The Other Jewish Food: A Cook’s Tour of Central Asian Jewish Cuisine

Gearing up to host a Night Out for CRC, an annual dinner party fundraiser for our community. I haven’t done serious cooking in quite a while, and I’m diving into this one full force, building a six-course meal for fifteen people. And the setting is extraordinary — the home and live-in art gallery of another member of our community.

Why This? Why Me?

Most American Jews are Ashkenazim, descendents of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, an all-encompassing identity that permeates popular culture, the bimah, the siddur, and especially the kitchen — bagels, gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup….

Most Americans know of a second big branch of the Jewish family tree — the Sephardim, the Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain for generations before being driven out in 1492, finding refuge in Northern Africa, Turkey, Palestine, and points further east.

Everywhere they went, the Sephardim met fellow Jews who had been living there for centuries. Not just in Arab countries or Persia, but throughout the region we now know as the many new stans — Kurdistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan – all thoroughly embedded in their host cultures but still living by Jewish law, still holding on to ancient languages like Aramaic and Persian.

Most of these far-flung Jewish enclaves emptied out after 1948, their inhabitants moving to Israel and the English-speaking world, where in most places they were vastly outnumbered by Ashkenazim. Except for a few enclaves — Jews from Uzbekistan in Queens, for instance — most have assimilated into communities that might have had no idea that there were Jews spoke who spoke Kurdish, Persian, or Uzbek.

For a Jew-by-Choice, Ashkenazi culture is about as foreign as it must have been for the Jews from Uzbekistan who suddenly found themselves in Brooklyn. I imagine them trying gefilte fish for the first time — and, as I did, reaching for the cumin, the cilantro, or the pepper sauce.

A Bukhari Cook Prepares SamsaThese Asian Jews think of themselves not as Ashkenazi or Sephardi, but “other,” like I do, drifting between worlds. They even say they are Babylonians, descendants of the first Jewish exiles of the sixth century BCE, among whom were the ten northern tribes later lost to history.  I am endlessly fascinated by these Jews. I want to know their languages, their customs. I want to pray with them, eat with them, study with them.

But for now, their recipes will have to do.

The dishes I’m preparing are a work of much love, research, tasting, and tinkering. My thanks to Mem, Brian, and especially to Karen Kalish for opening her home to us. Thanks especially to Brian for giving me a copy of Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today, which is a great entry into lesser-known Jewish cuisines.

The Menu

Sparkling water/wine, pomegranate juice, and mint

Kurdish Kubbeh (Bulgur Dumplings, Joan Nathan)
Kurish Dolma (Stuffed Cabbage Leaves)
Pickled Spiced Vegetables
Condiments: Yoghurt, Z’hug (Yemeni, via Joan Nathan: green peppers, garlic, cardamom, parsley, cilantro), Harissa (Arabic, via Joan Nathan: Red peppers, garlic, ginger, spices)

Persian Beet, Plum, and Celery Soup with Kubbeh (Joan Nathan)
Kurdish Chickpea and Pumpkin Soup

Korean Carrot Salad
Kurdish Chickpea Salad

Bukhari Vegetable Stew with Hand-Pulled Noodles

Uzbek Rice Pliaf (Joan Nathan)
Pumpkin with Tahineh, Yoghurt, and Garlic
Stewed Cauliflower in Tomato and Yoghurt Sauce

(Anise-Infused Brandy)

Kurdish Pumpkin Pudding
Orange Sherbet
Homemade Baklava (Thanks Rob!)

Notes & Stories

Central Asian cooking is a fusion of the Middle East with Southern and Eastern Asia and a dash of Russia. In any meal, you find stuffed grape leaves along with Chinese-style noodles, flatbreads reminiscent of Indian nan alongside Russian vodka or  arak, which is simply the Arabic take on Greek ouzo.

One missing ingredient in tonight’s dishes is meat, commonly lamb. But the spice combinations and other ingredients are authentic – garlic and ginger, cumin and coriander, currants and nuts, root vegetables and legumes. For a bit of extra spice, I’ve added two condiments from Yemeni cuisine of the southern Arabian peninsula. About half of tonight’s dishes would normally be packed with hot peppers; where possible, I’ve made a hot and mild version of each.

About the Carrot Salad: Bukharian Jews, with roots in present-day Uzbekistan, have a favorite dish they call simply “Korean salad.” It was brought to them and their Russian neighbors by North Koreans forcibly resettled from the Far East under Stalin in the 1930s. About half a million of their descendents still live in the region. The salad is classic Korean cuisine – lots of garlic and hot pepper.

Shurpa Lagman: The word for pulled noodles among Bukharian Jews, lagman, from Chinese lo mein. I taught myself how to make them using videos on YouTube.

Of tonight’s cuisines, the Kurdish recipes are my favorites. Fiercely independent and still using Aramaic as their everyday language, the Jews of Kurdistan were among the first, most tenacious immigrants in Israel.

Some Sources

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2 Responses to The Other Jewish Food: A Cook’s Tour of Central Asian Jewish Cuisine

  1. karen says:

    I saw your blog on the Jews by Choice site….I’m glad I took a look!
    now I’m hungry! thanks for sharing


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