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Uzbekistan, That Country Down the Street

There are times when you find hidden gems close to home. This is what happened yesterday during what was supposed to be an ordinary evening of decent European beers in a frankly depressing setting that is our local bar. Still, the drunchies came to be and my partner, brother-in-law, and I frolicked down the road hoping that the Uzbek eatery that we’d vaguely passed by a couple of times was open since it was Memorial Day here in Israel. Success! It seemed to be business as usual in the family-run establishment. Our little family wandered in with high hopes of a delightful dining experience.

Now I know next to nothing about central Asian food, except perhaps plov, a meat and rice pilaf type thing that I vaguely thought about making last month and forgot about because I became obsessed with chicken hearts. (Try marinating them in cajun seasoning and frying them in butter-it’s lovely). I assumed we would be having something similar to Russian food, Uzbekistan being FSU and all, but no. God no. I was so pathetically wrong it’s embarrassing.

Our server was this sweet motherly woman bouncing with energy as she explained that there was no menu and that she, in fact, was the menu. Tonight, she explained, they would only be serving the infamous plov, manti dumplings, and meat skewers. Sure. Yalla, as we say in Israel. We ordered some of everything. I was entrusted with selecting the meat and decided on wings, entrecôte, and lamb kebab. Crap. I remembered as I was wobbling back to our table. Entrecôte steaks are expensive.

We’d barely gone over the logistics of the next day’s Independence Day grilling plans that our manti dumplings arrived. The server was so proud to announce that they were hot off the stove, and so I felt honored to get to enjoy them at their best. Manti is sort of like Russian pelmeni dumplings except…not. The dough on manti is much thinner and the dumplings themselves are huge and need to be eaten with a knife and fork. Gently perfumed with what I’m pretty sure was caraway and generously filled with ground beef, they were absolutely wonderful.

Next up came the plov, which I honestly wasn’t that excited about. I mean, rice pilaf with meat. Dull right? Well. Me being wrong was apparently the theme of the evening since that rice dish was perhaps the best thing I’d eaten in the last two weeks. Each grain of rice was perfectly cooked and coated with sunflower oil, and the meat was nicely seared and braised so that it fell apart as you stuffed your face. The spicing was perfect, the sort of blend no one has ever documented but instead verbally passed on for generations.

And then the grilled meat arrived. We were shocked by how generous the portions were. Huge chunks of steak we could barely get in our mouths, a huge kebab, massive wings like you find in the US…I was already pretty full too, so the scene was rather intimidating. Piled high with onions and dill, this was perhaps some of the best barbecue I’d had in Israel, except perhaps when Almog makes it. (See “How to Grill Like an Israeli” for more about that). The meat was of good quality and so juicy and lush I didn’t want to stop eating it, and yet my belly objected just as I got to the chicken wings. Still, the look of awe on my brother-in-law’s face as he dug in was enough to judge just how tasty they were.

What a learning experience this cute little restaurant was! I found myself warmly welcomed by a people group whose food I’ve never encountered, a truly blissful event.

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