Arts, Culture & Media

Here's how a Uighur musician was inspired to bring his culture and food to the streets of Boston

DSC00580.JPG

Credit: Courtesy of Payzulla Polat

Payzulla Polat was a singer, guitarist and drummer for a Uyghur music band in Urumqi called "The Grey Wolf." He then moved to the US to study music.

It’s a cold, rainy afternoon here in Boston, typical for New England. But not exactly the kind of weather Payzulla Polat hoped for.

Player utilities

This is a big day for him: it' the grand opening for his food truck — Uyghur Kitchen. He says things went well, considering.

"We forgot some things, you know, some utensils and forgot to put out the menu on the first day. There was a lot of pressure but we go through it and everything smoothed up really quickly," he says handing a bag to a costumer.

Polat is a Uighur. He comes from the town of Urumqi in western China. Uyghur is another spelling for the Turkic people who live mostly in China' western Xinjiang province.

There’s a been a lot of tension and violence there, between Uighurs and the Chinese authorities.

When I tell Polat I’m interested in doing a story about him, he insists, several times, that he doesn’t want to talk politics. He says it could get him into trouble.

But I don’t want to talk politics either. See, Polat’s, is a story of two worlds: Uighur food and music.

Polat is a musician.

Back in China, he belonged to a famous Uighur band called “The Grey Wolf.” It was started by a singer called Askar Mehmet.

"Askar Mehmet is one of the best musicians in the area. We would listen to him growing up. Just like here where people listen to Jimi Hendrix or the Beatles,” Polat says.

The band sang about peace, love and the environment. Polat joined the group when he was just 15. It happened by accident.

One night he filled in for one of the drummers and he played so well, they asked him to join. Polat says he never imagined being in the band. It was an amazing experience.

After years of performing, Polat decided to come to the US to study music. He’s now a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

But one thing about Boston is that, "there is no Uighur food at all. And then I was half a year without Uighur food and I just lost my soul. I love burgers, but it’s not for me for every day,” Polat says.

So after months of munching on burgers and hot dogs, Polat began to dream about creating his own food truck — "the first Uighur food truck in the world," according to him.

He did a lot of research, took classes and got the necessary permits. Now he divides his time between studying music and cooking.

So what is Uighur food?

“We use a lot of meat. Lot of meat, which is mainly lamb. Because Xinjiang is really dry and harsh with a desert area, we don’t have any sea or lake around there. We couldn’t get good fish that’s why, in the whole table, you maybe see one dish that’s fish. The rest are all lamb," he says.

And the lamb comes mostly in the form of kebabs, not all that different from what you’d get in a Turkish restaurant, flavored with cumin, black pepper and ash.

Polat says when he thinks of Uighur food, there’s one specific place that comes to his mind: Consule (or Consulate) Street, in his hometown of Urumqi.

It' filled with restaurants and food carts that serve ethnic Uighur food. Polat describes it as "food heaven."

"Even if someone’s full, it would draw your attention to try something else because the street is alive. It' [the] number one choice,” Polat says.

As a kid, he used to sneak to Consulate Street after school to grab a bite to eat before heading home.

"Sometimes I couldn’t wait [to get home]. I just jump over to the street and eat. I still eat my mom’s food, but that’s how good [the food there] tasted,” Polat recalls.

One of his favorite dishes is something called "King Soup." The ingredients include seven different fruits and nuts, things like grapes, dried cherries, walnuts and almonds.

They also add hand-made noodles, which they chop up to the size of rice.

"It' an appetizer for the king," Polat says, hence the name.

But Polat’s food truck won’t be serving King Soup, at least for now.

It’s too hard to prepare. He’s sticking with simpler and better-known food — like chicken and lamb kebabs.

But he serves me something you won’t find on his truck — “Samsa,” a crusty pastry filled with minced lamb and onions.

And the taste? It' divine.

  • 2003-12-15_180_7.jpg

    Credit: Courtesy of Payzulla Polat

    Payzulla Polat (center) with Askar Grey Wolf (left).

  • DSC03112 v2.JPG

    Credit: Courtesy of Payzulla Polat

    Payzulla Polat at a music festival in France. Picture taken in June 2003.

  • IMG_6131.JPG

    Credit: Shirin Jaafari

    At his home, Polat serves me "Samsa," lamb with rice and freshly-baked bread. All to be washed down with freshly-brewed tea.

  • IMG_6137.JPG

    Credit: Shirin Jaafari

    The Polat family at their home in Somerville, Massachusetts. "Samsa" on the table.

  • IMG_6154.JPG

    Credit: Shirin Jaafari

    Payzulla Polat and his food truck "Uyghur Kitchen."

  • IMG_6155.JPG

    Credit: Shirin Jaafari

    The "Uyghur Kitchen."

Comments