It’s very easy to walk past the Etles Uyghur Restaurant in Walthamstow and not even notice.
The restaurant is on the ground floor of a residential block, tightly squeezed in amongst a row of terrace buildings on a very compact part of Hoe Street.
Its blue sign hardly stands out, and its shop window is usually obstructed by parked cars that hide it from view.
Only very observant passers-by will notice the red Chinese writing on the restaurant sign, and might think of it as a place to grab a quick Chinese takeout.
But they couldn’t be more wrong, because Uyghur cuisine is very unique, and deserves recognition on its own merit.
Uyghurs are a Turkic people who are native to China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which many Uyghurs prefer to call East Turkestan.
Saying that, they should not be confused with the Turks of Turkey, who are a different nation altogether, although their languages are quite similar.
Owing to the fact that the Turks of Turkey originated from Central Asia much like the Uyghurs, there are some similarities in their cuisine too, but Uyghur food also bears a likeness to Afghan, Uzbek and other Central Asian cuisines.
Of course, one cannot deny the cultural exchange that has taken place between Uyghurs and their Han Chinese counterparts over the centuries, but the Uyghurs, being a predominantly Muslim people, tend to avoid pork and certain other types of food that might be more commonly eaten in other parts of China.
Perhaps one of the most famous dishes which complements all the cultural influences found in Uyghur cuisine is Laghmen, or ‘hand-pulled’ noodles.
Usually mixed in with strips of marinated lamb or beef, cooked vegetables, sesame seeds and a peppery sauce, Laghmen noodles are extremely long and very difficult to wrap around a fork, but at the same time bursting with Central Asian flavour.
The dish typically contains peppers, aubergine, radish, potatoes, onions, garlic and spices. However, the spice isn’t too strong, and Uyghur food is generally a lot milder than Indian food.
Laghmen does not necessarily have to contain meat either, so there are vegan and vegetarian-friendly options on the menu at Etles. They even have tofu dishes.
But for the carnivores out there, the options are endless. One might like to try some Shashlik, which consists of marinated bits of shredded beef with a mixture of vegetables and herbs.
One thing that might catch the eye in their hot dishes section is their Manta, steamed miniature dumplings that contain a tiny bit of minced meat and onions.
Manta is a food that comes in different variations across Turkey and Central Asia. In Turkey they are very small and tend to be served by the bowl-full, whereas in Afghanistan they are larger and usually come in a portion of three and are covered in a layer of heated garlic sauce. In Uzbekistan, meanwhile, it can even be devoured as a soup.
Uyghur Manta is slightly larger, like the Afghan one, but usually does not come with garlic sauce unless one requests it.
But of course, one cannot leave the Etles restaurant without ordering a slice of traditional Uyghur honey cake for dessert. The honey cake is a favourite sweet treat for Uyghurs, and one cannot say they’ve truly had an Uyghur experience until they’ve tried it.
It also goes down well with a cup of Uyghur tea, or Etken Chai.
Etken Chai is actually quite similar to traditional English breakfast tea, except it is made by putting two tea bags into a pot and boiling it in water and a pinch of salt over a stove, then mixing the black tea with another pot of hot milk and thickened cream.
The Chai is served in a traditional cup that has no handle.
Beyond the food and drink, the restaurant itself is very authentic. It is run by a married couple, Mukaddes and her husband Ablikim Rahman. Both are Uyghurs who settled in London from Ghulja, Xinjiang.
The couple moved to the UK in 2010, which is when they realised that they couldn’t find Uyghur food anywhere in the capital.
Despite Uyghurs getting significant media attention in recent years as more and more information about alleged detention camps in Xinjiang that are said to hold up to three million Uyghurs are leaked to the media, many people in London are still unaware of their plight.
Mukaddes enjoys every opportunity she gets to sit down with customers and explain the rich culture and history of her people.
She has decorated her restaurant with various traditional Uyghur interiors, including traditional hats, a hand-woven carpet, and stringed instruments.
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Despite the shop floor being relatively small, Etles Uyghur Restaurant has a very homely and cosy atmosphere, and is rarely seen empty in the evenings.
Their prices aren’t the cheapest, but for what you pay, whether that be £16 for plate of Spicy Lamb Trotters and Rice, £12 for a bowl of Laghmen, or £7 for a serving of Manta, you can be sure to receive a full-on Uyghur experience that’s worth every single penny.
Countless reviews on Google and TripAdvisor seem to agree. One review on TripAdvisor calls the food ‘amazing, rich and flavourful’ and another simply calls it ‘delicious’.
Also, due to popular demand, Mukaddes and her husband, who themselves are based in Barnet, recently opened their second branch in Finchley, which one can expect to do just as well.
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