Culinary Crossroads at Cafe Kashkar
Peek through a little archway inside Cafe Kashkar in Brighton Beach, right above a glass display case filled with casserole dishes containing pickled salads and marinating meats, and you might see embers exploding off the coal-fired grill as seasoned kebabs of lamb and chicken are charred around the edges until juicy.
Cafe Kashkar gets its name from the city of Kashgar, a historic trading outpost west of the Pamir Mountains at the foot of the vast Taklamakan Desert. As the westernmost city in China, Kashgar has long been a cultural crossroads as people migrated throughout the land. Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic people who once served as guides along the old Silk Road, are an ethnic minority in China who purvey a culinary mélange of Chinese, Kazakh, Russian, Uzbek, and Turkish cooking.
Though concentrated in Xinjiang, Uyghurs have sizable populations in half a dozen Central Asian countries, including Uzbekistan. And Xinjiang (Uyghur) cuisine enjoys a wide reputation throughout China.
Incorporating a heavy emphasis on grilled meat—particularly lamb—with rustic, hand-pulled lagman noodles served in spicy broth or stir-fried accompanying plenty of vinegary salads, plus clay-oven-baked bread that is often stuffed with more lamb, Uyghur cuisine is an amalgamation of culinary culture that fits well into an ethnically diverse place like New York City. Yet Uyghur restaurants are elusive. Cafe Kashkar became the city's first when it opened a decade ago, and it remains one of the only Uyghur restaurants in New York. (Cafe Arzu in Forest Hills is another, and there's a Xinjiang-style food cart in Flushing.)
Owned and operated by an Uzbek family that made its way stateside in the 1960s, Cafe Kashkar has a menu that, according to the brother of the cook grilling meats in the kitchen, is half Uyghur and half Uzbek, which means Uzbek classics such as the meaty fried rice palov (on the menu as pilaf, $6) and the traditional lamb and vegetable stew dymlama ($8.50) can be had along with lagman noodles, which have their roots in China but have come to be a staple of Uyghur and Uzbek cuisine alike.
This culinary crossroads can be well represented on the dinner table, with, for example, samsa ($2.50 apiece), pies of lamb and onion baked into a dough enclosure and served with sweet chili sauce for dipping; a vegetable, lamb, and lagman noodle stir-fry ($7.50); supersize, thin-skinned lamb dumplings (manti; $6 for four); and several orders of supremely juicy kebab, which are impaled on saber-like skewers and provide about five bites per order ($3.50 or $4 each for lamb, lamb ribs, chicken, or beef). Excellent sea bass kebab ($10.50) proves well worth the price, and salad langsai ($6), a light, vinegared medley of thin-sliced veggies, provides a bright contrast to so much heavy meat. Everything washes down well with a pot of hot green or black tea ($3).
Sadly, one essential Uyghur dish absent from Kashkar's menu is dapanji. Known in English as "Big Plate Chicken," the huge platter—piled high with roasted red chilies, potatoes, and onions, and chunks of on-the-bone chicken sautéed in a fiery sauce full of tongue-numbing peppercorns—is a popular staple of Uyghur cuisine beloved by many across China, where I had my first encounter with Uyghur food. A colleague who lived in China for several years confirmed: Dapanji is served in Uyghur restaurants all over the country.
The good news: Big Plate Chicken can be found in New York, albeit at a definitively non-Uyghur restaurant in Chinatown, a Henan noodle shop called Spicy Village. Perhaps the Henan cooks at Spicy Village spent some time in Xinjiang and brought a love of the dish with them when they left, or perhaps they're keenly aware of the dearth of dapanji in town and are trying their best to fill the void with their interpretation of the dish.
Why Uzbeks cooking Uyghur at Kashkar omitted Big Plate Chicken while Henan cooks in Chinatown adopted it is a conversation best had while eating at either of the restaurants. But the takeaway is that wherever you get your Uyghur food, it's nice to be able to find it.
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