First Uighur Harvard Graduate Brings Xinjiang Cuisine to Flushing

Kudret Yakup with lamb dishes being offered at Erqal at the New World Mall food court (Photo by Peter Chu via World Journal)

Six years ago, Kudret Yakup, who comes from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China, became the first Uighur graduate of Harvard. After graduation he went back to Xinjiang to launch an investment company for startups and help his fellow Uighurs open their own businesses. Now he is back in the U.S. with a mission: to bring cuisine from the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang to the international stage. In a short period of time, he has made Kashgar cuisine a trendy attraction in Flushing.

Yakup’s Kashgar takeout place (Erqal) opened two months ago at the food court in Flushing’s New World Mall. With the first one still in the grand opening period, he is already preparing for the second one, which is slated to open two months later at the intersection of 55th Street and Eighth Avenue. He hasn’t given the chain a name yet, but the authentic Uighur dishes, from fried mutton with cumin and roasted leg shank to Xinjiang-style chicken stew, kebabs and pilaf, have already attracted many fans who often form a queue during lunch and dinner time. Dave Cook, a food critic, said he was amazed by the Uighur ice cream after visiting the food stand.

Preparing Uighur ice cream at Erqal (Photo by Peter Chu via World Journal)

Yakup is serious about authenticity. The chefs he hired are all from Xinjiang. The recipes and the cooking tools were all brought over from his hometown. Take the ice cream. Ingredients like milk, eggs and brown sugar are mixed in the high-speed blender imported from Xinjiang. Then the mixed paste is placed in a special wok that maintains a freezing temperature. The whole process takes more than an hour. Yakup said the ice cream reflects the characteristics of Uighur cuisine. “It’s authentic, fresh and well cooked, the best choice for people looking for healthy food with little additives,” said Yakup.

Yakup, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard, had taken a short hiatus from school to launch a startup in California. After he graduated in 2011, Yakup went back to Ürümqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, and founded Erqal Capital, an investment company promoting entrepreneurship. In 2014, Forbes magazine ran a profile of him with the headline “Harvard Grad Returns To Restive Xinjiang To Foster Entrepreneurship.”

In April, Yakup decided to come to New York. He said his goal is to make authentic Xinjiang cuisine a global trend. “When people talk about Xinjiang cuisine, they often only mean mutton kebabs,” said Yakup. “What I want to do is not only to promote Uighur cuisine, but also to standardize and streamline the process of all Central Asian cuisine, and to develop a chain like Panda Express or Chipotle.”

Yakup said there’s no big secret in Uighur cuisine. The ingredients are simple and basic. For example, pilaf is made mainly with rice and carrots, and kebabs are just made with meat marinated in peppers and salt. But the challenging part is that “it doesn’t contain additives. So it cannot be preprocessed, and has to be cooked from scratch whenever the order is placed,” said Yakup. “The ingredients have to be fresh. And you can easily tell if they are not.”

There are four different flavors of pilaf offered at the Flushing takeout stand so far. Yakup said he is trying to adopt more new dishes such as cold noodles or fried noodles. But the chef told him that noodles made with American flour are not resilient enough, and they may need to try other types of flour until they find the best suitable one.

Yakup said he is now putting all his energy into promoting Central Asian cuisine. “New York is a very good platform, especially Flushing. It is a place where you can find all kinds of Asian cuisines. When we succeed here, we can expand to other places,” said Yakup.

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