Images by Saskia Kahn. Text by Lindsey Catherine Cornum.
Part II: Soviet Soul Food
The common language of Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay might make you think you’re in Russia. But as the restaurants of these neighborhoods reflect, the area is much more a Little Soviet Union by the Sea. Connected by a shared history and language, each restaurant offers its own unique delicacies from diverse traditions that as a whole make up this microcosm of the USSR.
The Soviet Union encompassed more than 100 ethnic groups. What could possibly be a common denominator among many different cuisines? Consider the dumpling. Unleavened dough filled usually with cheap meat or cheaper vegetables, the dumpling encompasses the simplicity of working people’s comfort food. The iterations are many. There is the Khinkali, a soup dumpling from Georgia; Pelmeni, small ear-shaped dumplings originally from Siberia; and Samsa, the Uzbek meat pastry.
But prevalent as the dumpling may be, it also shares the menu with more extravagant items like caviar and fresh seafood. In this way, the cuisine reflects a people both proud of their roots and eager to assume the trappings of American decadence. There may be a chandelier in the hall but there is also boiled ground meat wrapped in flour on the table. You can rent the private rooms upstairs for a party but you can also eat egg, cheese and potatoes in a stoneware bowl. More than just a meal, each restaurant offers a ritual of return to the unique flavors of the old country.
The Soviet Union bordered both China and North Korea so it’s not surprising to find these national influences. Despite its name, Elza Fancy Food is actually an unassuming luncheonette, and it serves up its lesser-known history of Asian emigration in alternating bowls of lagman and kuksu; the former is an Uzbeki and Turkish tradition, the latter hails from Korea. There has been a sizable Korean population in Uzbekistan since the 19th century, one which persisted through persecution under Stalin and has since also brought its culture to Brooklyn. While both lagman and kuksu are noodle soups, the similarities mostly stop there. Lagman is made with thicker, chewy noodles and a warm herby lamb broth, while kuksu is served cold with thin noodles in a more sour-flavored clear broth with beef and crunchy veggies.
On the day we went, there was only one waitress and one chef at Elza’s (nicknamed “Cafe at Your Mother-in-law’s”). The chef, a Korean woman who hails from Uzbekistan, declined to have her picture taken but her occasional glances from the kitchen told me she was curious about our curiosity. Our waitress answered most of our questions about how the food was prepared and which side of the Soviet/Korean border it originated from. But as to what particular spices were used, that was top secret—the chef evidently had kept this information even from her. To my knowledge Elza’s is the only Korean-Uzbeki restaurant in Brooklyn, but kimchi and Korean-style shredded carrots were found in display cases of restaurants and groceries throughout Brighton.
At Cafe Kashkar, an Uzbeki-owned restaurant named for an oasis city in Western China, the flavors coming from the kitchen hail from Uzbekistan, China, and Turkey, with everything prepared under the Islamic code of halal. Rather than a melting pot, a more appropriate metaphor is the kaleidoscope. The restaurant is filled with tchotchkes of one culture set against fabrics from another. In the corner by the door a hypnotizing loop of Uzbeki music videos plays for Russian and Ukrainian locals who bring their own bottles of vodka for shots between slurps of soup. In sharp contrast with the color and conversation swirling around the tables, the kitchen is a kingdom of concentration overlooked by the matriarch head chef. Silence prevails as the handmadenoodles are stretched and the dumpling dough kneaded. Yet despite the seriousness, the kitchen staff are glad to showcase their traditions.
The essential dish at Cafe Kashkar is again the lagman, made with handmade noodles that can be served dry or in a hearty broth with lamb and veggies. We had the soup variety and our Turkish lunch companion Ruykie insisted on practically pouring both peppery vinegar sauce and thick chili sauce not unlike siracha on every bite. Such seasoning gave the lagman a hint of the hot and sour I find in noodle shops on 8th Avenue in Sunset Park. Following the standard Soviet cuisine course order, our soup was followed by a huge plate of rice plov with tender chunks of lamb. The greasy fattiness was countered by a side of lugasi salad with its slightly sour bouquet of crunchy chopped veggies. We ended our meal with a helping of mante dumplings served in a bamboo steamer with chopsticks, a last nod towards China.
No stroll through the old country would be complete without a bowl of borscht. On a blustery January day, we weren’t the only ones looking for a bowl of soup at Oceanview Cafe. This small corner diner offered the Eastern European classic in two colors, red and green. Red borscht, really more of a purple, is the classic borscht and gets its signature color from beets. The green borscht is more of a Slavic egg drop made green with leaves of the sorrel plant. Both taste better with a generous dollop of sour cream. A versatile and resilient dish, borscht can be served both hot and cold.
And more towards the U.S. side of the Soviet-American spectrum was Vanka Cafe. It’s not everyday I order a beef tongue and radish salad but when it arrived at the table topped with French-fried onions and slathered in a sour creamy mayo substance, it seemed like something any American housewife could have whipped up. Instead it was the work of the impressively mustachioed Zumoe, who is both chef and owner. Zumoe has on his side a small legion of waiters, all smiling and eager to chat up young women. They exuded a coy kind of pride in their restaurant that is both boastful and dismissive. Slightly amused that we were reporting on their diner, they also took the time to answer questions, pose for photos, discuss their national heritage, and offer smiles that bordered on the edge of smirks.
At Apani, a small Georgian take-out place, the specialty is breads. Breads filled with meats, bread filled with cheese, breads filled with potatoes. Similar savory pastries can be bought for a dollar all along Brighton Beach Ave, sold by plump older women outside the markets. One of the more unique items on the menu at Apani was an eggplant spread made with an almond paste and pomegranate seeds, giving it a distinctly Middle-Eastern flavor. With its multitude of influences, Georgian food inhabits that shadowy space between East and West that typifies much of Soviet culture.
This geographic tension is also present in the Turkish restaurants that are so popular in Sheepshead Bay. But just as Turks share linguistic and geographic ties with many post-Soviet nations, they also exhibit the same tremendous cultural pride. It can manifest itself through the half-hostile dismissal of questions from those used to mostly only serving their compatriots. Or it can come in the chin held-high with a small smile as the waiter delivers his restaurant’s delicacy. The food may be simple, borne of peasant life and hard times, but it is also special. Each dumpling served here is a small tribute to strong people who despite the sea changes of history have held fast to the pleasures of tradition.