At the intersection of Gordon Street and Ballarat Road in Footscray, partly surrounded by part-completed property developments, is Karlaylisi Restaurant, a tiny shopfront selling some of the most authentic Uyghur food in Melbourne.
Uyghur people are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority that make up around 45 per cent of the population of Xinjiang, China’s largest autonomous region. And they eat some of the heartiest cuisine in the country.
When I arrive at 2pm, chef and owner Dawut Sidik, a Uyghur man from Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is the only person working. The quiet is disturbed only by slurps of läghmän, stir-fried hand-pulled noodles, which are ubiquitous in the region. Sidik makes a batch of dough every day stretching and twisting it over and over into thick, round, uniform noodles.
Läghmän can be served dry or wet. The classic dry version, oy läghmän, is Karlaylisi’s bestseller: long noodles tossed with lamb and vegetables and a little spice. But the version Sidik recommends is aqqik korulgan läghmän. Shorter noodles are tossed with chilli, garlic, ginger and soy before lean lamb, onions, garlic chives and chunks of bird’s eye chillies are thrown in. The pungent, oily pulp sticks to the grooves in the noodles, coating everything in a speckled red sheen.
The wet läghmän is made in a similar way; the thin sauce is made with tomato puree and a few splashes of water added to the pan. It’s hot and garlicky, spiked with black vinegar.
What defines Uyghur cooking, though, is its bread. Unlike many cuisines in Asia, whose foundations are rice, Uyghurs use wheat. In Xinjiang there are many types of boiled dumplings, steamed buns and baked and fried breads, the most common being gosh nan (pan-fried thin, flaky pastry filled with lamb and cumin) and samsa (baked parcels filled with lamb mince, onion and black pepper).
While we’re eating, Sidik opens his menu to the bread page and enthusiastically points out all the dishes his mother used to cook for him in Ürümqi. Gosh nan, pitir manta (steamed buns in a thin wheat wrapper filled with lamb, onion and pepper) and turga (small boiled dumplings filled with beef mince and vegetables).
Turga is Sidik’s favourite. Before he moved to Australia in 2013 he worked as a surgeon for 16 years in Ürümqi. As a young man attending medical school in Shanghai, he returned home every six months or so to a plate of turga. “Every time I came home she cooked this one,” he says. The turga on Karlaylisi’s menu are as close as he could get them to how he remembers. “She never taught me, I just watched.”
Sidik now makes them for his children at home in Sunshine, but his mother has never tasted them – she’s never visited him in Australia.
“My people can’t come here. We can’t talk on the phone,” he says. Neither he nor his wife Roshan has had any contact with their families for more than two years. “We know nothing about their current situation,” Roshan tells me over the phone.
There are 10 million Uyghur people in Xinjiang, but only around 800 in Melbourne. In 2016, the Chinese government began confiscating passports in the region, followed in 2018 by reports of the mass detention of Uyghur people for their religious views. It’s also been reported some Uyghurs have been prevented from leaving Xinjiang under threat of imprisonment.
Roshan’s English is stronger than her husband’s because she’s lived in Melbourne before. She returned home to marry Sidik, then the couple moved back to Australia when she was six months pregnant. Without speaking English, though, Sidik knew that moving to Australia meant his life as a doctor was over.
He found a casual kitchen-hand job in a Uyghur restaurant in Springvale, where he says he worked an hour or two a day cutting vegetables for cash, but it wasn’t enough to provide for his family. So in 2018 he decided to open his own business in Footscray, a little closer to home.
During his time in Springvale, Sidik noticed that the kitchen would only have one delivery of produce a week. He recalls cutting limp cucumbers.
“I think, every day you should buy something. I like it fresh,” he says. “In the morning I buy some meat, chicken and some vegetables, and when the shopping’s finished, I come here. Every day.”
The menu is written in Uyghur, English and Mandarin. Sidik speaks the latter fluently, which has helped him assimilate into life in Australia while he works on his English.
Sidik says the local Uyghur community comes to Karlaylisi for his lamb and cumin skewers coated in a mix of cumin, chilli and egg and grilled over charcoal. Or a lamb, carrot and rice dish called gosh polo, another one his mother used to make.
One Uyghur man who visited when the restaurant opened ordered qong tahsilik tohu gosh kormisi, or noodles tossed with chicken in a wet, chilli-packed sauce. Sidik says that man now comes in and orders it once a fortnight. And despite the cuisine’s small pool of restaurants in Melbourne, Footscray locals of diverse backgrounds return hungry for more fiery and funky noodles.
“People who speak my language really like my food. Chinese people really like my food. Sometimes Aussies like my food,” Sidik says, laughing.
4/203 Ballarat Road, Footscray
Sat to Wed 11am–10pm