Meet the Former Teenage Asylum Seeker Bringing Uyghur Cuisine to The Hague
Gasten genieten van een gemeenschappelijk bord da pan ji bij Kanway in Den Haag. Foto door auteur.


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Meet the Former Teenage Asylum Seeker Bringing Uyghur Cuisine to The Hague

Uyghurs, a Turkic group with populations in Central Asia, have long endured ethnic discrimination in China. Nigaray escaped this as a 15-year-old, fleeing to the Dutch city and eventually opening an Uyghur restaurant there.

Nigaray* was 15-years-old when she arrived alone in the Netherlands, ripped up her passport, and handed herself over to Dutch authorities.

While she prefers not to talk in detail about how she got to Europe, she says she received no coaching on claiming asylum before leaving China.

"Among Uyghurs, it is just something every young person knows how to do," she tells me.

Six years later, having worked in Chinese restaurants in The Hague since she was old enough to get a job, Nigaray established Kanway, one of two Uyghur restaurants in the Dutch city and part of a growing emergence of Uyghur cuisine in Europe and North America.


Kanway, one of two Uyghur restaurants in The Hague. All photos by the author.

Around 10 million Uyghurs live in the expansive northwestern Chinese state known officially as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but which Uyghurs call East Turkestan. A Turkic ethnic group with significant populations in Central Asia and Turkey, up to 15,000 Uyghurs live in Europe according to the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a global representative body based in Germany.

While Uyghurs are closely associated with their predominantly Muslim faith, according to WUC Project Coordinator Peter Irwin, it is only one element of a rich heritage. "Religion must be seen within a broader context of a culture that has developed for hundreds of years that encompasses more than Islam alone," Irwin tells me.

A Kanway chef makes laghman, the thick noodles prominent in many Uyghur dishes.

Laghman stir fry.

A key element of that culture is Uyghur cuisine, which encapsulate the confluence of Central and East Asian culinary traditions. Lamb and unleavened bread are eaten widely, along with thick laghman noodles reminiscent of Chinese cumian or Japanese udon.

"It's like a cross between Turkish, Middle Eastern, and Chinese food," says Matin Zaran, a Dutch customer on a recent visit to Kanway. "You just can't find any other food quite like this, with all these flavours. It just feels very authentic."

While all of the diners I speak to at Kanway mention the lamb shish kebab starter and laghman stir fry as their favourite dishes, the gosh polo stands out among the main courses. Despite appearing to be a modest plate of lamb pieces on a bed of rice, the slow-cooking of the rice in the juices of the meat gives the dish an indulgently rich flavour.


A chef prepares lamb shish kebab.

But the meeting of Turkic and Chinese culture in Xinjiang is less harmonious than the food might suggest. A decades-long independence movement has spawned Islamist militant violence and a heavy-handed security response from the Chinese government. Strict controls over religion, movement, and assembly are enforced by a visible military presence. In a show of force earlier this year, thousands of Chinese troops poured into the streets of the regional capital Urumqi, where almost 200 people died during ethnic clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in 2009.

In the wake of those riots, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the disappearance of at least 43 Uyghur men following raids by Chinese security services. According to HRW China researcher Maya Wang, Uyghurs continue to face pervasive ethnic and religious discrimination in Xinjiang, often under the pretext of combatting Islamic extremism.

Lamb and rice dish gosh polo.

"Claims [of terrorism] are hard to verify given the government's strict control of information in that region," Wang tells me in an email.

Ongoing marginalisation has led tens of thousands of Uyghurs like Nigaray to flee. But she says that despite the tensions in her homeland, she feels no ill-will towards Chinese people and is glad her cuisine can act as a bridge between the two cultures, now that she lives in the Netherlands.

"Chinese people love Uyghur food," she says with a smile, pointing out that it can be found in many cities in China. "Often Chinese restaurants here change their recipes according to the tastes of Europeans, but we have stayed very close to the traditional tastes of Uyghur food and the Chinese customers like that."


Kanway's busy dining room.

According to Betty Wei, a Chinese student who has lived in The Hague for four years and had eaten Uyghur food in her native Hangzhou, Kanway's opening last year was a source of excitement among her Chinese friends in the city.

"I was actually away when it opened and a friend told me about it," she says. "I couldn't wait to get back and try it. It is somewhere I can come with my friends that is different to the Cantonese food most of the Chinese restaurants here sell."

Nigaray says all of Kanway's dishes are prepared daily, with ingredients purchased from the local market every morning, noodles freshly made in-house, and the restaurant operating a reservations-only system from Thursday to Saturday to prevent wastage from overstocking.

Korum qop, a noodle dish with sesame.

One modification Nigaray does regularly make to accommodate European customers is to change the amount of spice on request.

"Chinese people usually like the spice, even if it is not what they eat in their part of China, but many of the Europeans do not," she says.

With the restaurant not yet a year old and proving even more popular than Nigaray had imagined, she is already thinking about the future.

"One day, I hope I can have a restaurant where you can actually see the noodles being made, and even where you can come to learn how to make Uyghur food," she says.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.