In the small village of Yrdyk in the far east of Kyrgyzstan, a Dungan family prepares a traditional Dungan Feast in their home restaurant for inquisitive travelers who not only enjoy good food, but a good history lesson, too.
In the late 19th century, thousands of Chinese-Muslims fled across the Tien Shan Mountains to Central Asia after their failed rebellion against the ruling Qing Dynasty led to their exile.
The arduous journey brought many to Karakol, then a wild frontier town of the Russian czar’s vast empire. Their descendants would become known as Dungans—“the people from the east”—and their cooking would become legendary. The mass exodus would leave the Dungan people in a state of permanent exile, but while they might have lost their homes, they never forgot their culinary traditions.
Mamieva Hamida, the mother and head chef leads the preparation of Dungan dishes in her family home in Yrdyk, a center of Dungan culture on the outskirts of Karakol. She even shows guests how to prepare the most popular Dungan dish, ashlan fu. This cold-yet-spicy and revitalizing noodle soup survived war, exile, and the repression of the Soviet era to become a firm favorite in Kyrgyzstan.
But before delving into the culinary world of the Dungans, guests are first taken to the local history museum in Yrdyk. Here they learn from enthusiastic amateur historians and storytellers the legends and myths of the Dungan people, and the dramatic story of their exile from China to Kyrgyzstan.
The family then serves up a feast for their hungry guests in their living room. A long table is set in the middle of the wide room, and the smell of home cooking wafts through from the adjacent kitchen. Chopsticks are placed alongside knives, forks, and spoons, as a family member pours out steaming hot tea as the food begins to be served.
A Dungan Feast comprises at least eight different dishes, and it’s a delectable fusion of cuisines. There are Central Asian–style manti dumplings, Chinese-inspired sweet-and-sour dishes, and bowls of pelmeni that would be more at home in a Russian canteen than in a Dungan family home.
The fusion of all these flavors, spices, and styles demonstrates more than anything the tale of Dungan exile from China, and the establishment and integration of their communities in Central Asia.