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Uzbek expedition (very long!)

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Uzbek expedition (very long!)

Nikita | Jan 21, 2005 12:48 PM

Apologies for the very long posting...

I manage to travel off the beaten path a lot, and one of my favorite things about NYC is coming back after a trip and trying to track down something that will help me conjure up the experience of that great bread I ate in a Druze village or the Adjaran kachapuri I savored with a mug of raw red wine on the Black Sea coast. Thanks in no small part to this website, I’ve been pretty successful.

But sometimes the quest for authenticity has its limits. I’ll admit I dabbled in Uzbek food before. A little plov here and there, maybe a hastily grabbed samsa on the way between the subway and M&I. But nothing had prepared me for a two-week-plus road trip through the country this past summer, where most of the eating was done in chaikhanes (teahouses), local homes, and outdoors.

That’s a story in itself, and has nothing to do with outer-borough dining except in how Rego Park Uzbek joints compare to the real thing. All I know is that my off-roading experience was not normal to your average urban Uzbek, but I ate enough shashlik to consider myself an expert.

So I signed up two friends; the game plan was to head to Rego Park on Wednesday and start with Cheburechnaya and then move on to Registan. If we had enough room, maybe then on to Salut, if not, we’d save it for another trip.

That afternoon, I got an email from one expedition member: “I gotta bow out. It’s too cold to go eat lamb’s testicles in Brooklyn.”

After replying that Cheburechnaya features RAM’S testicles and is in QUEENS, member #2 (true hound) confirmed that she was on and that night we trudged through the snow to the restaurant.

FYI: Cheburechnaya is BYOB. Wish we knew that. There’s a liquor store right on the way from the 63rd Dr. subway.

OK, so we were down one stomach, but ordered away: special cheburek, manty, morkovcha (carrot salad), lagman, lulya shashlik, chicken shashlik, and, for the hell of it, an order of ram’s testicles. Kvas (actually, faux kvas) to wash it all down. Remembering how overwhelmingly greasy Uzbek food can be, I got some assorted pickled veggies as well.

The cheburek and carrots came first. Stalin deported the Tatars (cheburek) and the Koreans (morkovcha) to Central Asia, so it’s essentially imported cuisine, and you don’t see it too often outside the main Uzbek cities. “Special” cheburek are the traditional pockets of fried dough filled with seasoned ground lamb, though these were more watery than most I’ve had. Carrots were OK though not very spicy.

The seasoned lamb-stuffed manty dumplings were good, though I have to confess that I’m in pursuit of the perfect manty, and I don’t think the Central Asian ones are cutting it. They’re too hefty and dense. (The best ones I’ve ever had were served at a little Tatar restaurant in Crimea, with paper-thin dough rolled almost like a jelly roll. If anyone knows of a place in NYC that serves manty like this, I’d be really grateful!)

The lagman comes out and we had a taste. I felt a sense of…relief. It’s got beef in it, not lamb. Oh yeah, I thought, I was beginning to conjure up that trip to Uzbekistan, with its endless parade of greasy sheep-on-a-stick, fried sheep, sheep soup, sheep for breakfast....My friend, who had never had Uzbek food before, really enjoyed the lagman, which was packed with veggies and thick noodles and, aside from the beef, tasted pretty much like the stuff I ate in Tashkent.

Just then, the shashlik appeared. Chicken, lulya (2 balls of ground lamb, separated by a hunk of lamb fat), and sliced and grilled ram’s testicles. We decided to get the ram over with. Flavorless and greasy, we each dutifully ate a piece and pushed the plate away. My friend also found the chicken too greasy and managed one bite of the fat-oozing lulya before going back to the lagman. I switched on to Central-Asian-autopilot and ate the rest of the lamb plus the lamb fat, then fell back in my chair to watch a mindless Moscow cop show on one the restaurant’s two prominently positioned TVs while my stomach yelped and gurgled in protest.

The verdict? Look, true Central Asian food is essentially nomad food: it’s economical, high-energy, and made to be prepared on the run. Hence the ubiquity of shashlik, greasy meats, and offal. From my limited sampling, Cheburechnaya makes pretty authentic Uzbek food. I was in no shape after that meal, however, to take a stab at Registan. And knowing that I can get authentic lulya at Cheburechnaya, do I need to undertake a comprehensive taste test? That may be a pretty heretical thing to say on Chowhound, but all I know is that after several days of eating nothing but Uzbek shashlik, I literally started smelling like a sheepskin rug. Ugh.

However: the one true national dish Uzbeks pride themselves on is plov. When I can work myself back up to eating lamb/sheep again, maybe I’ll grab some tasters and a bottle of vodka and organize a Cheburechnaya/Registan/Salut plov-a-thon.

Khair! Nikita

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