Dining

K-U-R Town

The story of Korean-Uzbek-Russian food, from Stalin to Brooklyn
Photos: Liz Barclay
Uzbek Korean Fusion Cuisine

Two blocks north of the boardwalk in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, just past a storefront hawking questionable luggage under a blue tarp, you'll find a tiger orange awning that reads "Y Tëщи" in the Cyrillic equivalent of Comic Sans. A small, sparse café also known by two English names, At Your Mother-in-Law (a translation of the snappier Russian) or Eddie Fancy Foods, it looks like almost any other side-street eatery in this heavily Slavic neighborhood. Yet in the fridge, next to a plastic container of quintessentially Russian Olivier salad, sit cartons of something that looks like kimchi. And while some patrons suck down borscht, others slurp on guksu noodle soups.

This isn't the result of a delivery gone wrong. At Your Mother-in-Law is the U.S. foothold of an unexpected fusion, mixing Korean, Russian and Uzbek cuisines into an eclectic Eurasian mélange. Yet this blend isn't, like so much of the Korean fusion food we've warmed to in recent years, the result of entrepreneurial chefs blending peninsular spice, tang and fermentation into beloved American standards to bridge a cultural gap. It's the product of a history that starts with Joseph Stalin and ends with a distinct flavor profile. Yet although this fusion's story differs substantially from that of the bulgogi taco, it's likely to benefit from the Korean craze sweeping America, hook us on its own merits and (like Korean fusion introduced Americans to hard-core Korean food) get more people into the oft-neglected heartiness of Russian and Uzbek cuisines.

All the salads stocked at At Your Mother-in-Law

Korean-Uzbek-Russian food is the story of an ethnic identity created by totalitarian force in 1937 when Stalin moved almost 200,000 recent Korean migrants from Russia's eastern borderlands to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.The move to Central Asia took a toll on the culture of these migrants, who took to calling themselves Koryo-Saram ("Korean people"). They lost their mother tongue, adopting the Russian language and names, but maintained their old foods. Yet unlike Koreans in America, whose restaurants rarely (if ever) made concessions to the palates of their new home, Koryo-Saram food by necessity or proclivity sacrificed much of its spice, adopting the cool, sometimes-bitter notes of Russian dishes.

You can taste that history in At Your Mother-in-Law's food. Most of its Korean influences stay in the soups and salads, mild sidekicks to the thick Uzbek dishes like plov or manti that dominate the entrées. Its popular kuksu, for instance, a variation on cold guksu soup, comes with light pepper flake seasoning on the side. Even when added, the cucumber, pickled cabbage (not fermented kimchi) and dill hit harder than the spice. Matt Rodbard, co-author of the upcoming Koreatown: A Cookbook, sums up the difference to me by describing the café's chim-cha (their spelling of kimchi) as "cabbage slaw made with white vinegar—kind of a distant cousin of kimchi." It's an inversion of the established Korean trend of spicing up foods it fuses with, but At Your Mother-in-Law sees this as an enhancement rather than a concession.

"We don't overdo anything and just keep it simple," Vecheslav Kim, the teenage grandson of the café's founder and chef, explains. "There are lots of components in [the kuksu, for instance]. Without the spice, you can taste that," more so than in a spiced-out guksu.

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Even though today many Koreans visit Uzbekistan (where nearly 200,000 of the world's 500,000 Koryo-Saram still live) for business and tourism, they don't seem to engage with the mellowed-out food tradition there, nor have they really taken it back home. As a result, Koryo-Saram fusion didn't come to the U.S. with wider Korean migrations. It really arrived only around 2001, when Elza Kan moved to join her eldest daughter in Brooklyn's small Koryo-Saram community. After selling home-style salads out of her basement to the local Russian population for a while, she opened a one-table shop in Bensonhurst in 2005, then expanded to her larger Brighton Beach café in 2009. (She recently renamed her company from Elza Fancy Foods to Eddie Fancy Foods in honor of her grandson, Eduard Nagoy, who died in 2013; their menus and Yelp page haven't caught up.)

Sia, one of the cooks, slicing meat

The café missed the rush that's stormed many K-Towns, but it has developed a wider following in its own right. Prominent good reviews, local word of mouth and summer boardwalk tourists earned them some initial hype, which has in turn attracted in adventurous Korean foodies and peninsular tourists eager to see what Kan and company have to offer. This attention has led other restaurants (mostly Brooklyn Uzbek joints) to adopt some Koryo-Saram dishes, slowly boosting the cuisine's radius and profile. Kim thinks there's enough excitement for the food now that his family could expand, although Kan's shown little interest in this, and it's hard to find chefs familiar enough with their cuisine to pass her matronly muster.

Even if Koryo-Saram food bottlenecks in South Brooklyn, the diners who make the pilgrimage get a fascinating gustatory lesson in the flavors undergirding K-Town food via a smoother lens. For some, that may be challenging—but it's engaging, as good fusion food should be. And thanks to the pusher-man tactics of Kim and family, those who arrive by way of Seoul food will likely pair their modified Korean dishes with Central Asian or Russian fare, bridging them into an oft-forgotten cuisine worth exploring just as Korean Americana brought many of us to regular Korean food. Kan didn't position herself as a bridge or a lens; she cooked what she knew. But she may have caught a heady wave that can open new windows of experience for willing visitors.

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