Imagine a table so plump with food, it looks ready for royalty. Sweet biscuits cut into ornamental shapes, sticks of fried dough both airy and crisp, melons with flesh coloured like autumnal leaves, lamb soup, grapes, pears, dates and sometimes a bowl of soup or even some noodles.
Around the table there’s as much excitement as there is on it – friends and family gather to celebrate the breaking of their fast, their religion and culture and their ties to each other and different parts of the world.
Zulfiye Hiwilla remembers this as iftar in Ghulja and Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China’s northwest. Uyghurs, an ethnic minority in China, are predominantly Muslim, and iftar is the meal Zulfiye and other people of Islamic faith eat to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan (this year, 23 April – 23 May).
Although iftar is famous all over the world for featuring labyrinthian street markets with bounties of snacks, Zulfiye, who was born in Ghulja and now resides in western Sydney where her family runs Auburn’s popular Tarim Uyghur restaurant, remembers iftar as a home meal. It was where friends and family gathered in her childhood home or one of the homes of their friends.
“Our family home was typical of traditional Ghulja single-story houses, where walls and window frames are painted sky blue, and intricate details of traditional patterns in the gates, doors, windows and even handrails. Like many of the people in the neighbourhood, these homes are built by the occupants themselves.”
The first meal to eat as the sun sets almost always involved soup. “Soups can vary from handmade noodle soup, with thinly cut flat noodles boiled in lamb broth, with simple ingredients such as tomatoes, onions and turnip at times, without much spices. Or it can be a type of dumpling soup, what we call ‘chuchure’, which is small stuffed dumplings, again in lamb broth.”
The table spread Zulfiye describes is what is laid out for guests.
Zulfiye’s son Dilyar says, “Since it is a sacred month that is the most important in a whole year, the traditionally excellent qualities of the people manifest even more during this month, things such as showing enormous generosity in hospitality, sense of unity, joy, and coming togetherness, all of these things get multiplied in this month. One particular tradition that represents these traits is how the tables are filled up every night, getting ready for iftar, with all foods.”
“The traditionally excellent qualities of the people manifest even more during this month, things such as showing enormous generosity in hospitality, sense of unity, joy.”
That is just the first meal. The second meal of the evening, maybe an hour post soup and potentially again much later into the night, could have been anything from the Uyghur repertoire, Zulfiye explains. It may be polo (rice, lamb and carrot cooked in lamb broth), goshnan (a flat meat pie often filled with onion and lamb), manta (steamed dumplings with lamb), lagman (hand-pulled noodles fried with lamb and capsicum) and other kinds of Uyghur-style bread and stews.
This is what Zulfiye remembers. Life in Ghulja, Urumqi and the rest of Xinjiang is very different for Uyghur people now. Traditional homes like Zulfiye’s and many of the more public and visible traditions of the Islamic Uyghur people are far less common. The traditional village-style Uyghur way of life is being replaced by modernisation and urbanisation.
Dilyar says, “I remember people coming out of their homes in a suburban setting, greeting each other, visiting neighbours, gathering at the crossroads, playing games, chatting. There used to be streams of water running down each household, with which people will clean their yards, their streets.
“However, last time I visited back in 2015, most of these traditions have gone, and traditional houses were destroyed, only a fraction has left of what used to be great Ghulja tradition, very sad indeed.” Beijing has been forcing the Uyghur minority to assimilate, a move that has raised concerns in the international community.
But here in Sydney, the Hiwilla family aren’t following their traditions for a different reason: they’re too busy serving iftar to the Uyghur population of Sydney. Every Ramadan, their family restaurant Tarim serves an iftar banquet, and this year, despite everything going on, it’s no different.
Between 4:30pm and 5:30pm they sell a $25 Ramadan takeaway pack with a traditional soup and four mains.
“Despite the challenges of being in a foreign country, the Uyghur community commits to a sense of unity within themselves especially on days of Eid, where everyone comes together and dresses in their traditional customs, to remind them of where they came from.”
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