WEST RIDGE — Kasimzhan Khamraev fled China as a child, served rations to coal miners in Soviet Russia and went on to open two successful restaurants in Kyrgyzstan.
Khamraev’s now serving Chicagoans the Uyghur cuisine that got him through it all.
Khamraev, 64, moved to Chicago to be closer to his kids and grandkids. This summer, he opened his restaurant, Café Alif, 2245 W. Devon Ave., serving traditional Uyghur food.
The halal restaurant has varieties of lagman, a dish of hand-stretched noodles sourced from wheat in central Asia. Khamraev, a lifelong cook, prepares the food and operates the restaurant alongside family. He freshly bakes bread for samsa, a Uyghur street snack filled with potatoes and meat.
There are only about 10,000 Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim and Turkic ethnic group, in the United States, according to the Uyghur American Association.
Uyghurs are indigenous to the Xinjiang region of China, which they call East Turkistan. They have been victims of a state-sponsored genocide, which has been documented by a United Nations report and seen through images of expanding concentration camps.
As a child, Khamraev and his family were forcibly removed from their home in the Xinjiang region, settling in Kazakhstan and later Kyrgyzstan.
The persecution of Uyghur people is “heavy on the heart,” Khamraev said, speaking through a translator. He’s traveled the world for the places where “I wouldn’t be blamed for being Uyghur,” he said.
“It’s hard to accept what’s happening. And that there is not much I can do about it,” Khamraev said. “We are people. We are human. We have families we wish bright futures for and food and culture to share.”
Khamraev grew up cooking Uyghur food among family, with “great pride for where we come from,” he said.
Under Soviet rule, Khamraev worked a food stand outside state-owned coal mines. He served Uyghur-style shashlik, a traditional meat kebob, as workers emerged from the mines. They got precise rations at fixed prices.
“We were introducing Uyghur food to them. And there was always a line,” Khamraev said. “Communist Russia brought physical, hard work. We were very, very busy.”
Khamraev said he faced discrimination in the Soviet Union. He returned to parts of what is now Kyrgyzstan, got married and went on to open two Uyghur restaurants: one in the capital, Bishkek, and another near Lake Issyk-Kul. Both are still open, Khamraev said.
He’s brought the same menu to Chicago.
Café Alif, named after the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, is decorated with doppas, embroidered skullcaps from central Asian cultures.
“Cooking this food has been my life. This comes from our soul,” Khamraev said. “We hope more people will try it, and that those of us from post-Soviet countries can have a taste of home.”
Khamraev said he planned to retire when he came to the United States. But he saw the open spot on Devon Street and thought about “having a place for my kids and my grandkids to always come to,” he said.
“This was never in the plans,” he said. “But I missed cooking.”
Business is picking up, and the neighborhood has been welcoming, Khamraev said. That shouldn’t be taken for granted, he said.
“When people eat good food, they’re satisfied, and they say nice things. Everything else washes away,” Khamraev said. “We need more unity.”
Café Alif is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday-Monday.
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