A Taste of Central Asia in Central U.S.A.

In Chicago, an ancestrally nomadic people settle down and bring their food traditions with them. A historical journey of empires, conquests, cultural diffusion and migrations, all captured in the spices, textures and ingredients of Kyrgyz cuisine. Illustrations by Haina Wang for Midstory.

Listen to the author read this piece aloud. Produced by Samuel Chang.

On a sweltering summer afternoon, I want nothing more than a hot bowl of laghman noodles to slurp and savor; to chew through endless noodles and wash it down with spicy broth; to chase the broth with a glass of ice-cold kompot; to inhale the deep fragrance of cumin sticking to my clothes and to smell like it for hours I want it all.

Back in 2001, my family immigrated to the U.S. from Uzbekistan. Like many others leaving Central Asia at the time, my parents were seeking better economic and political stability that our home country struggled to provide in the infancy of its post-Soviet independence. 

Despite the physical relocation and determined attempts at American assimilation, I realized there are aspects of your upbringing that stay with you even after you leave. More and more, it became clear how previous normalcy and mundanity take on a sacred status in a new country. Food, for example, rises to a role beyond mere sustenance; it becomes a daily practice of cultural preservation.

For 18 years, I was spoiled with buttered blinchiki on weekend mornings and pots of plov on festive occasions, perhaps never fully appreciating the labor of love that went into each dish. When I moved to Chicago, the absence of a good home cooked meal — the kind I have not yet mastered myself — left this stomach-rumbling void. 

And so began my hunt for authentic Uzbek food in Chicago, a journey that led me to discover a different, but familiar, trove of restaurants and residents. In my preliminary internet search, what I came across was evidence of a rich Kyrgyz community and a handful of restaurants, which feature practically all of the same dishes I grew up eating — with a few regional variations, of course.

Now, in this June heat, I find my way to Euro Asia, a Kyrgyz restaurant down W. Oak St. on Chicago’s North Side. The humble brick storefront, nestled beside a barbershop and fitness training center, dons a neon “Open” sign.

When I step inside, a multi-colored felt carpet on the wall grabs my attention, reminiscent of the thick rugs my family had nailed in our own apartment. The second thing to catch my eye is the deep auburn countertop showcasing a plethora of familiar pantry goodies: dried apricots, fruit jams, eggplant caviar, baby pickles, raw honey, Russian-brand condensed milk and bags of sunflower seeds. 

Behind the counter, the restaurant owner, Ruslan, walks out and greets me with a fist bump. At 3:30 pm, the post-lunch pre-dinner time slot is the slowest period and the perfect time to sit down for an afternoon conversation over hot tea and medovik (honey cake).  

I quickly feel at home and unsurprisingly, I’m not the only one. Ruslan tells me that for the homestyle dishes they offer, people travel an easy 30 to 40 miles for a taste. Although Ruslan himself is from Azerbaijan, the restaurant’s main chef is from Kyrgyzstan and used to own a small manti shop there. Her speciality in dough can be witnessed on the restaurant’s Instagram page, which features videos of her making handmade noodles for laghman. Ruslan proudly proclaims that “she’s the main reason for the quality of the food in this place.”

The restaurant’s loyal customer base can also be attributed to their intentions of quality and authenticity over shortcuts. Fresh food is made from scratch on the daily, much of which is labor intensive and done by hand. This type of hard work, however, is not just good business, but part of Ruslan’s passion for cooking.

“I’ve been cooking since I was a child,” he said. “I’ve always had a good knowledge of different cuisines and … I still enjoy cooking.” 

When I asked which dishes were a must-try for me today, Ruslan went beyond the menu and instead put together a sampler of five classic dishes: pelmeni, laghman, manti, morkovcha, and beshbarmak. I was no stranger to the first four, but I admittingly had never eaten a proper bowl of beshbarmak (the national dish for both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) before this day. I knew I had to try it. Plus, a bowl full of noodles and meat — what’s not to love? 

The solo feast — on top of the tea and cake from earlier — filled me up real good. There are few things more satisfying than walking away from a table having left every plate clean, so naturally, I finished every bite.

Whereas other Asian cuisines like Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, and Thai are common dining options, Central Asian food — that which primarily hails from the “-stan countries” of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — is rarely talked about and generally much harder to find in the United States. But its rich culinary history, flavor profiles and simultaneous intermixing across other cultures makes it a worthwhile endeavor that would most likely resonate with taste buds belonging to other regions such as South Asia, East Asia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. 

Central Asia’s geographic centrality between Russia, China, India, Iran and Eastern Europe has perpetually positioned it as a product of cultural diffusion all throughout history. From the Persian Empire and trade routes of the Silk Road to the Mongolian and Ottoman empires, these multifaceted layers of influence have blended and persisted even in today’s traditions and foods. 

More recently, Central Asia (along with the Caucasus and Eastern Europe) was swept by Russian imperialism from the mid-18th century to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 — a domineering legacy that is still heavily present in the social consciousness and cuisine of all post-Soviet states.

Scott Levi, an Ohio State University professor specializing in Central Asian History and an avid educator of Central Asian cuisine, has made notable efforts in advancing the proliferation of Central Asian cooking through his summer intensives for fellow educators. 

“Food — it’s a window into culture, right?” Levi said. “It’s shaped by environment, ecology, but culture, as well.”

Those cultures — namely Russian, Chinese, Indian, Iranian and Eastern European — have left their fingerprints all over dishes found in Central Asia.

“This food has a very deep Chinese influence. A very deep Soviet influence,” Ruslan said. “Every food has some kind of influence. And I mean, our laghman, for example…when you look at this food, it’s very similar to Chinese style. Laghman is [transliterated] from the Chinese word ‘la mian’ meaning ‘hand’ and ‘pulled.’”

Levi said beshbarmak has similar East Asian origins.  

It’s just a bed of noodles with a bunch of chopped meat on top of it,” he said. “Not much more than salt, maybe a little pepper in terms of flavor, you throw some garlic, some vegetables, some herbs in there, things that would be more available in the Steppe, you’ll find those things. And so that might be a little more closely related to what you find in Mongolia…”

(But food is as fluid as rapid patterns of globalization — and that’s also shown in a bed of noodles.)

“…although, of course, in Mongolia, today, in the 21st century, we’re going to find a lot more Chinese influence because a lot of foodways are moving from China northward. So it’s what’s available, right? Politics shapes it. Commercial patterns shape it. And these things do change over time.”

Although understanding of Asian-American identity — a term born out of the Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 70s — has generally matured beyond the model minority myth and monolithic assumptions, the term itself ambitiously aims to include over fifty ethnic groups, inevitably leading to blurred definitions and exclusion of lesser-known cultures. 

Even the most representative and diverse data sets compiling Asian American demographics consistently leave out Central Asian Americans as a subgroup. The reasons for this are plentiful: not only are Asian Americans the least likely ethnic group to fill out the census, Central Asians have only really begun appearing in the U.S. after the USSR’s dissolution in 1991. Compared to other Asian groups with earlier immigration patterns and/or greater exposure to America via militaristic and economic interactions, Central Asians have had less time to build up expansive communities with multigenerational roots. 

In the past couple decades, however, Chicago has become a hub for Kyrgyz people. Between 1999-2017, over ten thousand Kyrgyz migrants became lawful permanent residents in the U.S. and about 50,000 more were admitted on temporary status. 

Immigration patterns within that 18-year period show a diverse set of travel routes, the most popular being family-sponsored migration, the Diversity Program (“visa lottery”) and asylum petitions. Yet none of these paths guarantee citizenship without stipulations and a lengthy bureaucratic process. At the minimum, it allows breadwinners to send back remittances, but immigration policy has continuously been a rocky landscape. U.S. travel restrictions on Muslim-majority countries, for example, included Kyrgyzstan in its updated list for 2020. While that has since been revoked, U.S. immigration legislation remains in fluctuation with changing quotas and policies, both pre- and post-arrival to the States. The situation is even more precarious for those of undocumented status, of which Central Asians make up a significant number.

Whether Chicago became a popular landing point for its economic opportunities, its status as a sanctuary city, its general urban beauty or all of the above, the city (particularly the North Side) presently boasts a sizable Kyrgyz population. What started from a few people making their way to Chicago led to a series of “chain migrations”: a social phenomenon where migrants of the same ethnic origin end up creating clusters within a given neighborhood, also helping “newcomers navigate the economic and social landscape of the unfamiliar place…[since] finding work and housing is easier in a city or in a neighborhood that has one’s compatriots,” writes Ajar Chekirova, an Assistant Professor of Politics at Lake Forest College.  

While exact data is unavailable, Ruslan estimates that 20,000 Kyrgyz people have made their way to Chicago since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Here, they have planted new roots, many finding employment in the taxi industry for which schools back in Kyrgyzstan prepare them for. Others like Kairat Mavlyankulov rise as community leaders, bringing the Krygyz community together through cultural events, language learning and small business support. 

And when, like me, they look for foods that remind them of home, they look toward Euro Asia and other Kyrgyz restaurants like Jibek Jolu, Chayhana and Bai Cafe for that nostalgic taste. 

For those not as fortunate to have Central Asian restaurants in their vicinity but curious about it, you can always try whipping up a dish at home. Scott Levi shares his roundup of recipes that he’s taught at past cooking demos here, with an additional preface: 

“I didn't create all of these recipes 100% from scratch, I took the recipes from [a] variety of sources, and then mixed them, played around with them a little bit to make them suit my palate the best.”  

For me, I know I will eventually have to learn from the kitchen masters of my own lineage. Despite the number of recipes out there, my definition of a home-cooked meal transcends exact measurements. Seasonings are, after all, best calculated by intuition. And as I inherited the shape of my grandmother’s mouth, it’s only fitting that I learn how to feed it, too. 

And though it may take a couple lifetimes to master the art of hand-pulled noodles, I happen to now know the best chef in the business. The best part? They’re only a train ride away, right off the Clark/Division Red Line station and a couple blocks up W. Oak St.

Snapshots of the author’s trip to Euro Asia. By Kristina Kim for Midstory.



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