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Category Archives: Central Asian Cuisine

All Roads Lead to Good Food

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Have you ever heard of a little place called Kyrgyzstan?  While it is not as well known as its neighbor and home of Borat, Kazakhstan, or nuclear armed Pakistan, it a very interesting corner of the world with a lot of history.  The word “Kyrgyz” in Turkic languages means “We are forty” which is a reference to the forty clans the legendary Kyrgyz hero, Manas, united to fight against the Uighurs (A predominately Muslim group that resides in what is now western China).  The number forty also appears in their flag in the form of a sun with forty rays and a criss-crossed center to symbolize a yurt or traditional tent the Kyrgyz sleep in. kg It’s one of my favorite world flags, and recently I found that Kyrgyz food is right up my alley as well.  Janice and I had a double date with one of her best friends and her husband at a Kyrgyz restaurant in Chicago called Jibek Jolu.  Her friend and husband raved about it, so I was curious to see what exactly Kyrgyz food consisted of.

While I never had this particular type of cuisine, I had a faint idea of what to expect given the geographic location of the Central Asian nation and its history.  First, I expected there to be a lot of meat given that most nomadic peoples rely on high energy meals focusing primarily on protein and dairy.  Second, I found out that Jibek Jolu means “Silk Road” in Kyrgyz, so there were bound be plenty of dishes that combined the influences of Chinese, Indian, and Western cooking.  Finally, given that Kyrgyzstan was a former Soviet republic, there would be lots of Russian dishes, and Janice’s friend’s husband is Russian, so we had our cultural “in” if we needed anything.  When we walked up, it was funny to see all of the cabs parked out front due to the high number of Central Asian cabdrivers in Chicago. IMG_6056 We walked in, and the place was jammed for dinner.  IMG_6055We were quickly seated by the friendly staff, and I perused the menu options.  I wasn’t surprised with the amount of meat and root vegetables being offered, but all of that had the making for a great meal in my eyes.  The ingredients don’t have to be super fancy to make a superb meal; it’s all in the freshness of ingredients and execution.  The prices were also very reasonable compared to other Russian restaurants I have been to.  To start the meal, I wanted to try an appetizer, but a majority of them were Russian dishes.  So I went for the tandyr samsy ($4.00) which seemed more Kyrgyz since I had never seen it on a Russian menu.  Plus, it was cooked in an Indian tandoor oven which once again shows the multicultural nature of the cuisine. IMG_6045 When it came out, it reminded me of a ghost from Pac Man,

Four tandur samys

Four tandyr samys

and once I bit through the semi-crunchy crust, I was going “wakawakawakawaka” gobbling it up like the little yellow guy. IMG_6047 It was a great combination of freshly baked bread, plenty of ground beef, and some soft, stewed potatoes to give the dish a little more body.  Then there were the entrees, and each one was quite unique.  First, there was the lagman ($12) which after a bit of research turns out to be more familiar to me than I had previously thought.  Ramen noodles or just “ramen” are known the world over as a cheap snack for poor people and college students, but it turns out the word “lagman” is the Turkic word for “ramen”.  Once again, the interconnected nature of Kyrgyzstan was reflected in this lagman dish that utilized the same hand-pulled noodle techniques that originated in the 16th Century in China.  It was different than the Japanese ramen I tried in Tokyo, but it reflected the no-frills approach to cooking the Central Asian Republics take. IMG_6048 Of course, there was stewed pieces of tender beef, peppers, onions, green beans, and onions along with a beef based broth to bring the ramen bowl together.  I don’t normally say this, but I loved the noodles because they were super soft due to soaking in the aforementioned broth.  I enjoyed every slurping forkful.  We also got a small order of the meat oromo ($7.00), and they were still very substantial.  Looking at these traditional steamed pies, I could only think of the steamed dumplings in Chinese dim sum.  They had the same translucent skin as the little potstickers I’ve taken down many a time in Chinatown. IMG_6049 While the exteriors were Chinese inspired, the interiors were more Slavic in nature with beef, minced potatoes, onions, cabbage and carrots.  They were kind of hard to slice and share due to the fragile skin of the pies, but they were very hearty and all of the ingredients came together like a mini beef stew in a pie.  After we tried that, I got a taste of my girlfriend’s plov ($10.00).  This entree, more commonly known today as “pilaf” which originates from the Sankrit word “pulaka” meaning “a ball of rice”, has been around since the beginning of time.  Alexander the Great comments on being served the same meal while visiting Samarkand, one of the stops for future explorer Marco Polo on the Silk Road.  Alexander’s troops took the “pilav” recipe back to Macedonia, and it spread throughout Europe as “pilaf” from the Greek word “pilafi“.  IMG_6050I didn’t think this rice dish lived up to the other entrees we tried since it just consisted of a broth-infused rice sprinkled with beef, carrots, onions, and garlic.   While moderately flavorful, it seemed to be average in comparison to the other types of food we had tried.  Then there was my kuurdak ($12) which was as elemental as food can get just short of ripping a hunk off a cow.  Turns out this entree is one of the oldest and most traditional of Kyrgyz meals.  It literally was stewed beef, potatoes, and onions. IMG_6051 Simple as it sounds, the combination was amazing in my eyes and on my tastebuds.  I would take this Kyrgyz beef over an American steak and potato dinner any day.  I don’t know what they did to the beef, but it tasted like it was char-grilled and coated in a possible garlic/olive oil mixture.  Then, the potatoes were herbal tinged and extremely tender which combined perfectly with the beef.  The icing on the cake were the raw onions since I love onions in any way, shape, or form.  It was one of the ugliest dishes at the table, but it was a definite hit as the others were sneaking bites off my plate.  The final and most hardcore of the entrees was the beef shashlik ($11.50 for two).  Janice’s friend’s husband, Ivan, ordered it, and when it came out, I couldn’t believe the presentation.  There were two extremely long knives on the plate that had chunks of tandoor cooked beef on them along with a pile of rice and a salad just in case to protect you from a heart attack from ingesting that much red meat in one sitting.  This part of the meal was as delicious as it was fun and dangerous to eat.

In Russia, you cut knife!

In Russia, you cut knife!

The Indian tandoor oven really brought out the intense flavor of the beef, and surprisingly we didn’t cut off our tongues when ripping the beef off the blades as the girls stared on in disbelief.  IMG_6054Best double date ever.

So if you want to try a cuisine you’ve possibly never heard of for a great price with friendly service, make a pilgrimage to Jibek Jolu!
Jibek Jolu on Urbanspoon

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Lets Get Down To Business! To (Def)Eat the Huns!

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Hello and welcome to another installation of Mastication Monologues!  I’m just getting off a long but rewarding templestay weekend in the mountains outside of Seoul.  However, upon returning to civilization, I was on a mission to try a new cuisine that I would have never have thought would be lurking in Seoul’s gastronomic dark corners:  Mongolian food.  Now, in terms of Asian cuisine, Mongolia would not be the first country that would come to mind, and who could blame me with China’s vast plethora of regional dishes and Japan’s global appeal with sushi appearing all over the world.  I would expect simple cuisine like a tenderized piece of beef that has been sitting underneath a Mongol saddle for weeks during a ride across the wind-swept steps (this is actually one theory that may credit the Mongol armies with inventing hamburgers).  So I found out that right by Dongdaemun History Park, exit 5 is Seoul’s very own Central Asian quarter.

In Seoul, Cyrillic reads you!

In Seoul, Cyrillic reads you!

As soon as I walked onto the main street, I felt like I was transported to a land of Borats and Azamats, and they were watching me closely as I resemble their former Russian overlords.  History aside, I was soon in front of Darkhan Cafe (Дархан Kaфe) for some Mongolian cuisine.IMG_0226

Upon walking into the establishment, I was greeted with blank stares from the ladies running the kitchen and a few Mongolian guys from the table across the room.  I guess they’re not used to seeing outsiders in the restaurant, and I have to warn you now that the menus are only in Korean and Cyrillic for the most part aside from the drink menu.  My waitress was quite cordial and spoke a tiny bit of English to help me choose what I figured to be Mongolian goulash based off of the appearance in the menu and my rudimentary skills in sounding out Cyrillic.

I picked, "гупяш"

I picked, “гупяш”

 It came out after about 15 minutes, and it looked very simplistic in appearance but hearty.  Just my kind of meal for 9,000 Won.  I don’t know if it was the fact that I spent the entire weekend eating only vegetables, but the pieces of meat were extra succulent, packed with flavor, and had a great ratio of fat to tender beef.

A meal fit for the Scourge of God

A meal fit for the Scourge of God

The gravy was a nice, slightly-salty compliment to the savory beef.  I also noticed the rice it was served with was drizzled with ketchup which I assume was a touch to modify it for Korean tastes.  However, I really enjoyed the pickled vegetables and carrot salad on the side.  The pickled vegetables were not obnoxiously sour, but did have a slight bite that complimented the bland white rice.  Plus, the carrot salad was quite rich because it consisted of julienned carrots mixed with some sort of mayo and Thousand Island dressing mixture that was strange yet strangely comforting.

Overall, I was satisfied with the meal.  Did it conquer my heart like Ghengis Khan did minus the pillaging/massacring/being related to 1 in every 200 men in the world?  Not really, but it was something new and exciting in a non-touristy restaurant.  So if you’re tired of going to the same old Korean/Western restaurant, come to Darkhan Cafe to experience your own piece of Xanadu (the kingdom, not the song).

Food-Lovers of the World, Unite!

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Привет comrades!  Welcome to a special bday edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be talking about a restaurant that I had walked past about a million times, but I vowed to one day dine there.  Thankfully, my 25th birthday provided a perfect excuse to finally try out the Russian Tea Time Restaurant located at 77 East Adams Street  Chicago, IL 60603.  It is located in a very convenient part of the city and is well-connected with subways and buses.

Now I am a sucker for Russian history since it is filled with so many characters like Peter the Great who was 6’8″ and somehow disguised himself as a common laborer while traveling through different Western European countries to learn new skills, like shipbuilding, in order to modernize Russia.  However, I am not here to give a history lesson, so time to move onto the food.  Upon sitting down, we were greeted by our waiter who was quite pushy in regard to ordering appetizers and drinks.  Not only was the decor fitting for a Russian tea room, but the service was up to Soviet standards.  The waiter’s brusque behavior aside, we did enjoy the complimentary dark rye bread and small salad.  The bread was as dark as ebony and possessed a bold, savory flavor thanks to the caraway and spices in the dough.   As for the salad, the greens were fresh, and the dressing was a very sweet vinaigrette that enhanced the lettuce, chard, cabbage, and tomatoes.  Naturally, our waiter was back and quadruple checking to see if we were ready to order, so I got down to business and ordered the Shashlik with chicken.IMG_0953

Now, most people would be intimidated by the sound of something as foreign as Shashlik, but it is quite a simple dish.  All it consists of is large, boneless chunks of chicken skewered and roasted over a fire while being rubbed down with a simple marinade that can vary from chef to chef.  With my dish, the chicken was served on a fluffy white bed of rice pilaf and accompanied with a miniature mound of carrot salad and tomato sauce.  Even though I was a bit bummed out that the chicken was not served to me on the skewers (lawsuits can take the fun out of certain things), I was still blown away at how tasty it was.  The chicken pieces had a homemade flavor to them because each bite had a bit of a charred aftertaste, and my favorite part was the occasional citrus note that would sneak onto my palate like some sort of KGB operative making a dead drop of deliciousness.  Plus, there were grilled onion sprigs on top of the chicken like small, flavorful, wispy clouds hanging about the Ural  mountain peaks. As for the rice pilaf, I was indifferent to it, but it was enhanced by the tomato sauce that was slightly spicy and chock full o’ Uzbek goodness.  When I saw the carrot salad, I wasn’t sure what to expect since it just looked like an orange mini-haystack hanging out next to the gigantic serving of meat and starch on my plate.  However, it was the most interesting part of the meal because although the carrots were soaked in a semi-sweet dressing, they still managed to maintain their crunchiness.  This switch in textures only enhanced my meal, and surprisingly the typical overpowering taste of the carrots was not overwhelming thanks to the sugary dressing.  Once I finished all of this food, I braced myself for an after dinner treat that would only seem normal in a Russian restaurant:  a vodka flight.

A Russian liquid blanket for those cold nights

A Russian liquid blanket for those cold nights

Since we were in a Russian restaurant, I naturally would not waste my money on a mixed drink or a beer, so I was happy to see that Russian Tea Time embraced and promoted probably the most important and celebrated drink in Russian and  Slavic history.  They have three different types of flights which consist of three 1 ounce shots, and they are all themed.  I ordered the Molotov Cocktail flight which contained honey-pepper, Absolut pepper, and horseradish vodka.  My friend got the house flight which had lime, caraway, and black currant vodka.  The waiter also brought some black rye and pickles to chase the vodka and drink in the traditional Russian fashion that includes smelling the bread, offering a toast, and pounding the shot.  Out of my shots, the worst one was the horseradish one because it combined two quite potent flavors in one shot.  The horseradish burned my sinuses and the vodka burned on the way down…definitely a shot reserved for the only the staunchest of revolutionaries.  Thankfully they gave us plenty of bread and pickles to combat the alcohol equivalent of a Kalashnikov round to my mouth.  As for the house flight, I enjoyed the lime vodka the most while the caraway just tasted terrible.  I think that they should keep the caraway just in the bread and not the liquor.  Funny enough at the end of meal, my waiter asked me if I was Russian or Ukrainian, and I told him I was Polish.  Immediately, he went from being a semi-jerk to quite friendly, and after a couple of Polish phrases, he bid us goodnight.  I still don’t think it made up for his service where he was trying to hustle us all night.

So if you’re looking to try some new food or just want to warm up with some tea or vodka, come on down to Russian Tea Time. You’ll see that Russian food has more to offer than just potatoes, fish, and vodka, and it’s actually so filling and tasty that it can make you dance better than the  late, “great” former Russian president Boris Yeltsin (R.I.P.). Na zdorovye!

Russian Tea Time on Urbanspoon

Russian Tea Time on Foodio54

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