As befits the culture of Northern Chinese tribes who traveled Asia’s fabled Silk Road trading route, Uyghur cuisine shows a mix of influences that stretch from Damascus through Central Asia to Hong Kong. San Jose’s Kusan Uyghur Cuisine has spent the last four years focused on dishes that bring authenticity and accessibility in a style that is at once familiar and exotic.
“We started the restaurant because, for the Uyghur people, there is nothing like this for us in the area,” said Yolwas Hashim, co-owner of Kusan. “And we also wanted to present our food and our culture to people who might not be familiar with it.”
The dearth of places to get Uyghur food drove him to call his mother when he wanted to prepare a traditional dish, and that got him interested in starting the restaurant. He was spurred on by the arrival of his brother Xukrat, who came to the U.S. in 2017 under a special technical skills visa for chefs.
“In Uyghur culture, there is a big celebration when a boy turns seven, to mark his becoming a man,” Hashim said. “And before Xukrat came over to the United States in 2017, he worked at the same restaurant where I had my ceremony years ago.”
Uyghurs belong to a Muslim-majority culture, with the transition beginning in the 10th century, and many items on the menu would not be out of place in a Middle Eastern restaurant. Kusan only serves Halal dishes, everything is homemade and there are no artificial ingredients.
“Our food is even better because we don’t add things like MSG,” Hashim said.
There are nods to other cultures as well. Chinese hand-pulled wheat noodles are used in several dishes, with diced potato and eggplant or a tomato egg sauce. Indian naan bread comes sprinkled with cumin and chili powder or as a wrap, stuffed with seasoned lamb or chicken and garnished with onion and green pepper with a yogurt drizzle.
Beverages include Dogap, a refreshing mixture of yogurt, milk and lemon juice and can be served sweet or sour. There is also the hearty Uyghur Special Tea, with hot milk, black tea, cream, butter and salt.
There is a selection of traditional appetizers, including Samsa, the Uyghur cross between a momo and a samosa. Chopped beef and onions seasoned with sesame oil and black pepper are wrapped in a light dough and then baked to the point of just turning brown.
Most dishes are served with Uyghur salad, a bright combination of chopped tomatoes, onion, green pepper, coriander, dry red pepper, sesame oil and vinegar. It adds a nice acidity to balance out the heat of the main dishes. Yogurt is also served with select dishes to mellow them further.
Hashim said Kusan made a conscious decision to lower the heat level in the food to accommodate western tastes, but it can be adjusted upward for the adventurous. Kusan also makes and sells its own chili sauce from red pepper flakes, soybean oil, chili powder and sesame seeds.
One major Uyghur cultural dish is Polo, made with shredded lamb and beef and served on a bed of rice with cooked carrots and onions, garnished with quail eggs. Hashim said it’s the hardest of the dishes to make.
“Every step is important,” he said. “We start with lamb and onions, then cook those until the onions are golden brown. Then we take out the lamb and add carrots, which are cooked until you can just start feeling them get soft. Then you add the rice and cook it so that you end up with everything mixing together in the dish.”
Polo was the choice of first-time customer Manuel Rocha Jr., who said he was initially confused by the flavor profiles of the food.
“I was not too sure about the combination of beef with lamb,” he said. “I was getting familiar flavors from the seasoning that I just could not place. But then they explained to me where the spices came from and how they used them differently than other cultures, and it all made sense. The textures were excellent, the food was delicious and I would have no problem eating that a couple of times a week.”
Other favorite dishes include Big Plate Chicken, tender stewed pieces of bone-in chicken with noodles, potatoes and green peppers, as well as Beef Noodle Soup with sliced beef, chives, cilantro, green onions, radishes and chili oil.
Sitting in the small and unassuming restaurant, the biggest thing that comes across is love and pride in not just the food of the Uyghurs, but of their culture as well. Photographs of Uyghur life line the walls of the restaurant and Uyghur music plays while you eat. One side of the menu is devoted to a brief history and appreciation of Uyghur history.
“We hope to give people a chance to try our food and and understand something about our culture,” Hashim said. “And for people who know the food, they tell us, ‘Finally we have one more option for halal food.’ It’s just good solid food and it’s got good flavors to it, and it is always fun to try a different cuisine.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]
Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected]
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