We’re sitting in Tarim, a Chinese restaurant one block from Auburn station. It’s Friday night, the kitchen is firing and the tables are full of men with thick moustaches and women with hijabs. They’re eating huge crimson-coloured chicken stews, roughly cut noodles, bready dumplings and skewers of cumin-dusted chunks of lamb.
No one’s eating rice, no one’s drinking jasmine tea and no one is speaking Mandarin. As far as Chinese restaurants go, this is far from a stereotypical scene but Tarim isn’t typical. The owners, chefs and customers are all Uyghur people, a Turkic and predominantly Islamic ethnic group from Western China and Central Asia (mainly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). “I always have this discussion where I say I come from China. As someone who doesn't look like they're from China, there's a lot of shock; I use it as an opportunity to explain,” says Dilyar Hiwilla, who runs the restaurant along with his dad Sultan. “We have a very distinct culture. It's very different from Han culture, which is very evident in the food we eat. It's much closer to Central Asia than to China proper.”
The most obvious difference on the table is the lack of rice. “In Uyghur cuisine bread and pastry is the staple,” says Hiwilla. By far the most popular dish among the Xiangjiangite (Xinjiang is the region where Hiwilla was born and most Uyghurs live) customers is a noodle dish called lagmen, which is made by hand-pulling and blanching a simple dough, then wok-tossing the chewy noodles with cumin, chilli, lamb, capsicum, cabbage and a splash of lamb stock – all common ingredients in the cuisine.
If a meal doesn’t have a plate of lagmen, it will usually have some kind of bread. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make all the different varieties in Sydney, so Tarim just serves the most popular kind, nan (similar to the tandoor-baked subcontinental naan). Tarim regulars will use the bread to wrap the restaurant’s version of a kebab, kawap (cumin-dusted chunks of lamb shoulder cooked over charcoal); or to dip in bowls of qordaq (a peppery stew of lamb rib, potatoes, carrots) or dapanji (a thick, slightly numbing stew with hunks of chicken thigh, potatoes and long thick strands of hand-made noodles).
Along with the lamb kebabs, dapanji is the most well-known Xinjiang dish outside of the region. “Ughyur food is quite visible in the major [Chinese] cities, a lot of food stalls on the street do lamb skewers. It’s very popular,” says Hiwilla. Other Ughyur dishes, less so. Same goes for Sydney; while other Western Chinese restaurants will likely serve skewers and dapanji, not many will do goshnan (also known as meat bread – crisp pan-fried dough encasing diced lamb, beef and onions), or Xinjiang-style dumplings such as samsa (mini lamb pies usually served during celebrations) or manta (thin-skinned steamed dumplings with peppery lamb and onion).
Tarim Uyghur Cuisine
105 Rawson Street, Auburn
(02) 9649 9085
Mon to Thu 5pm–9pm
Fri to Sun 11.30am–9pm