Silk Road Food
It’s a brisk Tuesday morning in Rego Park, Queens, home to the country’s largest community of Jews from Central Asia, known as Bukharian Jews. Men and women hustle toward the subway on Queens Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of this residential neighborhood, or emerge from the sprawling Rego Center mall, laden with shopping bags. With its flurry of activity, the scene feels distinctly like New York City. And yet, a few blocks away in Elana Mammon’s kitchen, the aromas filling the air—softening onions mixed with the heady scent of yeast dough, garlic, and fresh herbs—are entirely Old World.
Mammon, 49, and her daughter Dalia Avezbadalov, 23, have invited me over to make peraskhi—pockets of dough stuffed with mashed potatoes, ground beef, mushrooms, and other fillings that are fried in vegetable oil until they puff up. Mammon watches the frying pan while Avezbadalov grates a tomato into a pulp and mixes it with minced garlic and chopped cilantro—a simple Bukharian sauce called tamat that will accompany the turnovers. “My mom makes perashki for Shabbat,” says Avezbadalov, a graduate student who lives with her husband and young daughter a few blocks away. “We also eat them on Hanukkah with sweet jam instead of savory fillings.” Mmmhmm, I mumble, furiously scribbling notes in between bites of crisp, pillowy potato perashki.
Thanks to some adventurous foodie friends who occasionally invite me along on their dining adventures, I have eaten in a handful of Bukharian restaurants in Queens—kosher, family-style establishments where Persia’s vegetable-studded pilafs and glistening lamb kebabs mingle with Russia’s meaty borscht and stuffed vegetables, China’s hand-pulled noodles and green tea, and India’s chewy flatbreads. Those meals left me happily stuffed but also curious. How had this Jewish community from Central Asia—which I had never heard of before moving to New York several years ago—blended such seemingly disparate cuisines on one table?
The Mammon family, it turns out, is a fitting place to begin answering that question. Rabbi Yosef Maman, a forebear of Elana Mammon’s husband, is credited with revitalizing the Bukharian community in the late 18th century. He had traveled to Central Asia from his home in Safed, the holy city in northern Israel, to raise money for yeshivas back home, and he was dismayed to find that the Jews of Central Asia were disconnected from their heritage. Before Maman’s arrival, the Persian-speaking Jews who had settled in cities and towns along the Silk Road (mostly in present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) had lived in almost total isolation from the rest of the world’s Jews for thousands of years. They had developed a mashed-up identity that combined their ancient Iranian roots with the myriad cultures around them; some had undergone forced conversion to Islam in the mid-18th century. Maman, who ended up relocating permanently to the city of Bukhara, in southern Uzbekistan, became the self-appointed educator and spiritual leader to Jews in the region. He introduced them to Sephardic liturgy (prior to that they had relied on an old Persian liturgy), established yeshivas, and encouraged pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
Culture and commerce blossomed in the following two centuries. According to Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, Bukharian artisans and merchants were widely known for producing “multi-colored flower print silks … dresses, headscarves, curtains, bedcovers and cushions,” and trading precious stones, including sapphires. Those same centuries also saw long periods of oppressive leadership, discrimination, and, as a result, immigration—first to Palestine in the late 19th century and later, in the 20th century, to the United States, as Bukharian Jews, like those in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere fled Soviet rule. Mammon moved with her family from the Uzbeki capital, Tashkent, to New York City in 1979 when she was a teenager—part of a large wave of Soviet Jewish immigration that year. By the time her daughter was born, a decade later, the Soviet Union was nearing collapse, and tens of thousands of Bukharians had resettled in New York. Today, there are approximately 120,000 Bukharian Jews in Israel, 40,000 in New York City (80 percent of whom live in Queens), and several thousand scattered in other cities throughout the United States. Fewer than 1,000 Jews remain in Central Asia.
Throughout the centuries, and despite ongoing political upheaval, one place where Bukharian tradition has continued to thrive is the kitchen. Like virtually every Jewish cuisine, Bukharian food came together using the ingredients of neighboring cultures—in this case those along the Silk Road—and was shaped by the boundaries of kashrut and the Sabbath. “On Shabbat, Bukharian Jews begin with fresh salads and round flatbread called lepeshka baked in a tandyr oven,” similar to India’s tandoor ovens, says Imanuel Rybakov, an adjunct professor at Queens College who teaches the country’s only course on Bukharian history and culture. The meal continues with fried carp in a garlicky sauce, meaty rice pilafs called bachsh and plov, which come flecked with cilantro or shredded carrots, respectively and, on Saturday, a long-simmering rice dish flavored with chopped meat and dried fruit called oshi sabo. These dishes are served alongside a variety of grilled kebabs and followed by fresh or stewed fruit, pistachios, and choi kabud (green tea) for dessert.
And then, of course, there are the delicious perashki Mammon and Avezbadalov make. With a name that stems from the Russian word for pie, they are one of several kinds of turnovers, along with chebureki (deep-fried meat pies) and samsi (the samosa’s tandyr-baked cousins), that get devoured during sumptuous Shabbat and Hanukkah celebrations in Central Asia.
While Bukharian Jews in Queens vary in their religious observance, Rybakov said, many families continue to have Shabbat dinner and observe some form of kashrut. Meanwhile, the first English-language Bukharian cookbook, Classic Central Asian (Bukharian) Jewish Cuisine and Customs, was published last year to help preserve 200 recipes that have traveled here from Central Asia. Yet American influences have already begun seeping into this cuisine. “Nobody has a tandyr here,” Mammon tells me, which means lepeshka and other breads and pastries are now baked at home in a standard oven. (Tandyr cooking does continue in some of Queens’ Bukharian restaurants.) And, when Mammon was raising her kids, the dinner repertoire was as likely to include roast chicken or salmon teriyaki as plov or lagman, a cumin and coriander-spiced noodle soup.
Meanwhile the American-born generation of Bukharian Jews increasingly favors a global palate. Avezbadalov, who studied classic French cuisine at the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts in Brooklyn, continues to cook many of the dishes her mother taught her, though with variations. “I’ll serve her tomato and chopped-meat sauce, kaila, over spaghetti instead of with the traditional breads,” Avezbadalov says. History suggests that Bukharian culture is as adaptable as it is delicious.