By Josh TapperA Bukharian Friday night dinner is an elaborate affair: Plates of carp doused with garlic sauce and cilantro, garlicky fried fish and mushroom salad flecked with dill, array the Shabbat table, enveloped in the fragrant aroma of non-toqi, a broad, flat, matzoh-like cracker. Nearly always prepared by women, the dishes are exercises in over-indulgence, a relic of days when large, kosher meals were organized to feed families in insular courtyards, hidden from non-Jewish neighbors.
That was the meal one recent Friday at Arsen Abramov’s Toronto home, where several of the more than 200 known Bukharian recipes graced the Shabbat table. Once the plates of fish were cleared, Abramov’s wife, Yelena, brought out platters of lamb-filled samsi, baked puffs similar to the Indian samosa, and a triangular pastry called bichak, filled with stringy orange squash. Those preceded the centerpiece of the Bukharian Friday night table: bakhsh, a brownish-green plov—or rice pilaf—with cilantro leaves and chunks of lamb that was served sliced from a log and packed loosely into the ribs of a roast chicken, where the rice continued to warm.
Plov, in many respects, is the lifeblood of Bukharian culinary identity; children learn at a young age how to scoop the oily rice from the platter into their palms and thumb the morsels into their mouths. Saturdays call for two other varieties: one, called osh-savo, with cumin, cilantro, tomatoes and lamb, and another, khalti-savo sweetened by green raisins. Both are a sort of Bukharian cholent, left to simmer overnight Friday and, like bakhsh, they’re traditionally prepared in a cotton bag submerged in a pot of boiling water, a method likely borrowed from Persian and Iraqi cooking. Bukharians have the “only Jewish cuisine that has so many canonized dishes cooked in a cotton bag,” quips Yochai Primak, who researches Bukharian culinary history at Hebrew University’s Ben-Zvi Institute.
Bukharians are believed to be the descendants of Babylonian Jews who stayed in the empire after it was conquered by the Persian king Cyrus in 539 BCE instead of returning to Jerusalem. For more than two millennia, these Jews lived in an isolated region between Kazakhstan’s northern steppes and the Hindu Kush mountain range, primarily in the former Emirate of Bukhara, in modern-day Uzbekistan.
Their unique culture and Persian-influenced language, called Bukhori, was largely unknown until the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, which precipitated a wave of westward emigration. Today, only a handful of Bukharians remain in Central Asia and roughly 150,000 live in Israel, the United States and Austria, according to Sam Kliger, director of Russian affairs at the American Jewish Committee. Of the 50,000 or so who settled in the U.S., more than 60 percent live in Queens, concentrated in the Rego Park neighborhood, which has become the epicenter of a thriving Bukharian and Central Asian restaurant scene. Amid the upheaval, Bukharian identity has largely been preserved in the kitchen. “It’s our tradition, a tradition we follow from our ancestors,” says Imanuel Rybakov, a professor of Bukharian history at Queens College.
But the dishes deemed authentically Bukharian are those prepared exclusively for Jewish holidays and ceremonies, says Primak. The cuisine, generally speaking, is an offshoot of a pan-Central Asian cooking style based largely on Silk Road exoticisms like grilled kebabs called shashlyk, meat-stuffed pastries, hand-pulled noodle soups and plov. It also has Russian and Muslim Uzbek inflections, as well as, surprisingly, Korean: In the 1930s, Stalin forcibly relocated thousands of Koreans to Uzbekistan, giving Bukharians their much-loved Korean carrot salad.
How Bukharians developed a cuisine so distinct from their neighbors’—who tend not to cook with fish or much cilantro—is sketchy, at best. In the insular confines of Central Asia, there was little need to codify recipes and food ways. Scholars and ordinary Bukharians are reluctant to theorize why, for instance, Bukharians also bake non-toqi in addition to the standard lepeshka, the chubby, bialy-shaped bread ubiquitous in Central Asian cuisine. “You cannot ask why,” says Rybakov, who teaches the country’s only college course on Bukharian culture. Primak, who is preparing a book chapter on Bukharian food and hospitality, is also at a loss: “What was the selection of ingredients based upon, was it only flavor, was it just a tradition rolling for hundreds of years? We have no information,” he says.
The ceremonial recipes that were passed down from generation to generation, and somehow survived the vagaries of Muslim influence and Soviet occupation, are now being recorded: The first English-language Bukharian cookbook, Amnun Kimyagarov’s exhaustive Classic Central Asian (Bukharian) Jewish Cuisine and Customs, was published in 2010. As befits its roots, Bukharian cooking is heavily meat-based, and vegetarianism is essentially impossible. Abramov, the vice-president of Toronto’s 300-family Bukharian community, recalls one Rosh Hashanah when his family slaughtered a lamb, serving its meaty head on a platter. When his then 12-year-old daughter saw the lamb’s lifeless eyeballs protruding from its skull, she decided to forswear meat, a pronouncement that caused her incredulous father to exclaim, “But you’re Bukharian!”
Recipe: Bakhsh (green pilaf in a bag)