Combing through decades of meal memories, and New York’s diamond district, to find a long-lost garlic dish from childhood.
I consider being born with a healthy appetite and spending the first ten years of my life in some very diverse neighborhoods as my great double blessing. When I was eight and living in Skokie, Illinois, all the kids on my block either were born somewhere else or their parents were. My friend Eugene and his family, who had come from Korea, lived in the apartment next to Sammy, a friend whose parents had defected from the Soviet Union. Across from them, I had a friend named Sebastian who had emigrated from Greece when he was two, and a few apartments down from him were a pair of Chinese brothers who taught me how to pop a wheelie on my black BMX bike with yellow tires. The great unifier among my buddies was that their mothers all loved me because I was polite, I instinctively took my shoes off before entering a house, and I cleaned my plate without question if I ate dinner in their home. But the friend I liked visiting the most was David.
David’s family was Jewish, like mine. They spoke Russian at home and also said “Russia” was where they came from, but I wasn’t familiar with which part. I learned later that a lot of Jews from what was then the Soviet Union just thought it was easier than saying Latvia, Turkmen, Ukraine, or some other place they’d likely then have to explain to their American neighbors. If David or his family told me they were Bukharan Jews, I wouldn’t have understood what that meant at the time. The differences between various Jewish communities—like Bukharan, Sephardic, and Mizrahi—aren’t usually properly explained to American Ashkenazi Jewish kids. All I understood was that David’s family didn’t eat the same sort of food we did.
They had these little pastries that looked like the samosas some of the Indian kids I knew ate—dumplings not unlike the pierogies I ate when I visited the homes of other friends from places like Odesa or Kyiv, but they looked more like what you’d get from a Chinese restaurant. Also rice. Lots of rice. I’d never seen so much of it before I went to David’s.
His family had a few different dishes that I didn’t remember the names of, but there was one that stuck out to me, which I simply called “the garlic rice” because I could smell it from two rooms away, and when it was brought to the table, there was always a roasted bulb or two in the rice. Mixed in were chickpeas, carrots, and chunks of meat, but every bite was dominated by one flavor. That was the start of me believing that too much garlic is never a bad thing. When I’d go to David’s on Saturday mornings, the dish would be served cold since David’s family was religious and prohibited from turning on the oven during Shabbat. Cold garlic rice—it was incredible.
My love of garlic started when I was young. I can instantly recall the garlic butter my mother and her mother were so fond of making to dip just about anything—from rolls to artichokes—into. And while the combination of garlic and butter is nearly as perfect as that of peanut butter and chocolate, the rice dish at David’s house was the first time I remember garlic playing such a central role in a meal, besides being a condiment or something slathered onto a piece of bread.
The problem arose when we moved to a neighborhood an hour north of the city after a year, a place where me being white but Jewish made me an ethnic abnormality in the WASPy Chicago suburb. Nobody there ate good food, and everybody walked around their homes with shoes on. I longed for the place I used to live, and especially for the garlic rice that I couldn’t even ask my mom to make because I had never asked David what it was called. I spent the next 15 years of my life seeking the answer.
Eventually I figured it out when I was searching for something else. Somewhere in my genetic code, which mostly looks like a map of the Eastern European Jewish diaspora, I have a connection to Central Asia. When I asked the relative who is the closest thing we have to a family historian, he replied that he wasn’t sure, but it was one of the places that ended in “-stan.” That information didn’t help much, since the five former Soviet republics that make up the region between China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Russia are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
And because Jewish people had to move around a lot—to escape violence, to find better opportunities, or likely both—finding any record of where my family went on their way toward the part of Romania that’s now Ukraine but was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire when they showed up (see how confusing this is?) was next to impossible. But while I was trying to figure it out, I started exploring food from the region. I might as well get the full experience, I figured. And there’s no better way to connect to the past than to eat foods your ancestors may have also enjoyed.
My love of garlic started when I was young. I can instantly recall the garlic butter my mother and her mother were so fond of making to dip just about anything—from rolls to artichokes—into.
That was how I first ended up at Taam Tov in Manhattan’s Diamond District. A friend had told me that the restaurant was where all the dealers that kept kosher went, and as soon as I walked in the door, my eyes connected with a plate on a nearby table that had a few of the samsa meat pies I’d eaten as a kid. There were familiar smells coming from the kitchen, but garlic stood out as the central ingredient. The strange thing is that it wasn’t a specific variety of garlic or the way it was being cooked that grabbed me; it was the context. The fragrance produced something less Proustian and more like déjà vu. It felt like I’d experienced smelling garlic that exact same way before. It’s a hard sensation to recount without sounding like I just spent a week at a wellness retreat searching for my inner child, but for a second I was totally familiar with everything around me despite never having set foot in that place before.
I sat down next to the guy eating the meat pies and took a look at the menu, which was filled with various kebabs, shawarma, a few soups I was familiar with (borscht), and a few I’d never heard of. One of them, the lagman, was like a hearty beef and vegetable soup, but with long, thin noodles that reminded me of lo mein or something I’d see if I went to a ramen place. I was already familiar with the Korean influence on Uzbek food that developed after Joseph Stalin’s forced deportation of Koreans from the parts of the Russian Far East they’d been living in to places like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but I’d never seen it on display in a kosher restaurant. I ate my fill and started going to Taam Tov regularly when I began working in an office nearby, but I never saw anything on the menu that resembled the garlic rice I was craving.
Garlic plays a big role in Central Asian cooking. The bulbous flowering plant is native to the region, with varietals specific to certain countries. The type from Turkmenistan is known as Turban garlic—they’re a bit smaller and have a mild taste, while the Kazakh monshanskij garlic, with its purple stripes streaking down its wrapper, has a smoother taste that doesn’t linger in the mouth and is a favorite of chefs all over the world when they can find it. I’ve found that Uzbek garlic tends to be easier to find in the United States, at least on the West Coast. It has more of a bite to it than other bulbs from the region and more of an earthy flavor.
Today garlic is everywhere, and the stinky little bulbs make about $21 billion annually across the planet. China grows the bulk of it—nearly three-quarters of the world’s supply comes from there. It’s been growing there for thousands of years, but since it’s such big business, anything you buy from your supermarket sourced from there probably wasn’t harvested wild. If you happen to get a head or two from one of China’s neighbors to the west, it’s likely that grew wild, and the flavor difference is astonishing. Whereas most grocery store garlic in the United States tends to have a bitter, spicy taste to it, Kazakh garlic, for instance, has a nutty, earthy flavor without the sharpness of the stuff shipped over from China. If you’re able to try garlic from Central Asia, that, to me, is the real stuff. It’s organic, pulled from the ground, and has a richness to it that you can’t create in a lab. It makes you realize just how much we’re missing when it comes to flavor in America—not just with garlic but with almost any food item.
Unfortunately, price and quantity make it difficult for most people from the region to get garlic from their homeland. But every person I spoke to with ties to one of the “-stans” made a point of telling me how important the bulbs remain to nearly everything they make. “I’d say I’m going through about 20 pounds a week,” Edward Ilyasov tells me. Ilyasov is Bukharan, but unlike the rest of his family, he’s a first-generation American. He makes pickles the same way his family did in Uzbekistan.
That means every jar of his Uncle Edik’s Pickles has garlic in it—some more than others, depending on the flavor. “It’s a simple recipe that got passed down, but it’s not similar to the [typical] Ashkenazi way of making pickles,” he says of the pickles he produces in Fresh Meadows, Queens. “It’s not sour or half-sour. When people ask me, I tell them it’s a completely different style.” He started making pickles in his basement as a hobby, but now he produces about a thousand jars a week and sells them out of a storefront near his home, and garlic is nearly as important as cucumbers to the recipe.
When Ilyasov mentions “the Ashkenazi way of making pickles,” he’s talking about the ubiquitous and relatively mild kosher dills you tend to find on grocery store shelves across the country made by Vlasic or Claussen. Uncle Edik’s are also a Jewish style of pickled cucumber—“Proudly Bukharian,” every jar states, just below the words “Made in New York.” Bukharan Jews are a minority within a minority, with a population of about 320,000 worldwide. The earliest recorded mention of the ethnoreligious group was in the 1500s by Europeans traveling through the region, but the culture had likely been developing since the 4th or 5th century CE.
Today about 80,000 Bukharan Jews are living in and around New York City, so I thought finding the garlic rice my childhood friend’s mother made me would be easier, but even Ilyasov wasn’t quite sure. He ran down a list of other delicious Bukharan dishes I’ve tried, but when I mentioned the garlic rice, it only led to confusion—garlic and rice are two things you find in a lot of the recipes Ilyasov’s family brought over from Uzbekistan.
Thankfully I’d already found somebody who knew what I was craving. “Sirkoniz. My mother makes the best,” my old barber told me one day as he ran the clippers across my scalp. Live in New York City long enough, and you’re bound to get your hair trimmed by a Bukharan barber. My current barber is Bukharan as well, and he’s who put me onto Uncle Edik’s. My old barber, who worked in a small shop in Manhattan before moving to LA, invited me out to Rego Park, the Queens neighborhood with the largest concentration of Bukharan Jews almost anywhere, but I never took him up on the offer. I often wish I had.
Instead I searched online, eventually finding a recipe that sounded most like the one my friend David’s mother made me a long time ago. I searched online to find Uzbek garlic, but it seemed I’d just missed my window, and the two specialty markets on the West Coast I found had sold out their supply. Selling a limited supply of garlic from a place like Central Asia isn’t exactly a big money maker for stores, so whenever you hear it’s available, you need to jump on it, and I didn’t know that then. No matter, I figured. The stuff regularly found in American grocery stores was good enough for me once—I made it work and prepared my first batch of sirkoniz. When I started eating it, I wasn’t transported back to my childhood friend’s house in Skokie. Instead, I had a feeling not that different from the one I felt when I got my first whiff of Taam Tov; that familiar but totally foreign sense that I’ve decided is a secret laced somewhere in my DNA. I’ll never totally understand it, but it smells and tastes incredible.
Good Things with Garlic: In this limited-run column, Jason Diamond digs into the world of garlic around the world, from Brooklyn to Kazakhstan.