My boyfriend is from Uzbekistan and today, in an effort to enjoy the tastes of his homeland, we ventured up to the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens. Rego Park is home to many Bukharan (or Central Asian) Jews and there are a number of kosher restaurants that serve traditional Uzbek food.
A word of warning should you choose to venture up there: many of the restaurant owners observe shabbat (the sabbath) and the last time we went, we made the mistake of going on a Saturday afternoon. We had to sit holed up in a diner and wait until the sun went down like we were vampires anxiously awaiting the dark of night. (I’m not the most pleasant to be around when I’m hungry, so you can be sure we never made that mistake again.)
Uzbek cuisine reflects the country’s history as an intersection of many different cultures. Located on the fabled Silk Road, travellers from Europe, Arabia, Persia, China, India, the Caucasus and Mongolia all passed through the place. Anthony Bourdain, in a fantastic episode of No Reservations, says rather aptly, “Is it Asian? Middle Eastern? Used to be Russian? It’s all of the above.”
Plov, the country’s national dish, something akin to paella or pilaf, is my boyfriend’s favorite food in the world. He ate it every single day for three weeks straight the last time he went back to Uzbekistan. To hear him rave about it, I’d swear he secretly keeps pictures of it under his mattress and has erotic dreams about it.
Unfortunately, it’s one of those elusive dishes that he insists is never as good when it’s made outside of the country. The way some self-important New Yorkers like to proclaim that pizza made anywhere outside of the five boroughs is worse than death.
I wanted to see if this was really the case. The last time we went to Rego Park and tried one restaurant’s attempt at plov, he was predictably disappointed. This time, we didn’t have the opportunity to be disappointed, as the plov at the restaurant we went to must be ordered in advance and for parties of six or more. We’re currently trying to recruit some friends, but I suspect this will be as challenging as when my friend Deborah and I tried to organize enough people to share the whole pork butt at Momofuku Ssam.
Undeterred by the lack of plov, we ate a number of very tasty Uzbek dishes. We started with a tomato and onion salad that had a vinegar-based dressing and some slices of fresh green chilies (at the other restaurant, they sprinkled red chili powder on it.) This was okay but I found that the more pungent the vinegar flavor, the tastier this salad is and it just wasn’t pungent enough. We also had a Korean-style salad of very thinly sliced carrots covered in oil and spices. My friend Mark told me that this is extremely popular in the Ukraine and that they even sell premixed packets of spices specifically for the carrot salad the way they do for taco meat and French onion dip in the US.
Next, we had cheburek, a greasy pocket of deep fried dough filled with ground lamb meat. What can I compare it to? A meat pasty? Some Central Asian version of a hot pocket? All I know is that deep fried anything is guaranteed to be delicious and the ground lamb was seasoned with fresh dill. Pretty damn tasty.
We also had a samsa, which is a dumpling similar to a samosa and I’m not a linguist or food historian, but based on the similarities in name and taste, willing to make a guess that this dish’s origins are most likely Indian. The samsa was filled with lamb and onions and had a sprinkling of black sesame on top. My aunt makes a similar savory pastry that is filled with curried pork. I’ll try and snag the recipe.
For something from their neighbors to the East, we had a noodle soup called lagman. It was very tasty and reminded me of the beef noodle soup my bachelor brother orders almost every night from Chinese restaurants. The noodles were a bit stiffer than the Chinese kind and there was celery in it, which my boyfriend hates more than self-important New Yorkers hate non-New York pizza and which also seemed puzzling since he claims there is no celery in Uzbekistan.
[Tangent about celery: I thought the celery added a nice texture to the soup and it reminded me to experiment with cooking celery. Like most people, I usually just consume it raw, tossed into a tuna salad or when I want to feel really healthful and masochistic, putting peanut butter on it, which is actually pretty disgusting.
And no matter how desperate for food I get (sometimes hunger strikes deep and fast and there isn’t much in the fridge or the cupboards), I still can’t bring myself to put raisins on peanut butter and celery. Whoever invented “ants on a log” failed miserably at trying to make something gross appealing and decided to make it even grosser by giving it a disgusting name that evokes the image of insects crawling all over a food combination that was, at its inception, pretty inedible. It’s Oliver Twist-level child abuse and I think there must be a way to make celery less yucky. I’m thinking I’ll braise it in a delicious sauce and call it something beautiful like “butterflies on rainbows” or “bunnies during spring time.”]
Anyway, enough about celery. We also had very tender, juicy lamb kebabs and delicious bread called lepeshka, which, when made correctly, is crusty on the outside and warm and soft on the inside. My boyfriend used to buy the bread as a boy and fill it with carrot salad.
To sample some authentic Uzbek food, visit:
101-05, 67 Rd
Rego Park, NY 11374
The other place we went to last time is called Salut