Squeezed betwixt Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and China, mountainous Tajikistan is the poorest Central Asian republic, torn by civil war since its independence in 1991. The population remains rural and nomadic, with a similar ethnic mix to neighboring Uzbekistan, largely made up of groups that trace their ancestry to ancient Persia. One website warns travelers to the capital of Dushanbe—a metropolis of 150,000—to bring no large bills, since no one can change them, and notes that plastic is rarely accepted: “Credit cards are most useful for picking your teeth.”
You can, however, use credit cards at Brooklyn’s Dushanbe, the city’s only Tajik restaurant. It stands on a stretch of Coney Island Avenue that features kosher eateries, though Dushanbe mainly keeps its religious identification to itself. Despite Tajikistan’s rural population, the food at Dushanbe demonstrates a distinctly cosmopolitan bent, with Georgian, Russian, and Uzbek borrowings. Great pride is evident in plov ($7), regarded as the national dish of both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The large plate of oiled rice and tendrils of carrot arrives topped with concentrated nuggets of lamb. The mellow flavor owes much to the Central Asian version of cumin, with seeds smaller and subtler than its North American counterpart. Another Uzbek standard done with particular grace is mantu ($1.50), dumplings the size of a baby’s fist bulging with lamb and onions and swimming in a dark tasty fluid. Soy sauce? Balsamic? Who knows?
French fries, another Central Asian staple, are treated with aplomb, heaped with crushed garlic and fresh dill. You won’t get radder fries anywhere in town. As in other Central Asian cuisines, bargain kebabs ($2.99–$5) command the heart of the menu, and the rules established at Queens places like Cheburechnaya and Salut apply here as well. The way-smoky lamb rib is best, while the “chicken with bone” comes a close second. Skewered in miniature spongy nuggets, veal sweetbreads are also worth a chew. “It tastes like chicken,” a fellow diner predictably enthused. Surprisingly, there are also great fish kebabs, though Tajikistan is as landlocked as a country can get. Sea bass displays a crusty texture probably attributable to a brushing of lamb fat. Lamb fat by itself is also offered, of course. Twin contrasting breads are available, lifesaver-shaped lepeshka (called “national bread” on the menu), and the parabolic, matzo-like cracker called non toki. Just be careful not to turn the breads upside down—it’s considered very bad luck in Tajikistan.
A couple of Tajik oddities are worth sampling. Achik-chuck is a salad of shaved ripe tomatoes and purple onions that forms a delicious cold soup in the bottom of the bowl, tipping its hat to gazpacho and V8. Probably reflecting the hardscrabble nature of life in the capital, Dushanbe salad is a giant heap of cabbage, peppers, and kirby cukes dressed in strong vinegar laced with beet juice, giving the scarlet slaw a rather gruesome appearance. Harder to love is hasib. This spleen-and-rice sausage ($15 short coil, $25 long coil) is packed in lamb intestines, and boiling makes the casings gray and rubbery. I tried to soft-soap the constituents when a diner across the table asked about it. “Gee, I’m not sure what’s in it,” I said evasively. “That’s OK,” he replied, “I’m not eating anything that looks like that, anyway.” I ended up eating most of it myself.