Bukharian Jews Share Their Food Traditions
In a part of Central Asia, the autumn harvest offers flavors for a sweet new year
By Jayne Cohen
Dora Davidova’s family showed me the two kinds of fig trees flourishing in their Queens, N.Y., front yard. “We’ve always had very sweet, ripe figs on our Rosh Hashanah table,” explained K’sio, Dora’s daughter. Come September, their carefully nurtured American fruit will link this New Year with others celebrated for generations in their native Bukhara.
There, Dora’s family, like many Bukharian Jews, ushered in the holiday at long tables set up in inner courtyards open to the dry September night sky. At her Long Island home, Anya Yagarov shared memories of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where she sat under walnut trees with her in-laws, dipping into honey the fresh apples picked from the “surrounding garden full of all different fruit trees.”
Jews from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and small communities in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—all known as Bukharians, probably because much of the area was once part of the Bukharian Emirate—lived in this part of Central Asia for more than 2,000 years.
Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, with their emphasis on the glorious autumn harvest, are highlights of the seasonal Bukharian kitchen. For the fruit and produce of this area are legendary, extolled not just by Marco Polo and the wandering medieval Jew, Benjamin of Tudela, but more recently by the Yiddish author Chaim Grade in his memoir of World War II, My Mother’s Sabbath Days.
Writing about the September market in Dushanbe, Grade recalled the “mountains of watermelons whose rinds, the color of blue water streaked with green veins, looked like chunks of marble…mounds of cantaloupes, round ones and oval ones, as transparent as fresh eggs...tall, narrow woven baskets filled to the rim with grapes—some round and dark-blue like eye pupils, others long and fingerlike, yellowish and sticky like honey.”
On Sukkot, in sukkahs decorated with colorful embroideries and carpeted with Persian rugs, the fruits, suspended from the trellised roofs, gave off an intoxicating perfume. Even the melons were hung up: As Bukharian émigré Amnun Kimyagarov told me, “They are sold tied in special baskets,” easy to hook up in spite of their weight.
With such fabulous fruits, it is little wonder that desserts do not figure prominently at the close of even holiday meals. Instead, there are fresh and dried fruits and an assortment of nuts. And though Central Asian winters can be brutally cold, Amnun explained that Bukharians have devised ways to store produce so that it remains deliciously fresh and sweet throughout the year.
Because the fruits and vegetables were so juicy and flavorful (the result of long, dry, hot summers), they required little in the way of adornment. So most salads—including raw ones and the highly popular grilled, garlicky eggplant puree—are prepared without oil. Many recipes call for no more seasoning than salt and black pepper—or, at most, onions and cilantro. Other important aromatics include garlic, scallions and more fresh herbs like dill, parsley and mint. But spices are usually limited to cumin, turmeric, caraway, anise, sesame, a little saffron and cinnamon. “Our pumpkins were so sweet,” said Margarita, Dora’s older daughter, “they never needed sugar.”
The dishes that might grace a Rosh Hashanah table bear testimony to Bukharian Jewish cuisine’s varied influences. The ancient Silk Route that connected Europe with China straddled the towns of Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Dushanbe and Merv. The silks and spices, camels and gold were not the only riches that found their way to this area. There were also culinary treasures: new cooking methods, equipment and ingredients all left their mark.
To dip into honey, there is lepeshka, a Middle Eastern–style round flatbread, fluffy and chewy. Originally, lepeshka was baked in a tandyr, the hot, clay oven from India. The taste for rice dishes mixing meats with quince, apples and raisins, as well as with tart apricots, sour cherries and barberries, comes from Persia. The various stuffed vegetables and perhaps the pumpkin turnovers, bishak, may have originated in Turkic lands. The dumplings known as manti to Uzbeks and qasqoniy to Bukharian Jews are neither boiled nor fried, but steamed, revealing their Mongolian/Chinese provenance. China is also the source of the steamed buns and mung beans, the favorite Bukharian legume, and the probable home of the piala, the cup without handles used not only to serve tea, but also—by every cook I interviewed—to measure recipe ingredients to this day. And after the Russian conquest in the 19th century came the oniony kotleti (cutlets), Siberian ravioli (pelmeni) and Tatar meat pies (belyashi), as well as chebureki, puffy fried pies filled with savory meat or vegetables.
Central Asians forged this culinary melting pot into a unique cuisine; Bukharian Jews refined it further, filtered through the preferences of their own palates and the requisites of kashrut. Rice dishes are especially memorable: difficult to grow in dry Central Asia where so many crops must be irrigated, water-loving rice was expensive, and so reserved for festive occasions and holidays.
For Shabbat, Bukharians devised a special method of cooking rice: the rice, meat, seasonings and oil are spooned into a linen bag, then very slowly simmered. Just enough room is left for the rice to expand slightly, so that the grains emerge creamy and tender.
But the crowning jewel of the cuisine is palov, and the Bukharian-Jewish cooks I spoke to said Jewish palovs are lighter-tasting, less fried, and more subtly spiced than mainstream Central Asian palovs. Onions and deeply flavorful yellow carrots caramelize, along with savory meat; as this heady mix simmers, it steams and flavors the layer of rice placed on top of it. Rosh Hashanah palovs are often extra-luscious, combining sweet-sour barberries, pomegranate seeds and perhaps quince, along with raisins and heads of garlic.
The name “palov” suggests the familiar Middle Eastern pilaf. But there is little in common here other than perhaps the predilection for rice that many Bukharian Jews share with their Persian forebears. And it is in ancient Persia that most historians trace the beginnings of Bukharian Jewry. After the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, Jews dispersed throughout Mesopotamia and, later, the Persian Empire. When King Cyrus of Persia granted Jews permission to return to their homeland, many chose instead to travel further east through the empire, bringing with them sophisticated skills as musicians, poets, weavers, dyers, and tile makers; emigration from that area continued for centuries. In Central Asia they developed their own Judeo-Persian dialect, Bokharian, still spoken today.
Throughout the following centuries, there were periods of relative prosperity and religious tolerance, when Jewish merchants plied the Silk Route, relying on their extensive contacts with their co-religionists for the financial services needed to do business along the way. The Mongol conqueror Tamerlane rebuilt some of the Jewish areas destroyed by Genghis Khan, and Jewish musicians arrived from Persia to play for the emir’s court. Wealthy Jews wore elegant silk coats, embroidered with brilliant colors.
But these good times alternated with periods of humiliating persecution and forced conversions to Islam. By the 16th century, Jews were subject to restrictions designed to separate them from the Muslim population and encourage conversion: They were forbidden to buy property, to ride horses, even to wear brightly colored clothes.
The restrictions made producing prayer books and ritual objects very difficult, and beginning in the 17th century, these objects were imported from Venice, Livorno and Palestine. The imports reflected the Sephardi rites, and so began the gradual replacement of the local liturgy. With the arrival of the charismatic Moroccan rabbi, Joseph Maman Maghribi from Safed in 1793, the community underwent a spiritual revival—and a complete embrace of Sephardi traditions.
Ironically, it was the dawn of Russian control that brought significant change and new prosperity for the Jews. In the mid-19th century, when the tsar conquered Central Asia and incorporated it into his empire, the Bukharian Jews were granted full equality with the Muslims. To their Ashkenazi brethren, tsars were synonymous with evil incarnate, but in Bukhara, Jews embraced the new tsarist leadership, which brought good schools, the right to buy property and trade on Russian soil, even religious freedom. Bukharian Jews quickly learned Russian: Even today, many teach it to their American-born children.
The community continued to thrive until the Russian Revolution. Though Central Asia still had more active synagogues than anywhere else in the Soviet Union, most were closed. Practicing Judaism entailed subterfuge and sacrifices, but many Bukharians continued to celebrate holidays and lifecycle events, and even keep kosher.
“It was the mothers, really, who kept us Jewish. Our fathers wanted us to assimilate so we would succeed in the Soviet world,” explained Aron Aronov. “But our mothers insisted we fast on Yom Kippur and checked our pockets for hametz before letting us into the house on Passover.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent exodus of nearly all Bukharian Jews, the history of Jews in Central Asia is drawing to a close. But Jews like Aron, determined to preserve their distinctive culture, are writing a new chapter in the United States, particularly in the New York area, where an estimated 40,000 Bukharian Jews now make their home. Early one Friday morning, Aron gave me a tour of the private Bukharian Jewish Heritage Museum he set up with his own funds in Rego Park, N.Y.: a treasury of thousands of objects of Bukharian Jewish life he collected before immigrating. He pointed out the huge kazans used to prepare palov for 300 wedding guests, a tandyr, striped white robes for Yom Kippur and gorgeously embroidered skullcaps for men and women, then brought out a special box of finely wrought jewelry.
And then there is Dr. Amnun Kimyagarov. With a background in food science and technology, he collected hundreds of recipes during perestroika, while still living in Samarkand: “I wanted the recipes to be authentic, and I knew they would change when people began cooking them outside of Central Asia.” The result is Classic Central Asian (Bukharian) Jewish Cuisine & Customs, a culinary love letter to Bukharian Jewry, now available in English.
And as I chatted with Amnun and his wife, Zoya, we talked about preparing Rosh Hashanah pumpkin dumplings with purchased wonton wrappers instead of homemade pasta dough and cooking Shabbat rice without the traditional linen bag.
Yet I knew that their young granddaughter, Linda, who had helped cook the recipes for the book, already knew how to prepare a Bukharian Jewish Rosh Hashanah in the traditional way. Her face lit up as she described the dazzling number of dishes the large gathering of extended family will share at her grandparents’ table this year, beginning with seven to 10 fresh salads.
And on Dora’s Rosh Hashanah table, there would be the same foods for the customary Sephardi Seven Blessings, including the homegrown figs and a pomegranate. And as always, they will hold off eating the pomegranate until the following night, so they can utter the Sheheheyonu prayer prior to partaking of its crimson sweetness.
I remember that it was a pomegranate that the old Bukharian Jew had given to Chaim Grade so many years ago so that he, too, could recite the traditional prayer. Sheheheyonu. Yes, the prayer for new beginnings.
Jayne Cohen is the author of Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Classics and Improvisations.
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