Author: Mellissa Hung
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
When Pattar Dilmurat left Dubai, where he lived for five years selling fragrances and makeup, he told his wife he would be back in a year. So far, it has been two.
Dilmurat, Akbar Amat and Aikelamu Ainiwaer own Sama Uyghur Cuisine in Union City, and are the only members of their families in the United States. Amat’s parents and younger sister are in China. Dilmurat’s 3-year-old son lives in Xinjiang Province with his father-in-law. His wife has remained in Dubai with their 5-year-old daughter, and the distance is starting to wear thin. Neither Dilmurat nor Amat have returned home since arriving.
Life separated from their families is hard. “I’m alone here for the moment,” Dilmurat says. Far from family and the familiar, food has become a home away from home.
Dilmurat, 34, came to the United States two years ago for school. He found a part-time job at a restaurant, working in the kitchen. His mother back in China heard the news. She was not happy. “She said, ‘Why are you working in a restaurant? Do other jobs. It’s difficult,’” Dilmurat says.
But he found comfort in making barbecue and hand-pulled noodles at Eden Silk Road in Fremont, which serves Uighur (sometimes spelled Uyghur) and Chinese halal food. It’s the food he grew up with. “At least I can eat my own food,” he says.
At work, he moved into management and met Akbar Amat, a 26-year-old chef who is also Uighur. Like Dilmurat, Amat had come from China to America to study. He lived first in Los Angeles, where he supported himself by cutting grass, then painting homes, and eventually working in restaurants.
The Uighur community in the United States is small, and Amat soon received an invitation to move to Northern California to work at Eden Silk Road as a chef, even though he didn’t know how to cook. He had grown up in a restaurant, though, the son of a chef. His father had sold kebabs from a street cart for many years before opening a small eatery in Tianjin, east of Beijing, which grew into a 500-seat restaurant.
Amat learned to cook on the job at Eden Silk Road and ruminated on his family’s food. How could he make food that tasted like his memories of home?
Now Dilmurat and Amat, along with third partner Aikelamu Ainiwaer, have made a new home. In June 2017, they opened Sama Uyghur Cuisine in a nondescript strip mall in Union City. Named for a traditional Uighur folk dance, the restaurant is tastefully decorated with handsome Scandinavian-style chairs and colorful rugs on the walls. The restaurant is small, with just nine tables, but it is a proud declaration of who they are — and, they hope, an introduction of their culture to others.
“People ask, ‘Where are you from?’ When I say, ‘I’m from China,’ they don’t believe me from how I look,” says Dilmurat, who has a closely cut beard and, when working at the restaurant, wears shirts with intricately patterned textiles on the collar and cuffs.
“I say, ‘I’m Uighur.’ Nobody knows Uighur. They don’t know us.”
Dilmurat describes Uighur food as a mix between Central Asian and Chinese cuisines. “I say it’s Chinese first because we use Chinese recipes, like the spices.” On the menu are their own versions of chow mein and spicy chicken, he points out. But Uighur dishes are also similar to the cuisines of Arab countries, he says. For example: they have kebabs. The difference, though, is that they marinate the meat in spices for six hours before putting them on skewers. (You can feast on a whole lamb kebab — more than 25 pounds of meat — for $338. Please order one day ahead.)
The recipes come from Amat’s father, but it took some convincing to get him to share them. Like Dilmurat’s mother, Amat’s family objected to his opening a restaurant, he says in Mandarin. They said it would be too difficult.
It certainly has been harder than the three owners anticipated. They ran into unexpected delays with the process: permits, taxes, signage, health inspections. Everything took longer and cost more than expected. Food costs, especially for halal meat, are high. During the first month, they sometimes slept just two hours a night before coming back to work. “Sometimes I wanted to cry,” Dilmurat says.
It’s still tough now, he says, but getting better. They work 11- or 12-hour days at the restaurant six days a week.
Amat, in a T-shirt and bowl haircut, speaks haltingly in English, which he is learning. He takes classes at Ohlone College in Fremont on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, he says. His classes end at 10:40 a.m, and the restaurant opens at 11 a.m. for lunch. Dilmurat was also taking college classes, but recently dropped them. He had no time to do his homework. Maybe it will take him 10 years to graduate, he says with a shrug.
When asked if he does his homework, Amat just laughs.
How fortunate it is to come to a country where you don’t know anybody and find people you can build something with together. Within an hour of meeting Ainiwaer, the third partner who is Uighur from Sweden, he agreed to open a restaurant with Dilmurat and Amat. They just trusted each other, Dilmurat says. When he met Amat, he felt the same. “There’s some feeling. I can tell he is a nice guy. I don’t know if he’s feeling the same way.”
Sitting next to him, Amat doesn’t say anything, but he smiles.