In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, the emperor stuck it to the czar. Japan tightened its grip on the Korean peninsula, and Korean refugees flooded Primorsky, the Russian maritime province to the north. Eventually, some transmigrated to far-off Uzbekistan and obtained work in the vast cotton fields. I can almost hear them singing, “Way down upon the Surxondaryo River, far, far away.” The trickle became a tidal wave in 1937 as the Koreans remaining in Primorsky, now deemed dangerous by Stalin, were resettled in Central Asia. Today, an estimated 257,000 live in Uzbekistan, constituting a small but influential 1 percent of the population. For most, Russian is now their native language.
You’ve tasted Uzbek food. You’ve tried Korean and Russian food, too. Are you ready for Uzbek-Korean-Russian? This unusual cuisine can be encountered at Elza Fancy Foods, a well-lit café with a bright orange awning just off the main drag in Brighton Beach. There’s a nearly identical branch in Bensonhurst (8611 19th Avenue). Among the Korean offerings, the spice level has been downgraded and the dishes diddled with, while most Russian and Uzbeki standards are delivered more or less intact. There are some fusion-y things going on, too.
Much of the Uzbekistani stuff will already be familiar, including some of the best manti dumplings you’ve ever lit into. Crammed with coarsely ground lamb and served with sour cream sculpted like a curly-top cone, these monsters ooze oniony goodness (five per order, $6.99). The national dish of plov is also excellent: an oily, cumin-flavored, carrot-shot lamb pilaf. Here, it’s presented in individual servings ($6.50), not as an impenetrable mountain feeding dozens, as at most places. One serving gives four diners a nice taste. Unfortunately, the noodle soup called lagman lags. This Uzbek signature flaunting a thin lamb-tomato broth usually contains homemade noodles. Here, not.
The Korean soups are a different story. Kuksu ($6.50)—which simply means “noodle soup” in Korean—comes in a medium-size bowl loaded with delicate wheat-flour noodles. The surface has been laid out like a beautiful agrarian landscape seen from above, with little heaps of shredded omelet, mild cabbage kimchi, a lamb julienne, sliced-cucumber pan chan, and raw-cucumber matchsticks. But wait! What’s that green wad on top? It’s fresh dill—which has never been seen before in anything Korean.
An equally delectable potage wanders further into fusion territory. But yug-gyadya ($7.50) doesn’t taste good until you doctor it. Placed before you is a giant bowl of broth that looks like dishwater, concealing random tidbits of beef. Nine planets orbit around it, containing chopped cilantro, a miso-chili paste called tyai, chopped onions and garlic, glutinous rice, and small plastic cups of dry seasonings: salt, ground black pepper, sesame seeds, and an intriguing spice mixture containing cumin, which is another no-no in Korean cuisine. It’s up to you to determine proportions and mix the ingredients into the broth. Of course, you could always dump absolutely everything in if you have trouble making up your mind.
Some of the stranger choices at Elza rework the fare from the Caucasus Mountains west of Central Asia. The Georgian creation chicken tabaka—often waggishly referred to as “roadkill chicken” because of its flattened nature—is here delivered without the usual broth and slicked instead with a spicy glaze. The city has never seen anything quite like it before, and it one-ups Korean fried chicken. A dish possibly inspired by buffalo chicken wings features avian appendages butchered in the usual buffalonian way, concealed like hunters in a blind of ripe bell pepper and fresh herbs. The wings, however, are coated with a sweet soy mixture rather than Frank’s RedHot sauce. They almost taste Japanese—though you wouldn’t want your hosts to hear you say that.
Other oddball items include hanum (thin pasta handkerchiefs smothered in tomato sauce and caramelized onions), fish hye (raw tilapia “cooked” in a chili-vinegar dressing), and, best of all, mash hurdy ($4.49). Although it sounds like a character from Lost, what shows up is a humongous minute steak smeared with something white and rolled up inside an omelet. Where this comes from is anybody’s guess, but the waitress clearly wasn’t proud of it, since she tried to dissuade my party one Sunday evening from ordering the eggy mess. “You won’t like it,” she said. Once in front of us, though, we fell on it with the zeal of hungry field hands.
“Wish they served this at my corner Korean deli,” a friend exclaimed, wiping mayo from his lips.