What we love about New York City is that you can find food from anywhere in the world here, even delicacies from Central Asia: the juicy marinated grilled meat of shashlyk, the julienned Korean-style salad morkovcha, the tandoor-baked lepeshki, hand-pulled lagman noodles, and many other homemade delicacies. Luckily for us, New York has a swelling community of Central Asians who have begun to migrate here after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain, and have opened many Central Asian restaurants where you can catch up on all the food that you have been homesick for.
Much of Central Asia had first been under the control of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, which resulted in strong Russian influence on Central Asian cuisine. Prior to the establishment of borders between the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in the 1920-1930s, this region was a much more fluid network of connections and routes, the outcome of which is that Central Asian cuisine consists of dishes that one will find in a range of countries. For example, you can find that each region has their version of the rice dish of plov, and everyone claims that their plov is the best. In Osh, Kyrgyzstan, they make plov with red rice (grown on red clay soil) and yellow carrots. In Uzbekistan, every city has their own plov.
When you come to a Central Asian household, you will be always offered a taste of bread as the most minimal token of hospitality. Traditional bread, nan, or also called by its Russian name, lepeshki is baked in a tandoor oven. It is customary to serve the table hosting the guest by bringing a piece of bread. The shape of this bread is round and soft at the edges and generally has a flat sun shape stamped into the middle part. When served, nan is traditionally torn into pieces and distributed to those sitting at the table. Here in New York nan might have to be ordered.
Our first and favorite thing to eat in a Central Asian restaurant is a dish called laghman. Although some regard laghman as an Uighur or Dunghan dish, these hand-stretched noodles served with the sauce made of vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, onion, garlic) meat and broth, is one of the staple dishes of any restaurant in Central Asia and New York. There are variations of laghman without broth (guiru laghman) or fried. All are absolutely delicious. Our favorite place to get laghman is Cafe Kashkar (1141 Brighton Beach Ave, between Brighton 14th St & Brighton 15th St, Brooklyn).
Plov is perhaps second on our list of favorite foods from Central Asia. Plov is a rice dish cooked in kazans or large round bottomed metal pots. Plov dishes vary widely throughout the region but the most delicious in my opinion is the “wedding plov” from Uzbekistan. It usually has meat, garlic, carrots, dried apricots, cumin and many other spices. Old Registan serves really great Samarkand-style plov, (5610 New Utrecht Avenue, between 57th St & 56th St, Brooklyn).
Another favorite is manty which are dumplings often served with sour cream or soy sauce and vinegar. Manty is almost always filled with meat. A less common but nonetheless delicious variation is manty with pumpkin filling. Cafe Nargis has some excellent manty, (2818 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn).
Another must-have dish is samsa, a large Uzbek dumpling cooked in tandoor ovens that are almost always filled meat and diced onions.
Salads in Central Asian restaurants are a mixture of Central Asian and traditional Russian salads but there is a third influence. Korean immigrants exiled by Stalin during WWII to Central Asia created the carrot salad. Another common salad that you can order is Korean Kim-Chee, the spicy pickled cabbage that is more commonly called Chim-Chee in Central Asia. У Тещи (At Your Mother-in-Law’s), also known as Elza Fancy Food is THE place to get these salads (3071 Brighton 4th Street, Brooklyn).
One last dish not to be missed is a marinated and skewered meat dish called shashlyk. It is generally cooked over a wood-fire barbecue called a mangal. My favorite meat for shashlyk is lamb but it’s not uncommon to serve chicken, and beef.
Finally to finish your meal, we would suggest you refill your teapot with hot water and have chack-chak–a fried cake drenched in honey, a plate of nuts and dried apricots. It’s highly unlikely you will want anything else to eat!
In terms of alcohol, Central Asia is primarily a Muslim region, with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan having stricter rules about public consumption of alcohol than Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. In New York, many of these restaurants are bring your own alcohol (BYOB) establishments. The safe thing to do when going to these restaurants is to just ask before popping a beer open. Green Tea is common and so is black tea, which is usually served piping hot in small Central Asian tea cups.
In a cosmopolitan city like New York City you can virtually visit a region of the world by finding a restaurant that serves food and recreates the atmosphere of a far off place. Fortunately we have so many wonderful communities trying to make their first stake here. Many of those new immigrants are here serving the food of their homeland to make that transition easier for those groups who are hungry and ready to spend their hard earned first dollars on a good meal that reminds them of home. Go out and take advantage of this to learn a little about a new region in your very own city, one dish at a time.