Molly Taylor

Taste of Samarkand sits on Woodhaven Boulevard, a busy road in Rego Park. A deli and nail salon flank it on either side. From the outside it might appear to be permanently closed due to its tinted windows. During any one visit, you will probably find families dining together under the wooden beams, which, crisscrossed with plastic grape leaves, instill a feeling of being inside a jug of table wine. The restaurant is BYOB, and people gather around their chosen liquor; sometimes a bottle of vodka is shared in shot-sized wine glasses. In the rear two men alternate between standing by the cash register and sitting at the table closest to the kitchen. Framed pictures of Uzbekistan landmarks in Samarkand and Bukhara line the walls. The waitresses wear versions of traditional Uzbek fabric for their uniform. Tables are set with blue and white painted plates.

I ordered Lagman Soup the first visit because it was the only dish with noodles on the menu. Lagman can be found in many countries along the Silk Road including Russia and China. One legend describes the birth of Lagman from a meeting of traveling merchants who pooled their resources. Two men had a cauldron, flour, meat, spices, and vegetables. The third, who had only culinary experience, suggested they team up to cook.[1] The broth of the soup is rich but in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you. The noodles, hand-pulled, are incredibly tender. Pieces of carrot, onion, celery, pepper and beef float in the broth along with the noodles. The broth is truly like none other. Garlic, cumin, star anise, and ginger zip around your mouth in a crazy, comforting way. On top some fresh dill and scallions are chopped and mix with the broth as you eat the noodles. Somehow, Lagman reminded me of my mother’s cooking even though I was sure she never used these spices together in the same dish or separately with any frequency. The waitress who served me all three visits is from Lithuania, although she told me two friends, one a Bukharan Jew, run the restaurant.

Taste of Samarkand’s Lagman Soup

Lagman Soup

My first trip to Taste of Samarkand was also my first trip to Rego Park. Two years ago I visited Middle Village scouting locations for a film shoot, but that was the furthest I had ventured into the comparatively suburban streets of Queens. Queens and Brooklyn share a long history of diverse groups of immigrants settling there. Both boroughs, though, have recently experienced a growing number of wealthier (and usually whiter) people calling Queens and Brooklyn their home. Newcomers like myself have moved into historically black and latino neighborhoods with relative ease. Rent is cheaper, apartments are bigger, and neighborhoods seem to change once we arrive. Comfortable coffee shops pop up nearby, grocery stores and bodegas begin to carry products you want to buy, and restaurants open that serve food you want to eat. There appears to be cultural variety and authentic digs in your neighborhood: sushi, arepas, bars that serve gumbo and burgers. But at a second glance it begins to look a bit like multiculturalism, a tasting for a certain group to try. Everything is a little tuned down, or spun up, or served in mason jars. All the while, the people who lived here before -black and latino populations- are steadily displaced from neighborhoods like Bushwick, Bed Stuy, Crown Heights, and now East New York[2]. Ridgewood, Maspeth, and Long Island City are in the same boat.[3]

After the Soviet Union’s control over Uzbekistan began to crumble in the late 80’s, many Uzbeks immigrated. A large portion of the country’s already small and persecuted population of Bukharan Jews left the country, moving mostly to Israel and the US. By the time the Soviet Union fell in 1991, over 24,000 Uzbeks, both Jewish and Muslim, had immigrated to the US, many choosing Queens to be their new home.[4] The confused reaction to the new Uzbek population in New York in many ways captures the discrepancy that newcomers to Brooklyn and Queens experience.

Uzbekistan, due to its central position on the Silk Road and its history as a former member of the Soviet Union, is ethnically mixed. Situated between Europe and the Middle East to its west and Russia, China and Korea to its east, Uzbeks have a wide range of attributable physicalities. Although the Uzbek “look” might be ethnically confounding to a white person of western European descent, Uzbekistan might be compared to a Byzantine American melting pot. More recently, Uzbekistan’s religious demographics have changed. Bukhara, one of the most central cities on the Silk Road[5], was also home to one of the most isolated population of Jews in the world. After millenniums of persecution by the surrounding Muslim populations, the Bukhara Jewish population has dwindled dramatically, 50,000 of the once strong Bukhara Jewish population now live in Queens. Some say the current Bukharan Jewish population is as little as a few thousand[6]. The growth of the Uzbek population has not gone unnoticed in New York, especially when today’s political climate has fostered a confused xenophobia directed towards all countries with a predominantly Muslim population. A recent New York Times article tells of the growing fear among Uzbeks in New York regarding increased surveillance and suspicion focused on their community.[7]

As a white girl, I can move around practically any neighborhood with ease. I am never suspected to be a terrorist or a gang member or a thief. Walking along Woodhaven Boulevard on my way to Taste of Samarkand on my third trip, I tried to picture the far off city of Samarkand, but felt uneasily like I was picturing a mix of Aladdin and clips of Soviet era Russia. The same New York Times article that described the recent accusations of terrorism pointed at the Uzbeks in New York began with the following quote: “The first thing they mention is that they work hard. And that Uzbeks are peaceful and respectful of their elders. This they can all agree upon.”[8] I stopped short immediately after reading this line. First thought was: All Uzbeks? Second was: when has anyone ever groupped me into an “all” category? Do I escape it because I am definitively white? A true WASP? Or perhaps I am unaware the grouping entirely. None the less, I suspect that if there indeed is a categorization I fall under, it is far less leveragable than “terrorist”.

Growing up in Hillsborough, a wealthy suburb in California, perhaps solidified this illusion of autonomous selfhood. I went to a private Episcopal school within walking distance from my house. My sister and I had a golden retreiver, a mom who cooked us dinner and packed us lunch, and a dad who came home from work at the same time every day. My mom drove a big car, which then, in the late 90’s, was not yet socially unacceptable. Our neighborhood was white, no two ways about it. Driveways twisted back to unseen homes, hedges were trimmed regularly, and neighbors didn’t talk much. Privacy was of utmost importance; a discreet existence was favored by all. Activities centered around the home; we played in the backyard, swam in our pool, or watched the television. More adventuresome activities included setting up a lemonade stand in our front yard in hopes of catching the stray suburban pedestrian. On a good day we might catch the neighbor from across the street walking her dog.

Time was thus marked by meals. Breakfast was the most personalized meal – my sister and I exercised our autonomy here by choosing separate juices. Lunch, which was packed on school days, was forever balanced: a sandwich, vegetables, nuts, fruit. Our first lesson in laissez faire economics came here. Everyone knew our mom made the best sandwiches and thus we had an advantage: we could trade up for potato chips, fruit roll-ups, and cookies. I knew my mom paid special attention to food. She had a special jacket she wore in the kitchen, she had fancy pots and pans, her friends all lauded her talents at the many dinner parties she would throw. Her meals were not boring, but they were classic. Culturally adventurous meals were found in one of her many “foreign” cookbooks. A preface summary introduces the cuisine’s geographically specific highlights and suggests ways of modifying it for American pantries.

So, how Lagman soup recalled these experiences, growing up in a mostly white suburb eating my mom’s dinners, is mystifying. I tried to draw some aesthetic connection, taking special notice of the other people dining in Taste of Samarkand. I wanted to read into their demeanor to somehow place them on a scale of comparable-ness. People appeared to be much like anyone else, in any other casual place, might seem. I glanced over my shoulder at the counter that displayed different items – all with different connections to the Silk Road – some plastic chilis, a Chinese bowl, a hookah. I thought of the shifting demographics of Brooklyn and Queens, of how people look in Williamsburg and how people look in Brownsville. A caller on the radio show There Goes the Neighborhood shared a similar story of aesthetics – alienating, confusing, and aligning all at once. A neighbor asked the caller why rents go up when people like her and her friends move in. She recalls looking down at herself and her friends who were all dressed in a similar uniform of ripped jeans, baggy t-shirts, and dirty sneakers.[9] Being authentically young in Brooklyn often looks this way. A carefully crafted casualness, outrageously incognito, flying somewhere above the radar.

Taste of Samarkand Counter

Taste Counte r

I want to say that these different tastes and aesthetics form some sort of peaceful pluralism; that we were all those merchants pooling resources and expertise to make a better final product. But the more I look around me, the less I see that happening. A building directly across the street from me in Bushwick came under scrutiny for cases of tenant harassment just months before I moved into my apartment.[10] I want to say that even US interactions with countries like Uzbekistan, so often defined by programs like “Operation Enduring Freedom” which flooded Uzbekistan with millions of dollars and US military presence, have not in some ways propagated the very terrorism we now see and fear at home and abroad.[11] It can be a little confusing as we contend with big words like “decolonization” while watching videos of Hillary Clinton tell “Africans” that we “have to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let’s make money for everybody.”[12] Getting “over” it sounds like a desirable outcome, but it doesn’t appear to be reaching the part of the population that was most affected by colonialism to begin with.


 

 

 

 


 

[1] Michael Smeltzer, “Central Asian Noodles” The School of Russian and Asian Studies, June 2, 2012. Accessed April 15, 2016. http://www.sras.org/lagman

[2] “There Goes the Neighborhood: Episode 3.” Narrated by Kai Wright, WNYC & The Nation, March 23, 2016. http://www.wnyc.org/story/turf-war-east-new-york-brooklyn-neighborhood-gentrification/

[3] S. Jhoanna Robledo “Gentrificaiton is Coming For Queens” New York Magazine, April 10, 2014. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/04/gentrification-coming-for-queens.html#

[4] Celia W Dugger “Uzbeks Classical Master Reclaims Role in Queens” New York Times, February 20, 1997. Accessed April 15, 2016.

http://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/20/nyregion/uzbeks-classical-master-reclaims-role-in-queens.html

[5] “Interactive Map of the cities along the Silk Road” UNESCO, Accessed April 15, 2016. http://en.unesco.org/silkroad/network-silk-road-cities-map-app/en

[6] Mansur Mirovalev, “Uzbekistan’s long-persecuted Bukhara Jews” Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015. Accessed April 18, 2016. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/04/uzbekistan-long-persecuted-bukhara-jews-150428083657675.html

[7] Liz Robbins “Accusations of Terrorism Worry Brooklyn’s Uzbek Community” New York Times, May 5, 2015. Accessed April 15.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/11/nyregion/accusations-of-terrorism-worry-brooklyns-uzbek-community.html?_r=1

[8] Liz Robbins “Accusations of Terrorism Worry Brooklyn’s Uzbek Community” New York Times, May 5, 2015. Accessed April 15.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/11/nyregion/accusations-of-terrorism-worry-brooklyns-uzbek-community.html?_r=1

[9] “There Goes the Neighborhood: Episode 6.” Narrated by Kai Wright, WNYC & The Nation, March 23, 2016. http://www.wnyc.org/story/turf-war-east-new-york-brooklyn-neighborhood-gentrification/

[10] Mireya Navarro “Landlord Bribed Inspector in Ruise to Evict Tenant, Prosecutors Say” New York Times, February 11, 2015. Accessed March 30, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/nyregion/inspectors-were-paid-to-pretend-brooklyn-tenants-had-to-move-prosecutors-say.html?_r=0

[11] “Uzbekistan”. 2006. “Uzbekistan”. In Securing Tyrants or Fostering Reform? U.S. Internal Security Assistance to Repressive and Transitioning Regimes, 1st ed., 49–88. RAND Corporation. http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2165/stable/10.7249/mg550osi.12.

[12] Clinton, Hillary. Published April 11, 2016. Accessed April 25, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNQXNq43Sc8