ROCKVILLE – After finding success in the Fairfax and Washington, D.C. areas, Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine, an Uyghur family-owned restaurant, has moved onto Rockville Pike to set up its first Maryland location, in the address of the former Japanese bistro café Rolls ‘n Rice.
Three years in the business, the family is hoping to expand understanding of Uyghur culture through traditional dishes, music and art.
Eerkin’s first opened in 2017 after China began opening “re-education centers” in Xinjiang, a Chinese autonomous region that is currently 45% Uyghur, a Muslim ethnic population. Since the 3 million Uyghurs have been moved to the internment camps, according to Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, who has closely followed Uyghur interment.
Ethnic tensions in the region had existed since its incorporation into China in 1949, the restaurant’s founder and owner, Naeem Jan, said. His family immigrated to the United States 22 years ago because of them. But the re-education camps and China’s “de-extensification policy” has forced him to lose contact with relatives living in Xinjiang. The conditions have inspired him to show Americans precisely what kind of people the Uyghur are, choosing to do so through food.
“The food is like the ambassador of the country,” Jan said. “I decided to open the restaurant, so we show the people who we are and what our cultures are.”
Knowing that Jan’s family is out of contact in Xinjiang, however, has been “depressing.” He has had some family members that have not been in contact with him since the beginning of encampment in 2017.
Jan opened his restaurant in Fairfax, naming it after “erkin” — the Uyghur word for freedom.
Jan now had been looking to expand for a while, having to decide between Rockville and Tyson’s Corner. Rockville became the pick for what the Jan family called its “diverse community,” which made it an opportunity for Eerkin’s to connect its food to different kinds of people.
“You like to see a restaurant with all sorts of people, all walks of life,” said Erkin Jan, the Rockville restaurant manager and Naeem Jan’s son. “So, we thought it would be a great idea to open a shop here.”
The family opened the Maryland location two months ago and had seen success in the area since. Erkin Jan, particularly, has had conversations with customers, many of whom are unaware of the repressive policies in Xinjiang or even aware of the Uyghur people.
“It’s hard to talk about a subject like that over food,” Erkin Jan said. “But a lot of people are understanding and very curious, interested about the cuisine.”
The dining room is decorated with traditional Uyghur clothing, paintings and instruments. Traditional music flows out of the speakers all day as well, all to immerse the customers in an understanding of the people and culture.
“Having that available visually, as well as on your taste buds, is definitely good to show,” Erkin Jan said.
Sitting in the dining room with his family, Mohammed Shakir, a friend of Naeem Jan’s, spoke positively about the food. He said he’d been to Eerkin’s multiple times but was especially happy with the family deciding to open in Rockville, which was closer to where he lived.
“Everything’s good,” he said over his dinner. “I don’t know the names, but it’s all good.”
Shakir, like many, ordered the Dapanchi, one of the many hand-pulled flat noodle dishes. Erkin Jan’s favorite, however, was the Laghman.
“The Laghman is definitely a traditional classic food that I had as a child,” he said, “and it’s great to see people enjoying it now.”