For the past few weeks, everyone in our program and their brother had been raving about the Uighur restaurants in town. During break time all I would hear is “Uighur this, Uighur that, noodles noodles noodles!” And to be honest, I was getting pretty fed up with it, as in hungry, as in wrathful that no one had been inviting me on these noodlespeditions even though I’d made it expressly clear from the beginning of Uighur-mania that I would love to go sometime and eat unwarranted amounts of cheap food.
First of all, what’s a Uighur? And is that a ooo–aye—gar? Or a uh-ee-ga-hur? Or maybe a gweer? Is it style of serving people, like those restaurants that serve everyone in the dark so they can know what blind people’s lives are like? Is it the cuisine from one of those countries in Europe that only rich people know about (credit: 30 rock)? Is it one of our rare capitalized adjectives like Friendly or Happy? In answer to these questions: Uighur is pronounced exactly as it is spelled and is exactly what it sounds like–Weegur as in meager and it is the name of an ethnic population in Chinese that is Muslim. For an low quality, confusing article on Wikipedia about Uighurs, click here. Otherwise, suffice it to say that there is an ethnically Muslim population in China known to English speakers as the Uighur people, and there is a community of them in Cairo because many come to study Arabic and/or Islamic studies at Al-Azhar university, one of the most preeminent institutes of Islamic scholarship in the world. They come here seeking spiritual knowledge and we go to them seeking delicious noodles. It does seem a fair exchange.
We finally organized a trip to this Uighur restaurant and I was not only invited, I was the guide since the original planners had to back out due to a shotgun invitation to a wedding. I was not a great guide. We ended up both taking a taxi and phoning a friend only to find the restaurant we were looking for was closed. Luckily, there an open one about 10 feet away, though we had heard rumors that this one was not as great. After eating my meal, however, I believe whoever said that should have their tongue cut out and served to the patrons of that restaurant as payment, since the food was awesome.
The restaurant contained four tables with enough room for perhaps 20 people and a kitchen the size of the bathroom in my apartment. It was full when we first got there, so we waited on the steps outside the almost open-air restaurant next to an empty baby carriage and a bowl of peeled garlic cloves. Traditional ingredients?
A table opens up and we shuffle in to the beat of a young man stretching and slapping fresh dough on the counter in the kitchen right behind us, his bare hands massaging the very noodles we were about to consume. Before we sat down, I thought it was a good idea to take a picture of the guy making the noodles since I, being tacky and foreign, consider normal things very interesting. I ended up taking a bad picture of noodle guy as well as offending the owner of the restaurant, who was not crazy about having tourists taking pictures of him like he’s in a zoo. I spent the rest of the night trying to get back on his good side by smiling a lot, but this never worked out to my advantage since he would say things like “There’s none of that left.” or “64 pounds” and I would just grin and say okay, clearly not understanding what he said until a second later when I felt like an idiot and was still on his bad side.
Despite my cultural faux pas, we managed to order five dishes by pointing to pictures in a literal photo album of the various offerings at the restaurant, dishes that still contained surprises since tofu and chicken look surprisingly alike and temperature levels do not translate well through photography. All the dishes we ordered were delicious, however, and were not unlike the more authentic Chinese food I’ve tasted in the states. This wasn’t any Panda Bowl, China Buffet, or Happy Garden. And the noodles! Oh what noodles! We ordered a soup with beef and lo-mein like noodles of unfathomable length, and I would just stick my fork right into the midst of it and start twirling until I had a veritable skein of noodle yarn in my hand and then like the pagan kings of old I would rip into it and feel the tender noodles break off around my hand until there was a little noodle graveyard right in front of me on the table.
I committed another critical error, however. In my noodle haste, I forgot how much I like to be able to taste the food I eat, so I decided it would be a good idea to shove a torch of noodles at near-boiling temperature into my mouth. Instantly I felt the outer layer of my oral cavity wither and die. It was worth it, though, worth the pain of that moment and every other mouthful. I don’t regret anything and I hope to be back to try that other restaurant and see how it compares to its cousin. We also paid only 15 pounds each for the meal…that’s less than 3 dollars and less than 24 Moroccan dirhams.