The Silk Road Culinary Continuum
Recently I was down in Brighton Beach to meet an old friend and indulge in a bit of Uyghur food. I’ve always been fascinated by the Uyghurs, an ethnic group who live across Eastern and Central Asia, because I think we might share a racial phenotype. Of course, what it took my Caucasian father and Chinese mother a single generation to achieve had to brew for centuries in the steppes, but the result is much the same: faces that occupy a sort of ethnic no-man’s-land in a world that mostly understands “race” as a choice between white, black, and Oriental. When I was in Moscow this past May, I felt the eyes of Tatars, Mongols, and miscellaneous Central Asians on me: not leching, but sizing me up, pinning me down. (Beyond the instinctive recognition of our shared Eurasianness, we’re ethnically ambiguous to each other, too.) I dream of travelling someday to Xinjiang province or Samarkand, just to walk the streets and blend. For the time being, though, I’ll make do with Brooklyn’s Café Kashkar. My waiter that day looked a little like me.
As you might expect, Uyghur food perfectly expresses the mixed heritage of its people: a little bit Turkish, a little bit Russian, a little bit Chinese. Jewel-toned hunks of pepper and eggplant glisten with mutton fat; dumplings look like dim sum yet taste of the Middle East.
I like to track culinary cognates along the Silk Road, across Tamerlane’s fallen empire, and Uyghur cooking is packed with them. Springy handmade noodles in broth are lagman (think lo mein); mutton-filled manty (pictured below) are related to the Mandarin mantou, Korean mandu, and similar words in Turkish, Armenian, Kazakh; and the seasoned rice dish known variously as plov, pulao, and pilaf may be the farthest-traveled of them all.
I keep saying mutton, and I mean it. It’s no spring lamb that they use, but sheep of some standing; the flavor is appropriately musky, then, and a little, hm, challenging. I didn’t like it at all in the manty (though there was probably some cognitive dissonance going on there, what with the bamboo steamer), but it was wonderful in the geiro lagman (pictured below), giving the broth an oxtail-like heft.
I will certainly go back to Café Kashkar, even without the guidance of my good friend the Uzbek robotics expert, who was in town far too briefly en route to Qatar. I had written earlier about gathering with an old friend in Moscow for Uzbek food; all three of us were a team once, back in Hong Kong, back in my teens. These days we have to do our reunions in fragments, and lately we always seem to do them around some kind of Central Asian focal point. I’m not complaining! Any excuse to eat one of my favorite dishes, the misleadingly named “Korean” carrot salad–about as Korean as French dip is French, it’s a quick sweet pickle of raw slivered carrots with a hint of garlic and a kick (a Russian-style kick, that is, which I am inclined to characterize as “playing footsie”) of warm spice. The dish is popular throughout Russia, but Kashkar’s version skews farther east than usual with the intriguing addition of fresh coriander seeds.