse toxu qorumisi in Uyghur, which consists of a large platter of chicken, bell peppers, and potatoes braised in a red sauce, made with Sichuan peppers, star anise, cumin, onions, garlic, and ginger, then served on a bed of hand-pulled wheat noodles called laghman.
“Elzat does the winners and he does them well,” says Jan. “There used to be a perception that Uyghur restaurants couldn’t succeed in Montreal. Taklamakan changed that perception.”
Another factor that helped turn the tide is the growth of Montreal’s Chinese population, which numbers around 130,000, based on census and immigration data. Uyghur food is well represented across China, in humble noodle shops and street carts run by migrants from Xinjiang, as well as in lavish banquet halls with nightly belly dancing and musical performances featuring the tembor, a type of Uyghur lute. Montreal’s Uyghur restaurant owners say the bulk of their clientele are Chinese, with most of the remainder being immigrants from Russia and Central Asia, as well as Muslim families looking for a halal meal.
With the pandemic, though, those customers have been thin on the ground. “These days, we never know if people will come,” says Elham. Delivery apps — particularly Chinese ones like Fantuan, which have lower fees than Uber Eats or Skip The Dishes — have been a lifeline. “But it is still hard to do business right now,” says Elyas Ablikim, who runs Urumqi Ozgu Uyghur Cuisine with his brother, Tursun.
Located about a kilometer away from Le Taklamakan in Lasalle, Ozgu is small but sunny, with stacks of Uyghur books on the bar counter and portraits of 11th century Uyghur poets on the wall. The restaurant opened in 2019 when the Ablikim brothers relocated from Mississauga after Tursun’s son was recruited to play soccer for a Montreal team. The family was already in Canada when China began its crackdown. They applied for asylum and were granted refugee status.
“When someone asks, we explain what is happening, but it’s very hard,” says Elyas. He places his hand on his chest. “When we tell our story our heart is broken. If I think of what’s happening at home, it’s an unbelievable situation. But every person who learns about it helps.”
Across the river in Brossard, Ablimit Adil says food is the best way for people to learn about Uyghur culture. “I want to be a kind of Uyghur ambassador,” he says. Last August, he opened Dolan Uyghur Restaurant with business partner Ferdos Firket, taking advantage of the pandemic recession to buy a turnkey Cantonese restaurant that had gone out of business. The duo have big ambitions. “Just a few restaurants is not enough for people in Quebec to get to know Uyghur cuisine,” says Adil. “I want to create a well-known brand.”
Adil grew up in Ürümqi and moved to France in 2008 to study for a master’s degree in business. Drawn by Canada’s reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants, and the chance for his children to be raised in a bilingual environment in Quebec, he applied to immigrate here a few years ago. Firket came to Montreal as a student in 2015. His father owned a restaurant in his hometown of Karamay, and when he met Adil — who worked in restaurants while he was studying in France — the pair decided to launch Dolan, whose name refers to a tribe of people in Xinjiang. “It has always been my dream to open a restaurant,” says Adil.
“When I think of what it’s like at home, there’s so much food over there,” adds Firket. “This is like 10 percent of all the dishes from back home.”
The notion of home is integral to Uyghur food culture, and that includes the long voyages that have shaped it. “It’s food deeply rooted in nomadic tradition,” says Jan. The flavours and textures bear the imprint of travel: naan bread from the west, noodles from the east, all of it bathed in the earthy aroma of cumin.
Like all cuisines, of course, Uyghur food is dynamic, and it has continued to evolve through the years. As China’s economy boomed and millions of people moved around the country for work — including Uyghurs who moved to the industrial cities of the east and Han Chinese who moved west to Xinjiang — food absorbed influences from China’s other cuisines, particularly Sichuanese.
“Everything is spicier now — my parents’ generation complains about it,” says Jan, with a chuckle. Big plate chicken is a good example. Although it is arguably the most famous Uyghur dish in China, according to some accounts it only dates back to the mid-1990s, when a migrant chef from Sichuan tried to marry the hot, punchy flavours of his home region with the fresh noodles and fragrant spices of Xinjiang. It quickly became a hit and Uyghur families began cooking it at home. “Big plate chicken bridges the generational gap,” says Jan.
At Miran, quail takes the place of chicken. It’s a sign that Abdul Samad wants to push the boundaries of Uyghur food in Montreal, offering an adventurous menu similar to the restaurants he used to run back home. “This is the most extensive menu of any Uyghur restaurant around here,” says Jan.
Among the dishes that you won’t find elsewhere in Montreal is opke-hesip, a cold medley of sheep’s lungs, tripe, and heart. The lung is marinated in milk, eggs, and flour, then blanched. It gives it an almost custardy texture and a sweetness that is far from the livery earthiness that many associate with other lung dishes like haggis. “It’s street food,” says Jan. “In every city’s bazaar, there would be a lady who makes it. It’s only recently that you’d see it on a restaurant menu.”
Miran is an ambitious project, with a large kitchen — including two tandoors made in Turkey — and a generous dining room with a capacity of 135 people. Jan is optimistic that its location next to a large Chinese supermarket and down the street from several mosques will ensure a steady flow of customers. For his part, Samad just wants the chance to showcase the full breadth of Uyghur cuisine.
The samsas are finally ready. Working quickly as their juices sizzle in the hot tandoor, he plucks them off the sides of the oven and piles them on a tray. A heady aroma of lamb and cumin escapes from the mound of crispy pastries — it smells familiar and comforting.