It’s the eve of Kurban Bayramı, and while most of Istanbul is eerily empty, the tables at Köklem Uygur Yemekleri in Çapa, a neighborhood in the Fatih district, are quickly filling up. A young couple calmly chats, using chopsticks to pick up sautéed chicken slathered in soy sauce. At a nearby table a man sits alone, his bored countenance swiftly replaced by a broad smile as a waiter arrives at his table with a steaming plate of noodles, ready to be devoured.
Most of the customers are speaking a language we can’t decode. But based on how happy everyone looks, this food is bringing them some serious joy.
Çapa’s cafés, clothing stores, Syrian eateries and patisseries, and Uzbek and Uighur restaurants – Köklem among them – are buzzing with people of all ethnicities at all times of the day. It may be far from trendy, but the area is probably one of the liveliest and most heterogeneous in the city, and this curious mixture makes the neighborhood warm and welcoming.
Although tempted by plenty of other eateries along the way, we stick with our friend Fatih. Born and raised in Çapa, he’s eager to take us to Köklem, one of his favorite spots for lunch. Situated on a side alley close to the main street, under a small grocery store that sells a little bit of everything, this restaurant is the meeting point for many young Uighurs living in the area.
Ilker, an energetic and curious waiter, welcomes us with a shy smile before hopping from table to table to share a quick chat with his customers. “This place is like a big family home, like a living room where everyone is welcome,” he tells us when he finally circles back to our table. “As time passes we begin to all know each other and be friends.”
Muslims who speak a Turkic language, the Uighurs are mostly settled in northwestern China, particularly in the autonomous Xinjiang region. However, a crackdown by the Chinese government in recent years on Uighur social and political activism has led many Uighurs to flee their home region.
A large number have settled in Turkey, a country with a culture and religion much closer to their own. The result of this decades-long migration process is the presence of around 50,000 Uighurs in Istanbul, most of whom are based in the neighborhoods of Zeytinburnu and Çapa.
As they rebuild their lives in Turkey, restaurants like Köklem have become like a home away from home for many Uighurs, places where they can taste familiar flavors and dishes like çöçüre, warm spicy soup with little tortellini-like ravioli, or a plate of sautéed chicken with peanuts, all washed down with countless glasses of traditional çay.
“Your country is where you were born, but also where you can find peace and a welcoming environment.”
The owner of Köklem, Rouzi, prefers to go by the name Ramazan. “The meaning is the same,” he explains, “but I prefer to use a Turkish name so I feel more integrated in my new country.” Living in Turkey for only a couple of years, Rouzi appreciates the chance for a new life in his adopted home, far from the terrible ethnic-religious persecutions in his country of origin. It was recently reported, for example, that over 120,000 Uighurs are currently confined in “political re-education camps,” where the Chinese government can keep them indefinitely. “The only solution is escaping from your native country and going somewhere where you can stay safe,” he says.
After escaping from China around four years ago, Rouzi married a Uighur woman in Istanbul, started a family and opened this little eatery. Now he has no contact with his family in China – the government restrictions on social media and the Internet make it even harder than normal to communicate with elderly villagers. However, Rouzi is happy, or at least committed to looking on the bright side. “Actually, even if my roots are in China, I don’t feel like that is my only country,” he explains. “Your country is where you were born, but also where you can find peace and a welcoming environment that lets you live and enjoy the little things.”
The kitchen workers are all Uighurs, but in terms of age they are a varied bunch. An old woman smiles warmly when we peek into the kitchen, proudly displaying her gold teeth, and kisses us three times before asking us to take a picture of her – she poses nonchalantly, a scarf tightly fastened on her gray hair.
The noodle master shows us how to make the famous lagmen: he stretches the egg-and-flour dough by hitting it hard on the bench, then boils the noodles and dresses them with a sauce of sautéed meat and veggies. “All my cooks are apprentices,” says Rouzi, “but I like working with them because they are eager to learn from my 15 years in the kitchen.”
The food, a mix of Chinese and Central Asian cuisines, is enchanting – we are surprised by the variety of flavors that can be fashioned out of only a few ingredients. A cold noodle salad dressed with a mix of tahini, eggs and local spices from China recalls the fresh, tangy flavors of Southeast Asia. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s easy to imagine Uighur böreği, a savory pastry stuffed with onion, cumin, cardamom seeds, meat and pieces of rich, fatty lamb tail, as hearty fuel for the cold steppes of Central Asia.
We order what we think is a simple green bean salad as a side, but the dish’s complex textures and flavors erupt in our mouth on first bite. One of the key ingredients in the salad is Sichuan pepper, a very traditional component of Chinese cooking, and one that adds a magical touch – alpha-hydroxysanshool, the pungent molecule in Sichuan pepper, gives the spice slight anesthetic properties. The fizz on the tongue feels similar to drinking carbonated water.
On our way to the door, we spot two big piles of what look like fried pastries. One of them – rectangle-shaped and covered in powdered sugar – reminds us of an Italian specialty sold only around Carnival, the chiacchiere or frappe. The other pastries, which are in the shape of a wide bangle, look savory rather than sweet.
“We eat them before and during Bayram,” says Rouzi. “Families can come and take the whole pan to keep in the house in these days. The savory ones are made with flour and water infused with spices and herbs.” The rectangle pastry, a special sweet type of samsa, is so fragrant, crunchy and flaky that we could easily make a meal of them. Too bad we’re already stuffed – we’ll just have to wait for next Bayram.