Cooking in My Bukharian Cauldron

Sumalak being made in a Kazan.

— by Ronit Treatman

“First, fetch your cauldron,” the recipe instructed me. I have always wanted to prepare a dish that begins with these words! I legitimately get to, not because I am a witch, but because I am part Bukharian.

Bukhara is a city located on the Silk Road, in present-day Uzbekistan. Jews have lived there since the times of King David. One of the indispensable implements of a Bukharian kitchen is the kazan. A kazan is a type of cauldron or Dutch oven. It is used to prepare pilaf (rice in seasoned broth), one of Bukhara’s signature dishes.  

More after the jump.

Once the meal is cooked, the food packets are fished out with a stick. (Photo: David Treatman.)

Surprise! This is no witch’s brew! (Photo: David Treatman.)

My great grandmother Cassia owned a kazan. Hers was the last generation to use it in my family. She brought it with her to Palestine when she left Bukhara in 1914. We never cooked or ate Bukharian food when I was growing up, so I really wanted to learn about this part of my heritage.

The first thing I needed to do was purchase a kazan. I called several kosher restaurants and convenience stores in Little Bukhara in Queens, New York for advice. The people I spoke to became very emotional when I explained why I wanted a kazan, and an instant bond formed between us. They suggested that I come to New York to buy it in the neighborhood. In the end, I found what I was looking for on Amazon.

The kazan is ubiquitous throughout Central Asia and Russia. It is shaped like a wok, with two or four handles. Kazans were historically used by traders traveling along the Silk Road.

Before they set out on their journey, they (or their wives) would place uncooked basmati rice, raw pieces of beef or lamb, and chopped fresh vegetables and herbs in the center of a square piece of cotton cloth. The four corners of the cloth would be tied together to form a bundle.

This package was added to the rest of their provisions.  A member of the group would bring a kazan along. When the intrepid voyagers would stop to camp out at night, they would dig a trench in the ground. The men would scrounge around for some firewood, and light a fire in the excavated area. They would place the kazan over the fire, wedged between the two edges of the trench. Some of them would fill the pot with water from a nearby stream. The water would be brought to a boil.

According to Amnun Kimyagarov, author of Classic Central Asian (Bukharian) Jewish Cuisine and Customs, each person would draw a distinct mark on his cotton food bag. All the bags were placed in the pot. Once the meal was cooked, the food packets were fished out with a stick.

Sometimes, one person would get another’s bag by mistake. It was traditional to say “bakhshidam” in Buhkori (Judeo-Persian), with means, “I forgive the mistake.” All the fellow travelers would share the hot broth.  

My kazan arrived from Russia, packed in a box covered with Cyrillic writing. I decided to cook one of the most traditional Bukharian Jewish recipes, called Bakhshi Khaltagiy, or green pilaf in a bag.

Bakhshi Khaltagiy: Green Pilaf in a Bag
Adapted from Classic Central Asian (Bukharian) Jewish Cuisine and Customs by Amnun Kimyagarov, Ph.D.

  • 1 lb. beef chuck-eye steak, cubed
  • 1 cup basmati rice
  • 1 lb. fresh cilantro
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • Cotton mesh cooking bag  

It is a delicious and nourishing Bukharian treat. (Photo: David Treatman.)
  1. Cut the meat into very small cubes (1/8 in.).
  2. Mince the cilantro finely.
  3. Place the meat, rice, and cilantro in a large bowl.
  4. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Fill 3/4 of a kazan or Dutch oven with water.
  6. Bring the water to a boil.
  7. Stuff the meat mixture into the cotton bag, leaving some room at the top.
  8. Tie the bag shut.
  9. Put the bag in the boiling water, making sure that it is completely immersed.
  10. Bring the water to a boil again.
  11. Lower the heat.
  12. Simmer for 3-4 hours, making sure that the bag is covered by water at all times.
  13. Taste the broth and correct the seasoning.

After three hours, I lifted the lid off my kazan and a tantalizing aroma arose with the steam. The pot was filled with a rich, dark broth. I pulled the cotton bag out with some tongs, cut it open with a sharp knife, and emptied its contents onto a serving platter. The meat and rice were flecked with specks of green from the cilantro. I spooned some of the filling into a soup bowl, and then ladled some hot broth on top of it. The potage melted in my mouth. This soup was no witch’s brew. It was a delicious and nourishing Bukharian treat.

On Bravery

— By Hannah Lee

The Medal of Honor is the highest decoration bestowed by the United States for bravery on the battlefront, although I’ve noticed that these recipients often recall that they had no choice, they did what they had to do.  But what about the ordinary circumstances of our world in which we confront banal evil in the form of prejudice, ignorance, and injustice?

More after the jump.
During this year’s Veterans’ Kiddush held at my shul, coordinated by an ardently patriotic member named Paul Newman, there was a new display on movies and documentaries that featured Jews, in particular Jews in the American military.*  I picked one for my family’s viewing: Gentleman’s Agreement in which Gregory Peck goes undercover to write an expose of anti-Semitism in suburban America.  The film won three Oscars in 1947 and was just listed by Tablet as one of the 100 Greatest Jewish Films. Neither the director, Elia Kazan, nor the producer was Jewish, but Darryl Zanuck acquired the film rights from the author, Laura Z. Hobson, after he was mistaken for a Jew and denied membership at the elitist Los Angeles Country Club.  On Wikipedia, I read, “Before filming commenced, Samuel Goldwyn and other Jewish film executives approached Darryl Zanuck and asked him not to make the film, fearing that it would “stir up trouble.”

In Gentleman’s Agreement, Peck’s character, Philip Skylar Green, does not look remotely Jewish but he quickly experiences the subtle and overt acts of prejudice committed against Jews at the time.  He gets his publisher to change its policy of not hiring Jews, although his Jewish secretary (who’d changed her name from Estelle Wilovsky to Elaine Wales) cautions him that the wrong Jews might get hired and ruin it for the few Jews who’d already made it into the system (an insider’s bit about Jewish anti-Semitism).  Green is later denied a reservation at an elite inn.  His best friend, a Jew named Dave Goldman, (played by John Garfield, formerly Jacob Julius Garfinkle), newly discharged from the military, cannot find housing within commuting distance of his new employer.  Finally, Green has to deal with his fiancée’s timidity in upsetting social norms: how would her sister’s friends and neighbors in Darien, CT deal with Green being introduced as a Jew?

A widower, Green has a young son who experiences bullying from his peers for being a Jew.  When his fiancée, Kathy Lacey (played by Dorothy McGuire), consoles the boy that it’s not true, he’s no more Jewish than she is, Green explodes in anger and dismay that she’s accepting the prejudice that Jews are socially inferior to Christians.  Lacey learns from Goldman that every time she hears an ethnic slur, even in a joke, and she doesn’t do anything about it, she’s giving the racists a pass. She realizes that the only way to convince her beloved that she hates injustice in general, and anti-Semitism in particular, just as much as he does, is to take a stand.  Get this fine film from your library or Netflix to find out what she decides to do.

This weekend, my brother forwarded to me an Associated Press article, in which students are not checking “Asian” on their college applications as a response to the racial quotas at universities, particularly of the Ivy League schools.  Asian students experience stiffer competition for admission, because of the perception that they’d overrun a campus if only high SAT scores and grade-point averages were used as standards.  It’s an easier tactic for students from a mixed marriage bearing the surname of their non-Asian fathers.  But at least one full-blooded Asian student, as identified in the article, did not write in her race on her application and was admitted to Yale.  My friend Lindsay told me that her Chinese husband has quipped that his surname, Eng, is common in northern Scandinavia, so maybe their daughter would be mistaken on paper for a Norwegian.  Another friend, Marshall Jaffe, told me that

colleges can’t have it both ways: They can’t be institutions that, on the one hand, claim to be dedicated to the public interest and are therefore entitled to all sorts of benefits such as non-profit status, while, on the other hand, act as private organizations with their own interests — maintaining a “diverse” student body among them — even if that means flouting policies that would be grounds for prosecution in other sectors.

My reaction to the article was dismay, that students have to resort to subterfuge, but this tactic is similar to the practice of Jews changing their names in the early 20th century.  They want to be evaluated on their own merits, their own skills, not the preconceived notions of what their ethnicity connotes to Americans.

As we observe the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent incarceration of nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps by the United States government, I remind my readers to act responsibly when we encounter injustice, from the slight to the great.  My husband chides me when I make a generalization about male chauvinistic behavior.  Do you reprimand the guy who litters in public?  Do you object when someone makes a racial joke or an innuendo about fat people?  We will ultimately be judged by God for our ordinary human interactions, so would you be brave?

For film buffs, the other films included in the Veterans’ Kiddush display were: