The Silk Road Leads to Queens

At Shalom, a Bukharian restaurant in Rego Park, Queens, the cook, Tolik, makes meat and onion samsi in a tandoor
Published: January 18, 2006…icle_popular_2

SUNDAY is family night out in Rego Park, Queens. All 10 tables at Restaurant Salute are crowded with pots of green tea, platters of golden French fries showered with chopped garlic and parsley, and piles of Uzbek plov, a cumin-scented pilaf of rice, carrots and chickpeas.

In the kitchen at Shalom, lamb rib kebabs sizzle over a live charcoal fire, helped along by a hair dryer slung near the grill that blasts up flames to sear the meat; the cook, Tolik, spins a piece of dough into one unthinkably long noodle, his arms a blur as he stretches it round and round like string for a huge game of cat’s cradle. 

At 10 p.m. waitresses at Cheburechnaya are still running between the kitchen and the dining room. Snatches of Russian, Hebrew, Uzbek, Farsi and Tajik can be heard, and babies are passed from lap to lap, bottles of Smirnoff from table to table. 

“I have been making chebureks since I was 14 years old,” said Isak Sionov, an owner of the restaurant, referring to the savory deep-fried pies that are its signature. “First in the Soviet Union, then in Uzbekistan, then in Israel, and now in Rego Park.” 

In Queens’s Central Asian restaurants, you can read history in the tea leaves. 

The geopolitical upheavals of the 20th century sent tens of thousands of people to New York from the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Afghanistan and western China. Separated from Russia by the vast Kazakhstan steppe, straddled by mountains that stretch from Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush, all the way to China and the Himalayas, the region is home to the Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Tashkent, Dushanbe and Bukhara. 

Its mountains cross national boundaries, and so do its dishes. Fresh noodles and lamb kebabs, cilantro and garlic sauces and spiced rice pilafs are home cooking for many of these new New Yorkers.

For more than 2,000 years, Central Asia was home to the Bukharians, one of the most isolated Jewish communities in the world, who evolved a unique language, blending Farsi and Hebrew, that scholars call Judeo-Persian and locals call Bukhori. According to the Research Institute for New Americans, about 40,000 Bukharian Jews have settled in New York since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

The Bukharians established a thriving commercial strip along 108th Street in Rego Park, now called Bukharian Broadway, and opened several kosher restaurants that serve their traditional cooking, based on charcoal, lamb, rice, beets, potatoes, carrots and spices like cumin, paprika and chili.

Reflecting the influence of silk and spice trades, there are tastes of China and India everywhere. Every Bukharian menu offers a garlicky, chili-spiked Korean carrot salad, morkovcha koreyska, that is a legacy of Stalin’s mass deportations of ethnic Koreans from the far eastern Soviet Union to its western frontiers. At Tandoori Bukharian Bakery in Rego Park, a samsa – one of Asia’s many cousins of the Indian samosa – is deliciously spiked with cumin and baked against the walls of a clay-lined oven that Bukharians, like Indians, call a tandoor. 

It is all a long way from bagels and lox.

Neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi (the two major groups of Diaspora Jews), the Bukharians say that their lineage goes directly back to the Babylonian captivity, before 500 B.C. “Our people are the ones who did not return to Jerusalem afterward, but remained in Asia,” said Peter Pinkhasov, a paralegal at a Manhattan law firm who immigrated with his family from Tashkent in 1993. 

The Bukharians’ Jewish identity was always preserved in the kitchen. “Even though we were in exile from Jerusalem, we observed kashruth,” said Isak Masturov, another owner of Cheburechnaya. “We could not go to restaurants, so we had to learn to cook for our own community. My great-grandmother, Sarah Masturov, said that every woman should know how to cook for at least 500 people.” 

Every Bukharian Sabbath, whether in Forest Hills or Tel Aviv, is greeted with a dish of fried fish covered with a pounded sauce of garlic and cilantro. “We had the most wonderful fresh lake fish in Dushanbe,” Ledya Moses, an owner of Salute, said. 

A spirit of abundance pervades Bukharian restaurants. Kebabs of pure lamb fat, crisp and smoky, perfume every dining room. Platters of plov are enormous. And warm chewy bread called lepeshka, like a huge bialy, keeps coming until you say stop. A few doors down at Fortuna restaurant, the owner, Isak Babayev, mourns the barberries, the sweet yellow carrots, the pomegranates and the fresh walnuts of his native Uzbekistan. “Everything was organic, although we didn’t know that word,” he said in Russian. “There were the most wonderful red- and yellow-fleshed melons, and green grapes as long and thin as a woman’s fingers.” 

In two decades, more than 90 percent of the 120,000 Bukharians have left Central Asia for Israel or the United States, said Dr. Sam Kliger of the Research Institute for New Americans. New York’s Bukharian community, about 15 percent of the Russian-speaking Jews in the city, first followed the Russians to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, said Solomon Moses, an owner of Salute. “But even though we all speak Russian, our customs are different, our religion is different, and our food is different,” he added. 

Rego Park (now sometimes called Regostan) and Forest Hills became home to the Bukharians, most of whom observe an orthodox form of Judaism. The Bukharian restaurants close well before dark on Friday and do not reopen until at least an hour after sundown on Saturday. “We Bukharians are good at preserving traditions,” said Gulya Katayeva, a hairdresser who was a customer at Cheburechnaya last week, “and we like our own cooking.” Her two teenage children nodded agreement, and her son, Solomon, 14, proceeded to explain the finer points of composing baksh, a Sabbath dish of rice and herbs that takes four hours to cook. 

This is not a wildly varied cuisine, but its kebabs, stews, noodles and dumplings are savory and satisfying. A traditional Central Asian restaurant is little more than a stop for merchants and shepherds traveling the difficult road over the Pamir peaks; the ancient Persians called the region the roof of the world. These restaurants, called chai khanas, or tea houses, provided travelers in the most remote settlements with a place to warm themselves with pots of green tea, and, if they were lucky, to find staples like rice, lamb, carrots, herbs and onions. “We drink green tea all day and all night, when we are sick and when we are healthy,” said Arthur Rubinov, an owner of Tandoori. 

Dishes that define the region include lamb kebabs; shurpa, which might be a hearty vegetable-beef soup spiked with cumin or a thin lamb broth; and rice pilaf, whether chunky plov or one of the luxurious pilafs that adorn traditional Afghan banquets. 

At Bahar in Elmhurst, the best Afghan restaurant I have found in New York, the naranj pilaf is a rich, glowing orange color, thickly larded with shreds of orange peel, soft almonds and pistachios. Zamarat pilaf, which means “emerald,” is infused with spinach and cilantro. “Rice is the first thing we eat, and the most important,” said an owner, Huma Lewal, who came to New York from Kabul in 1992. “And the crust on the bottom of the rice pot, the ta-di-qi, is always given to the oldest and most respected person in the room.” 

Farther north, bread and flour take over – especially lagman, hand-pulled noodles whose name evolved from the Chinese lo mein. Very popular among the Bukharians, lagman have been mastered by another Central Asian group, the Uighurs, who have a small community in New York. Their traditional home is the area around Kashgar, a legendary Silk Road bazaar that is now the remote Chinese city of Kashi, not far from China’s border with Kyrgyzstan.

Spinning dough at Shalom.
Cafe Kashkar, in Brighton Beach, holds the distinction of being the best Uighur restaurant in New York (there is at least one other). “Uighurs are not Chinese, not Russian, not Uzbek, not Kyrgyz,” an owner, Temur Yazova, said in Russian. “We are Asiatskie – Asian.” Uighurs are Muslim, and speak a language derived from Turkish; many say that persecution by the Chinese government has forced them out of China, finding their way to New York via Tashkent and Dushanbe.

Certainly the food at Cafe Kashkar is closer to Istanbul’s than to Beijing’s. Ms. Yazova’s menu is mostly dedicated to handmade lagman and dumplings – boiled, steamed, served in soup or even stir-fried and topped with a rich stew of beef and red peppers topped with parsley to make a dish called goiro lagman. “Everyone knows that females are the best at making lagman,” she said. Her manti, steamed meat dumplings, are served in clear soup, sprinkled with parsley, and as delicate as fine wontons; to ward off blandness, every table holds a vial of spicy vinegar infused with chilies, peppers and peppery celery leaves. “We call it ug-sauce,” Sher Mekhmonov, the waiter, said. 

Dumplings, samsi and their close relative, fried meat pies, are the favorite street food of Central Asians. At Bahar, the large, flat, crisp bolani, especially ones stuffed with a jammy pumpkin conserve, are superb. And at Cheburechnaya, Mr. Sionov tries to remind his rapidly gentrifying customers that chebureks are best eaten with two hands, not a knife and fork. “The juice runs out on the plate if you cut it,” he said. “And if it is not juicy, it is not cheburek.”

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