An explosion of culture: Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine brings to life a suppressed heritage


Iman Ilias

“Eerkins Uyghur Cuisine doesn’t limit its cultural exhibition to the walls. Uyghur artifacts rest on shelves between tables.”

By Iman Ilias

Everywhere you look around Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine, paintings of Uyghur traditions line the walls, bringing to life a culture that is disappearing. Women with headscarves draped around them, men playing a traditional instrument similar to the guitar and families trading at a local market are just a few of the dozens of images that dazzle on each end of the restaurant. 

Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine doesn’t limit its cultural exhibition to the walls. Uyghur artifacts rest on shelves between tables. One might find colorful caps with elaborate embroidered designs, garments like striped tunics and chapans — long winter coats — and Uyghur instruments like the Gijak, which is similar to the violin and has a bowl-shaped head. 

Uyghurs are a primarily Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Since 2014, the Chinese government has detained over one million Uyghur Muslims in “reeducation camps” throughout Xinjiang, forcing Uyghurs to renounce Islam and adopt the customs of China’s majority Han-Chinese society. The Chinese government is forcing Uyghurs to give up their entire way of life. 

Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine — a dine-in restaurant with locations in Rockville, Fairfax and Washington, D.C. — has provided the nation’s capital and the surrounding metropolitan area with traditional Uyghur dishes since 2017. “Eerkin’s” takes its name from the Uyghur word for “freedom,” which is a concept that every dish, painting and artifact in the restaurant conveys. In its own way, this restaurant is keeping alive and representing a culture that is being oppressed halfway across the world. 

Both head chefs at Eerkin’s are Uyghur, and their recipes have descended through generations of their families. The menu includes more than 50 traditional Uyghur dishes. I tried two of them at the Rockville location. 


Yellow Spicy Cold Noodles

I first tasted these noodles that were heavily spiced with pepper and paprika. A cilantro topping completed the dish, which lived up to its name; the noodles indeed heated up my mouth. Despite its intensity, however, the pasta was surprisingly refreshing. The chilliness of the noodles offset the spiciness, while the pepper and paprika made the dish flavorful and rich. 

Gam Bian Soman 

I also tried the hand-pulled fried noodles sautéed with seasoned vegetables such as corn and broccoli and soy sauce. A sprinkling of sesame seeds rested on top. This dish was by far my favorite of those I tried. Each mouthful exploded with flavors and spices, not unlike an experience one might enjoy in another East Asian restaurant specializing in rich food. However, the pasta’s tanginess and the hand-pulled noodles gave the dish a uniquely Uyghur twist. 

The menu includes other dishes such as Uyghur Lamb Kebab, which is chopped lamb sprinkled with cumin and house spices and sauce, Kordak, soft lamb shank braised in pot with onion, red and green pepper, tomatoes and house spices topped with homemade Naan, and Thugur, boiled dumplings rolled with a spicy beef mixture. The menu includes a variety of meat and rice dishes for the most part. 

The United States prides itself on offering a variety of international cuisines, but you won’t find Uyghur cuisine on the list of the most popular foreign eats in America. The mere existence of Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine is an anomaly. It is one of only two Uyghur restaurants in the area and one of a handful throughout the rest of the nation. 

That is why when I arrived, I felt deeply moved. I was expecting to simply nosh on some run-of-the-mill food not unlike that of any other sit-down restaurant. Instead, I was immersed in an explosion of culture. Through its food and atmosphere, the restaurant’s portrayals of how Uyghurs dine, live and celebrate made me appalled that their intricate and festive culture is dying while the world bears witness.

Visiting Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine reminded me of the fact that the Uyghur community is a group of people who are asking for nothing more than to live with their loved ones in peace, and that we can no longer ignore their pleas for recognition. 

I encourage community members to discover this hidden gem and embark on their own journey through the Uyghur people’s rich heritage. 

Eerkin’s Uyghur Cusine’s Rockville spot is located at 1701 Rockville Pike #B1.