Through fire, a pandemic and what the United Nations last year called “serious human rights violations” against his fellow Uyghurs in China, a Rockville restaurant owner has carried on educating the community about his culture through food.
Eerkin Jan, 25, has run Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine since 2019. Born in what is currently known as Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China, Jan and his family immigrated to the Washington, D.C. area when he was an infant. His dad started Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine, in Fairfax, Virginia, in 2015.
Jan said watching his father chase the American dream and start a business from scratch was inspiring to him.
“For me [opening a restaurant] was almost like a calling,” he said. “So, I made the deliberate choice of setting out and finding a space and I knew Rockville was such an up-and-coming spot.”
It is through the Uyghur cuisine—which focuses on halal foods–and his restaurant that Jan is trying to appeal not only to his people but other members of the community.
“For us, what we say is food is the closest way to someone’s heart,” Jan said. “So, that’s why we provide a space for people to enjoy our foods; to look at different artworks and pieces of clothing and music to see that culturally, we’re not Chinese. We’re Uyghur, we’re Turkic. It gives them a chance to witness us a people, us with our traditions and even us as portrayed as Muslims as well.”
The day prior to Mother’s Day last year, the Uyghur community temporarily lost that communal space when Jan’s eatery caught fire at its former location of 1701 Rockville Pike #B1 in Rockville.
Of course, there’s no suitable time for a fire to start but Jan said it was most terrible because they were fully booked and lost revenue. The business was able to recover financially thanks to the fire occurring after its annual Ramadan buffet.
The fire was mostly limited to the kitchen and the business was able to find a new location in Rockville, at 6 North Washington St., with most of the décor surviving the flames and reopen right before Mother’s Day this year.
“[The Ramadan buffet] really helped us sort of pick back up because, we’re still dealing with the aftereffects of COVID,” Jan said. “It was a little slowdown on the restaurant industry, the food industry, so right after the Ramadan buffet, we were seeing more sort of pickup in activity and people coming in and then on that Mother’s Day, we were fully booked.”
The décor at the new location introduces diners to Uyghur culture before the food even hits their stomachs. The bright yellow walls are adorned with colorful clothing and accessories from Uyghur culture, small brightly colored figurines, ceramics, paintings, and various instruments.
Jan said it was the support of the loyal customer base that helped revive the business just in time for the next Ramadan buffet, which the business holds during the month of Ramadan from the end of March to beginning of April.
“We were extremely busy during [the reopening], which was good because for us it was like a blessing in disguise,” he said. “So many people were interested in our buffet option that we do for Ramadan that it sort of brought up all customers back and new customers to enjoy as well.”
In alignment with Muslim faith, Jan only offers halal meat and does not serve pork or alcohol. Halal meat is meat that adheres to Islamic law, as defined by the Koran.
The eatery does sell a vast selection of teas and cultural drinks, such as homemade dough, which is a cold blended Uyghur yogurt shake with mint.
Eerkin’s offers a variety of hand-pulled noodle dishes, with one of most popular being Gam Bian Soman, which includes sautéed vegetables and soy sauce, topped with sesame seeds, according to Jan.
Babur Ilch, 27, works as the program manager for the Uyghur Human Rights Project based out of Washington, D.C. The organization advocates for the rights of Uyghur people by publishing reports and analysis to defend Uyghurs’ civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights according to international human rights standards.
Ilch was born in the Uyghur homeland and his family moved to Canada when he was a toddler. To him, a communal space like Jan’s is important for people in his culture and beyond.
“It’s really nice to see that Uyghur food, which is such an important part of our culture, is kept alive and is being shared not only in the diaspora itself, but with people who live here, people who are not who are willing to take the time to appreciate the Uyghur culture through its cuisine,” Ilch said.
In 2017, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights began receiving increasing allegations by various civil societies groups that members of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities were either missing or disappeared in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.
According to a 2022 report from the U.N., the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed alarm over numerous reports of the detention of large numbers of Uyghurs and Muslim minorities by the Chinese government.
The overall assessment of the report was that “serious human rights violations have been committed in the [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] in the context of the government’s application of counterterrorism and counter- ‘extremism’ strategies.”
Jan said it’s an oppressive genocide that’s happening to his people in their homeland.
“For us to open these restaurants is tough, for us to sort of spread the awareness because a lot of times in media, you’ll hear about these atrocities happening, that they’re trying to portray us as Chinese Muslims,” he said. “If anyone can come into our restaurant, look at the atmosphere, look at the designs, look at us as a people then there’s a distinction because we’re not Chinese, we’re Turkic.”