Discovering Authentic Uzbekistan Cooking and Culture in the Heart of NYC

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.”

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A gorgeous teapot full of Uzbek green tea is just the beginning of this immersive culinary encounter

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.

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A tasty spread of Uzbekistan starters

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).