From Shuk to App
My youngest son, Gabe, likes good food. He whips up omelets with feta cheese, tomatoes, herbs, onions, chili peppers and mushrooms. Simple lox and cream cheese on a bagel will not do. He likes his sandwiches to include cut-up green olives and slices of avocado, red onion, tomatoes and chili peppers as well as a sprinkling of homemade za’atar and a splash of fresh lemon juice.
He is the kind of kid who looks at a picture of food and asks, “Mom, can you make this?”
Since he became a combat soldier about two years ago, my answer has always been, yes. If he can spend all day, every day, doing things he would rather not do, the least I can do is give him a good meal.
So I was prepared to say yes when he opened up a recipe booklet that he had picked up at the local butcher, turned the colorful pages and asked, “Can you make one of these for Shabbat?”
To my surprise, two of the eight dishes shown were Bukharian. Bukharian Jews are a tiny minority in the world Jewish community. They (that is we—all four of my Bukharian grandparents made aliya to Jerusalem more than 100 years ago) hail from Uzbekistan, and through generations of living on the Silk Road developed a cuisine that has tastes and scents from their native land as well as from India, China, Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey and Pakistan.
“This looks good,” I thought, as I perused the recipes one Thursday—the day before Gabe was due home for a weekend leave. The first recipe caught my eye: Fresh ground lamb and roasted eggplant and peppers in a bowl-shaped Bukharian bread. A mouthwatering photograph showed the lamb strewn over a round, crispy flatbread, covered with toasted pine nuts, tahini, pomegranate concentrate and parsley. It did not look like anything my mother had ever made, but I thought I would give it a try. There was a recipe for the meat part of the dish. For the bread, however, the booklet only noted: “Tuki is to be purchased in Bukharian bakeries.”
If I was going to make my soldier-son a homemade dish, I was going to make him a homemade dish. I Googled tuki, and while I found articles about Bukharian food, I could not find a recipe on the vast Internet for the flatbread. I had no choice. I would have to buy it.
I didn’t relish going all the way to the Mahane Yehuda market on a Friday morning, to Jerusalem’s only remaining Bukharian bakery. Nevertheless, I boarded the bus and arrived before any of those big round loaves with puffy sides and fork holes—the sort that people line up for—appeared on the counter.
“Ten minutes,” the woman behind the counter said.
When the 10 minutes were up, I asked her if she had tuki. I had heard enough Bukharian (Tajiki) to know that the accent should be on the second syllable. Still, she looked puzzled. Then her brow cleared and she said, “Ah. Non-tuKHI!” pronouncing that last syllable way back in her throat in what sounded like a combination of the guttural Hebrew het and the click of the Xhosa people of South Africa. Even though I have the genes, I couldn’t begin to imitate it.
But my hopes were dashed. “We don’t make it. Only in Tel Aviv or Ramle,” she said.
Dejected, I stopped at the local health food store, purchased organic olive oil and some vegetables, then rode Jerusalem’s new light rail and a bus to Emek Refa’im, the main drag of the German Colony, where I do my Friday morning errands—picking up halla at the incomparable Pe’er Bakery, the International New York Times, the English edition of Ha’aretz and a few last minute purchases.
Not wanting to schlep my heavy bag, I went up to the shoemaker’s booth on Emek, as visiting American teens call the street, and asked Meir, the owner, if he would watch my bag while I did my errands. Since he is also Bukharian, I told him of my morning’s adventure. He had the same puzzled look as the baker, followed by the same, “Ah, non-tuKHI!” But, he added, “My mother is making it right now!”
“Do you think she would give me the recipe?”
“Of course!” he said and dialed his mother’s number on his cell phone. After a few words in Bukharian he handed me the phone.
“I’m just waiting for it to get golden brown so I can take it out of the oven,” Meir’s mother told me. “If you have a car, come to Pisgat Ze’ev and I’ll give you some.”
I thanked her for her kindness and said I couldn’t get there today, but would she be willing to explain how to make it? She gave me careful instructions, which I jotted down on a scrap of paper. I thanked Meir and went to do the rest of my errands and buy the ingredients I was missing (yeast, white flour).
I stopped at the drugstore for Band-Aids and told the pharmacists my story. The pharmacists on Emek Refa’im are also Bukharian, and I got the exact same reaction with the same guttural click. (I know it sounds like the German Colony is full of Bukharians, but, really, it’s just the shoemaker, the pharmacists and me.)
I went back to Meir, retrieved my bag, thanked him again, hailed a cab, loaded in my purchases and rode home—where I faced a challenge. The well-meaning Bukharians I had encountered that morning had told me that I would need a special round metal pan on which to bake the non-tuki dough. Unfortunately, the pans were only available in Ramle, a small town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I decided to improvise.
After I had mixed the dough, let it rise just a bit (I was running out of time) and rolled it out as thin as possible, faithful to Meir’s mom’s instructions, I placed one big round piece on a pie plate and smaller pieces in the cups of a muffin tin. I carefully punctured the dough with a fork numerous times to prevent air bubbles and placed them in the oven.
While they were baking, I sautéed onions, browned the meat—adding cinnamon even though it wasn’t in the recipe because that is how my mother makes her ground meat dishes—and checked the dough intermittently for that golden brown color, which took less than 10 minutes. Then I remembered to sauté the eggplant and red pepper. I chopped the parsley, toasted pine nuts and set everything aside, to be combined later in preparation for Shabbat dinner.
The tart pomegranate concentrate, rich flavor of the pine nuts, cool green of the parsley and thick, raw tahini on top of hot ground meat—all on the thin, crisp flatbread—was a winning combination of contrasting flavors and temperatures.
After Shabbat, I served Gabe another batch—this time in the smaller cups of dough made in the muffin tins. He pulled out his cell phone and took a picture. “It’s what we do now,” he told me. “We put it on WhatsApp and write, ‘Look what I just ate.’”
I knew my efforts were worth it.
8 1/3 cups all-purpose white flour
1/4 cup oil
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp yeast
2 1/2 cups water
2 tsps salt
1. Mix ingredients (except salt) together. Let rise in a warm place in a covered bowl for an hour. After it rises, sprinkle salt over dough.
2. Knead into a hard dough. Roll out into thin circle. Place on a round metal pan for one large crust or cut into small rounds with an inverted cup and bake in muffin tins for individual crusts.
3. Punch holes in dough with fork, then place in oven. Bake at 425ºF. Take out when golden brown, about 5-10 minutes. (If dough is thick, leave in for another 5-7 minutes.)
2 large onions, diced
3 TBs vegetable oil, divided
1 lb. ground beef or lamb
1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 eggplant, peeled and cut into strips
2 red peppers, cut into strips
Toasted pine nuts
1. Sauté diced onions in 2 TBs of the oil till golden.
2. Add meat to pan and brown. Add salt, pepper and cinnamon. In a separate pan, heat remaining oil, then sauté eggplant and pepper strips.
Assemble dish: Top bread with meat, eggplant and pepper and drizzle with tahini and pomegranate concentrate. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and chopped parsley.