Hungry, exhausted, jetlagged and homesick, I waited for over an hour in the taxi line at JFK to get my cab home. Finally, it was my turn, and as I slumped into the back seat of the taxi, I happened to glance at the driver’s name: Akbarjon Temurbek.
Somehow, those history lessons from my youth clicked in, so I asked him if he was from Uzbekistan. He was from Samarkand, the oldest inhabited city of Central Asia and most prosperous city on the Silk Road.
The grand rulers, their magnificent mosques and jeweled minarets — the magical, imposing palaces, silk tapestries, fragrant gardens filled with the bounty of figs and barberries that humbled both flourishing Chinese merchants and the wealthy Mediterranean visitors that passed through Samarkand in the 14th century — now a UNESCO World Heritage City. Simply intoxicating!!
Considered the crossroads of world culture, Samarkand is now the third-largest city in Uzbekistan — a relatively young country that gained its independence from the former U.S.S.R in 1991. My taxi driver came to New York in 2005, like 20,000 other Uzbeks, by winning the green card lottery and settling primarily in Brooklyn, close to their Russian neighbors.
Thoughts of fruit gardens and aromatic kebabs were making me hungry, so I asked him to recommend an Uzbek restaurant. He suggested Nargis Café in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
I went the very next day!
The Great Silk Road played a vital role in the development of Uzbek cuisine — the abundant agriculture, and the influences from China and the Asian subcontinent were easily apparent. Green tea is served in a piola (Uzbek teacup) round-the-clock, while pillow-soft “non” bread holds center stage and adds ceremony.
A heaping plate of Tashkent salad was a welcome starter, with crunchy radishes and succulent boiled beef and eggs, dressed in a creamy dressing garnished with scallions. This paired well with samsa, a crispy homemade puff pastry stuffed with meat and onions, spiced just right with cumin.
Mutton is the most popular meat used in the cuisine, as sheep thrive well on both the Uzbek deserts and mountainous terrains. A signature and traditional dish served at weddings and other large family gatherings is lamb plov (a pilaf).
Made in a kazan, a wok-shaped cooking pot, plov is a sensory experience. Succulent pieces of lamb are cooked with caramelized onions and grated carrots. Prepared over an open fire, the rice is flavored with chickpeas, barberries (a ruby red dried berry), and raisins — the sweet and sour playing independent roles. Prepared in very large quantities, plovs express Uzbek affection and hospitality. Reportedly, when the Uzbek warriors were on the road, an inverted shield served as a kazan. A second shield was used as a cover for the rice and meat, creating an oven on the go.
Lagman is a delicious soup made with broad noodles and flavorful pieces of meat. A direct influence of the Chinese, the noodles are usually homemade and the soup is often served as a main course.
Uzbeks like their kebabs, and they come in many varieties: chicken wings, chicken hearts, lamb ribs, and shish (ground) — basically, anything that you can skewer and grill. Different and delicious marinades tenderize the succulent kebabs and complete the many meals.
Desserts are limited and hardly missed, given the abundance of juicy fresh fruits, dried fruits and nuts, chewy halvas, quince jams, and the sweet and sour fruit compotes; all served with cups and cups of green tea.
I leave Nargis café with my left hand on my heart, repeatedly chanting, “Rakhmat, Rakhmat” (thank you, thank you), and they do the same.