Once your ears adjust to the Hebrew banter in the streets of Rego Park, you start to realize that it is used in the same way as much the world uses English—as a common tongue for people of different nationalities to communicate. That is also when you learn to see people and cultures beyond the Hasidic Jews, the black-coated, top-hat sporting orthodox group who make up a good percentage of the Rego Park mix. The Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Kazakhs, the Afghans, and the Iranians—the faces of the silk route—pop up in the crowds.
You find people like Jacob Arang, an Uzbek immigrant whose bread is strictly kosher, but who has never been to any of the multitude of synagogues peppering every corner around every block because he cannot speak a word of Hebrew.
Just as Bagelicious is a classic trademark for the community, so are samsis and baklavas garnished with the same age old spices that travelled up and down across the steppes of Central Asia for centuries.
Just a few steps beyond the Holocaust Memorial Corner begins what is locally known as the “Bukharian Broadway,” a segment of 108th Street called by that name because of its numerous Central Asian outlets. A restaurant called “Registan” seems to have married the name Rego Park with “stan”, the suffix emblematic of many Central Asian countries.
On the menu folder was a glittering picture of the city of Samarkand.
“Uzbek?” I asked the cashier sitting behind his counter.
He nodded yes. “And Kosher,” he said, his round features crinkling up into a smile around his eyes. His name was David, and chatting with me in broken English laced with a thick Russian accent, he explained that Registan is also the name of a place in Samarkand.
The place is by no means a spot for fine dining, with prices as low as $2.50 and people popping in for a quick bite. Yet you won’t find paper plates and plastic utensils at Registan. Steaming cups of tea came in ornate gold-washed teapots, food in gleaming porcelain, similarly intricately designed.
I ordered a Kirgisian Shurpa, a light savory soup of sweet potatoes, turnips, and large bulbuous chickpeas in a garnish of chopped carrots and raw onions that at first sight would fool any diet fan with its healthy green feel. A spoonful is enough to dispel that illusion—the soup is a veritable cholesterol nightmare, the entire concoction was stewed in pure lamb fat. Telltale globules of silky marrow simmered on top.
However the primarily Uzbek clientele seemed not to shy away from eating rich. An Uzbek resident of Rego Park walked into the restaurant for a quick lunch, sat at the same table as me, and devoured three fat skewers of grilled lamb meat, half a loaf of flatbread, and a cheburek, which is a large deep fried pastry stuffed with meat and potatoes, roughly the size of a plate. All of this, he polished off in roughly the same amount of time it took me to struggle through my intensely flavored soup. Patiently waiting for me to finish my soup, he read the Vatandosh, a monthly community paper published by the Uzbeks in New York.
To finish it off, David set down glasses of a emerald green liquid in front of us. Fizzing profusely, the drink looked like molten jewels. It was a tarragon flavored carbonated drink brought in from Uzbekistan.
“Tarkhun,” said David, as he handed me a glass, pronouncing the “kh” as a profound rumble that came from deep inside his throat.
“Tarkhun,” I tried to repeat, failing miserably at imitating his accent.
No meal, however, is complete without steaming infusions of dried tea leaves served in delicate handleless cups. Once you have downed your hot liquid, the Uzbek experience is complete.