Etles Uyghur Restaurant, 424 Finchley Road, London NW2 2HY (020 7431 5698). Starters £7.50 to £9.99, mains £12.50 to £16, large plate of chicken £30, desserts £4.50. Unlicensed
The menu at Etles Uyghur restaurant, located at the leafy Golder’s Green end of London’s Finchley Road, isn’t just an exciting list of edible promises. It is also a subtle lesson in physical and human geography. Obviously, there is no pork listed due to the predominantly Muslim culture of the Uyghur people, which the Chinese government has been trying to annihilate so brutally, for so long. There’s also not a lot of fish because Xinjiang province, home to the Uyghurs, is far from the sea. Here, everything revolves around beef, lamb and chicken.
Even without knowing exactly where Xinjiang is on the map, we can assume that it is in northern China due to the cultivation of wheat, represented by thick leghmen noodles and manta flatbreads and dumplings. beautifully pleated. Generally in China, it is rice in the south, wheat in the north. These manta dumplings, along with the spice-dusted meat skewers and a mercimek or lentil soup, provide another clue. There may be some Chinese dishes like mapo tofu and kung pao chicken available here. But these other dishes locate this food in China’s northwest frontier regions, where the membrane between cultures is most porous, rippling in flavors and influences from Turks and Central Asia. Absolutely. Owners and chefs Mukaddes Yadikar and her husband, Ablikim Rahman, are indeed Turkish Muslim Uyghurs from Yili, near the China-Kazakhstan border.
Geography plays another role in this review, albeit in a somewhat more mundane, inexcusably pathetic way. For a long time it was hard to find this food in the capital, beyond the vast supply of the charming Silk Road in Camberwell, famous for its big-plate chicken. Then in 2017 Yadikar and Rahman chose Walthamstow in North East London for the original And the, the word for the ornate silks of the region. I’ve read lots of glowing reports online, but the fact is I’m a repulsive, prejudiced South Londoner. I’ve been to the far north of Scotland to review restaurants and obscure parts of rural England where the map is probably stamped with the words ‘here dragons’. But Walthamstow? The other end of the Victoria line? Don’t be absurd.
Then, recently, I noticed this second outpost, in what was once my teenage stomping ground in North West London. The Finchley Road? What I could do. You should too. High value food manages to be both exciting and nourishing. On a warm late summer evening, the doors open onto the street. Inside the brightly lit dining room, adorned with dashing Uyghur textiles, the vibe is that of a communal space you’ve been invited to. There are few other diners that evening, but soon a family group arrives and is kissed and hugged by the owner and led to the back where the friends of the house are clearly eating. An outrageously cute gurgling baby is waddled on multiple knees, because it takes a village or at the very least a restaurant.
Like cultures that understand the need to make the most of what you have, organ meats play a significant role here. Cold starters at around £8 include plates of spicy beef tripe and tongue. Usually they have kidney skewers, sprinkled with cumin and chilli, but not today. Instead, we have the lamb skewers, fresh off the grill, the fat still crisp and hot. We have more lamb, this time minced with onion and wrapped in the soft embrace of fluffy meatballs the color of old white piano keys. They come with a dark, grainy dip full of ground spices.
Our server looks dubious when I order the sautéed tripe. Am I sure? Yes, I’m sure and please ignore the way my mate over there is backing off. She doesn’t know what she’s missing. I love this stuff. This is not one of those tripe dishes that somehow manages to disguise its true nature. The cute hexagonal cow stomach ribbons may have been slathered in chili paste and fiercely fried with lots of chopped peppers, but they still retain their cheerful, quirky funk. What’s the point of ordering tripe if it doesn’t taste like tripe?
My mate is much happier with their thick, chewy, hand-pulled noodles sautéed with chunks of beef, spring onions and sesame seeds. Like most main courses, it costs £14 and is comfort food for a stormy day, a quiet day or any damn day. It’s a carb-boosted, tasty and reassuring plate of joy. And then there’s the chicken on the big plate. It costs £30, which seems like a relatively large sum until a tray the size of a monster truck hubcap arrives. It’s so huge, in so many ways. There are chunks of long braised chicken and chunky chunks of potatoes cooked to this point where they begin to crumble into the rich, spicy liquor. Dig deeper and you’ll find frilly ribbons of hand-cut noodles. This dish is thick and sustained, as if it was designed with a fierce wind from the Mongolian steppe in mind. We tackle it with enthusiasm, but still have to ask for takeout containers. We are filling two each for our loved ones back home, who will now love us even more.
The desserts are homemade, but not in this particular house. They have a lovely Turkish lady who makes the flaky, syrup-soaked baklava, we’re told, and a Russian lady who makes the multi-layered honey cake. They don’t serve alcohol, but have a no-cork policy and bring your own. The bottle of Chablis I brought ended up looking like a poncey assignment, which it is; I’m not really a beer drinker, but that would be so much the thing. Just be sure to buy it in advance. The surrounding strip lacks useful shops, unless you want a quartz inlay kitchen work surface.
The Uyghurs are too often in our minds only because of the genocidal crimes committed against them by the Chinese government. It helps, I think, to better understand the deep culture that is being persecuted. One of the best ways to do this is still through food, because how and what we eat defines us. So go to Etles. Order the chicken on a large plate. You will be well fed and learn a bit along the way.
The Eat Well MCR Collective, a group of Manchester chefs and organizations that provide up to 1,000 meals a week to people living in poverty, are hosting a harvest party next Sunday, September 18. The ‘feast’ at Platt Fields Park, Fallowfield, will be cooked by chefs Mary-Ellen McTague, Issy Jenkins and Beth Hammond and will use a mix of produce gleaned from local farms as well as ingredients sourced from local plots and growers. Tickets cost £42 (eatwellmcr.org).
Academic and writer Dr Anna Sulan Masing is launching a new podcast in partnership with the US-based Whetstone Radio Collective, tracing colonial identity, nostalgia and history through specific ingredients. The first 10-part series tells the global story of pepper and traces the narrative back to Masing’s family farm in Borneo and back to his home in London, with many stops along the way. Taste of Place is available wherever you get your podcasts.
Further proof that we apparently don’t just want to dine out when we go out to eat comes with news of Fairgame opening next month at London’s Canary Wharf. It is described by the Great hospitality website as an ‘immersive, adults-only competitive socializing concept’ that will combine a bunch of power outlets with the ability to play whac-a-mole, duck shoot and… no, I’m sorry , I can’t keep typing this stuff. I lose the will to live.