This is a guest post by my friend Jessie Festa, a native New Yorker based in Brooklyn who runs two blogs, Jessie on a Journey and Epicure & Culture. I know Jessie through Travel+SocialGood where we are both members of the Media Network. To read Jessie’s bio in full please see the bottom of the post. Enjoy!
“When I left Uzbekistan for America I didn’t take any belongings. I wanted to start a new life. And New York was such a magical melting pot to do it.” – Damira
I’m currently in the living room of Damira, a woman who moved to Brooklyn from Samarkand, Uzbekistan in 2013 to be closer to her children who were studying in America. Through the League of Kitchens cooking program she has invited myself and four others into her home to hear her story, learn her family recipes and have a cultural exchange.
Damira wears a traditional bright bold patterned tunic and tubeteika hat. While speaking she pours cups of Uzbekistan green tea, the steaming liquid running from the spout of an ornate ceramic pot into equally detailed piolas, Uzbek teacups with no handles.
“The reason there is no handle is so you can feel the warmth of hospitality. In Uzbekistan food isn’t something we do quickly. People there don’t eat on to the go on the subway. It’s something you take great pleasure in and savor over conversation.”
I tried to think in my head the last full day I’d gone without ordering a to-go sandwich or salad from the deli. I came up with nothing.
I sip the tea, its earthy yet floral flavors taming the sweetness of the cinnamon cakes and farmers cheese-laced cookies on the table. Among the spread of perfectly plated starters are flaky meat pies, fluffy samsa pastries stuffed with pumpkin, non flatbread (not the same as the Indian version), sugar-coated peanuts and crystallized grape juice candies, their cultural essence enhanced by the traditional Uzbekistan music playing in the background.
I’m so immersed I almost forget I haven’t even left Brooklyn.
NYC has a slew of cultural enclaves, and every neighborhood of the five boroughs has its own distinct makeup. Damira lives in Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities outside of Israel. In fact, Yiddish is more widely spoken than English. There’s also a distinct Uzbekistan population, made apparent by restaurants like Chayhana Salom (Uzbekistan restaurant), Tandoory Bread (delicious Uzbek-style bread) and A & Z International (the halal butcher is from Damira’s native Samarkand).
And, of course, welcoming homes like Damira’s, whose kitchens emit sounds of sizzling barak (Uzbek dumplings) and enticing fragrances of fresh chopped greens.
Let’s Get Cooking!
After introductions and appetizers around the living room table our group heads into the kitchen to suit up in our aprons and get cooking. We’ll be whipping up — or, more aptly, slow cooking with love — seven dishes, many of which are Damira’s grandmother’s recipes.
We cut up large chunks of beef, carrots and cabbage for dimlama (beef and vegetable stew), adding sunflower oil to a sizzling pan — just a bit is needed, due to the fat of the meat. Damira laughs as she recounts the first time League of Kitchens, the program I’m taking part in offered through the Visit.org marketplace, asked her to create a vegetarian menu.
“I was so puzzled! Even though we have so many fresh vegetables in Uzbekistan, I’d never heard of a vegetarian person. Then my husband reminded me Uzbek cuisine naturally has many vegetarian dishes.”
Our next dish, boemjon salat (eggplant salad), calls for the opposite: very thin slices of produce like tomatoes, red bell peppers and carrots, and finely minced herbs like cilantro leaves and dill fronds.
Dill is possibly my favorite scent in the world, and reminds me of creamy seasonal dressings on warm summer days. As we chop up the green, its delightful aroma permeates the room. The scent memory is strong, and widens the smile already pinned to my face.
Damira also adds a generous portion of salt, explaining how liberal additions of seasonings let those enjoying Uzbek cuisine know that they are loved.
Learning About Uzbek Cuisine
This lesson is one of many learned throughout my day at Damira’s home.
We make other traditional dishes like compote (Granny Smith apples and frozen grapes boiled and sweetened with sugar to be eaten, the liquid used as juice), bodring salat (cucumber salad) and achik chuchuk (spicy tomato onion salad). With each dish, my knowledge of Uzbekistan cuisine is heightened.
The country sits along the Silk Road in Central Asia, where cultural cuisines are regionally distinct yet also influence each other and overlap in many ways due to shared history. For example, in any Central Asian home you’ll find an emphasis on hospitality, evident through the expansive assortment of dishes adorning the table. This also goes back to the handle-less cups for the green tea — a hot drink served at every meal — which allow you to feel the warmth of you host’s hospitality.
You’ll also notice a focus on utilizing the medicinal qualities of foods. As we prepare the day’s menu, Damira notes reasons beyond flavor for why each ingredient is important. For instance, while making beef and vegetable stew Damira explains that one cilantro seed per day keeps the doctor away, that pungent Uzbek cumin naturally kills food-borne bacteria and that cabbage is an anti-inflammatory. In fact, I’m told that if I’m ever feeling pain I can bandage a cabbage leaf to the area that hurts and it will go away.
Moreover, grains play a vital role in Uzbek food and Central Asian cuisine. In Uzbekistan you’ll find non (flatbread) at every meal, while palov (rice pilaf and the national dish), savory meat pies and dumplings are also very common.
The Many Faces Of The Dumpling
Speaking of dumplings, the highlight of my cooking experience is preparing the barak (dumplings), which can be made with a variety of fillings from egg to pumpkin to meat and onion, the type we’re making today.
“This is my family’s favorite type of barak. Also, my mother makes it, and she makes the best barak in the world!”
Oh, and we don’t just make one type of meat and onion-filled barak, but two. Well, two and a half. Or three?
Let me explain. We start by learning the art of making and then rolling dough into a very thin round sheet.
Damira rolls like a bakery ballerina, her hands gliding with the long rolling pin in a mesmerizing fashion. The rest of us don’t look quite as graceful, but with Damira’s guidance we get the dough where it needs to be. This is also when we learn the most important part of Uzbek cooking: partaking only when you’re relaxed and happy. According to Damira, cooking with a bad attitude puts those negative vibes into the food.
She then cuts the dough into squares and plops a dollop of raw ground meat onto each, instructing us to fold up the dumplings in a very specific fashion.
This is how you properly fold barak
This is where I truly flounder. No matter how many times Damira shows me how to fold the dough over twice then wrap it around my finger like a ring, I just can’t get the hang of it. It’s fun to try though, and at least I can tell which dumplings are mine (hint: the ones that looked like sad sacks of oozing meat). The truth is they all taste the same in the end, and isn’t that what really matters?
I’m going with yes.
Once folded we fry the first batch of dumplings in sunflower oil. The reason sunflower (and cotton) oils are so popular with the Uzbekistan community is that olive oil is much more expensive than these types there. Olive oil is reserved only for salad dressing. The fried dumplings are delicious, though even more so once Damira brings us sugar to roll them in. The sweet and savory combination sets my tastebuds in a happy tizzy, and I’m instantly craving more.
Then come the boiled dumplings. These are also delicious, and remind me of the soup dumplings I’d had years back in Taiwan, minus the soup. The real surprise is that Damira has filled one of the dumplings with cayenne pepper, a tradition in Uzbekistan as whoever ends up with the spicy nibble becomes blessed with good luck. Our group member Prav ends up being the lucky one, and I’m slightly jealous (hey, I love luck and cayenne a lot!).
When The Meal Comes Together
I’ll admit I’ve never been a good cook (see above about my sack-like dumplings); but with Damira’s guidance and my eager companions helping me pull the meal together, it’s simple. Our final dish to create is achik chuchuk meaning “very hot.” The name makes sense, as the fresh salad features juicy tomatoes and red onion crushed with salt to release its natural juices. There’s also cayenne and black pepper for some nice heat.
While there’s no shortage of food breaks during the cooking workshop, it’s exciting at the end to see the complete spread on the table, from the flatbread that Damira presented upon arrival to the beef and vegetable stew that has been simmering for the past hour and 45 minutes.
The table is a true multi-sensory experience: bright red tomato contrasting with pickle green egg eggplant and bright white powdered sugar cookies; scents of bay leaf, garlic and dill making me feel like I’m traveling a heavenly Uzbek herb forest. A tea kettle whistles, and the final sizzles and simmers from the stove are turned down against clattering ceramic glasses and bowls being set on the table. The plates beautifully showcase an array of textures like fluffy bread, tender meat and crunchy cucumber.
This all creates the buildup for what is the most important sense of all: the taste. With every bite I think I’ve found a new favorite, the way the fat from the stewed beef adds a buttery flavor to my palate, the slight tomato sweetness of the eggplant salad, the earthy spice of seasoned onions. It’s such a different experience from my typical quick take-out lunch, and especially with the great company, one to be cherished.
The afternoon ends with Damira pulling out a metal chalice and having us each pull a small stone rune out at random. Every rune has a certain meaning that will tell us something about our life and the future. They all seem to give a positive prediction, and I get chills when Prav — the guy who had eaten the lucky cayenne-filled dumpling — pulls “prosperity” as his rune.
My rune is focused on energy.
“You are surrounded by energies, and you have the power to use these energies for success in business. Now is the time to take on new projects and try something new, and good things will come.”
I think today is a perfect example of that prophecy coming true.
A big thank you to VISIT.ORG, an online marketplace for tours and activities that benefit communities, for hosting this experience. Through visit.org and League of Kitchens you can put money directly into the pockets of the immigrants who teach these immersive and intimate culinary classes.
Jessica Festa is a native New Yorker based in Brooklyn (sometimes). With a passion for writing and photography she leads custom photo tours in NYC and, when traveling, recounts tales from the road on her solo and offbeat travel blog Jessie on a Journey and her online responsible tourism magazine, Epicure & Culture. She loves going beyond the guidebook, getting lost in new places and immersing herself in nature (oh, and spicy mezcal cocktails!). This post originally published here on Epicure & Culture.