Olga Berrin laments the dark-colored root vegetables and scrawny meat she's forced to work with. In Uzbekistan, she says, the carrots are light yellow and taste better, and the sheep tails are swollen with the rich fat used in many of that country's dishes—particularly the rice, meat, and vegetable dish known as plov, the defining food of the region.
"In Las Vegas they're doing New York-style pizza, [using] special water to make [it] exactly the same," she says, echoing the frustrations of innumerable cooks who pursue their craft far from home. "We can't do it here." Still, Berrin and her sister-in-law Natalya Berrina, who run the Buffalo Grove Uzbek restaurant Chaihanna, do everything within their power to reproduce the Central Asian region's broadly syncretic cuisine.
Since they've got what seems to be the only restaurant in the area dedicated to the food of this crucial leg of the historic Silk Road, they could probably get away without baking their own bread or pickling their own watermelon. But they do it anyway; almost everything they make is from scratch. "This is how it tastes good," says Berrin, who arrives each morning at nine to make lepeshki, round loaves of bread flattened in the center with a circular pinprick design. (They look sort of like giant bialys.) In fact, both women seem puzzled by my interest in what they do, as if it never occurred to them that there would be any other way. "We come in the morning, we preparing the food, we cook the food, and we serve," Berrin says wearily. "This is our day."
The sisters-in-law came to the United States with 11 other members of their extended family in 1994, having escaped some of the more chaotic outcomes of the Soviet Union's breakup. Berrin, who's Ukrainian, met her husband, Igor, who's Jewish, on a Vladivostok cruise ship where she cooked and he did security. They married in 1990 and spent one month in his hometown of Andijon, in southeastern Uzbekistan, before fleeing to Ukraine in the face of rising anti-Semitic sentiment. Berrina, an ethnic Ukrainian who grew up in Andijon and cooked in a cafe, followed soon after with her husband, Igor's brother Alex. (Igor and Olga's surname is an Americanized version of Berrina.) Upon coming to the U.S., the family settled around Devon Avenue; Berrina cooked in a Russian restaurant and Berrin worked as a computer programmer. All along, Alex talked about opening an Uzbek restaurant, and nearly three years ago, the time and money seemed right.
Chaihanna, more often spelled choyhona, means "teahouse," and in Uzbekistan the teahouse is the center of social interaction. Ideally in a shaded outdoor setting near a stream, it's a place where folks—men, for the most part—while away the hours, drinking tea and snacking at leisure. That's hemispheres away from the soulless-looking suburban strip mall that houses Chaihanna, but inside, decorative touches like the gorgeous hand-painted blue and white china encourage a reasonable suspension of disbelief. And the pace is authentically measured and relaxed.
On a typical weekend night you'll find long tables filled with multigenerational parties—sometimes 35 to 40 strong—sharing the plates of kebabs, blintzes, lamb chops, garlicky spiced eggplant, and pickled vegetables that arrive intermittently. Nobody was focused on stuffing his face on my recent visit—patrons leaned back in their chairs, nibbling, pouring from bottles of vodka or sweet Georgian wine or excusing themselves for cigarette breaks. Across the room there was a boys' night out—they could've been the third-generation hipster children of white Americans and Korean and Pakistani immigrants, but they were all speaking Russian. Sometimes these parties don't break up until four in the morning, especially if there's live music and dancing. If you ask, the restaurant will book the entertainment for you.
Uzbek food is a cuisine of conquest and commerce, bearing the mark of the many ethnic groups that have passed through—or been forced through—the territory. Along with the majority Uzbeks, minority Russians, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and Tatars have overshadowed smaller but significant groups of Bukharan Jews (who emigrated en masse after the fall of the USSR) and even Koreans who were forcibly settled there by Stalin in the 30s. It's tempting to see those influences in foods like the vegetables Berrin and Berrina pickle in their walk-in refrigerator—though they'll merely shrug if you ask them about that sort of thing.
The cabbage, carrots, and tomatoes aren't predominantly spiced by chiles, though they're heavily impregnated with other flavors—cumin, clove, garlic, dill—and the bracing, dissociative shock of fizzy, fermented, salty watermelon reminds me of nothing so much as a thoroughly aged kimchi. The noodles Berrina cuts for the meat soup lagman are related to the liang mien of the Chinese Muslim Uighur minority—that's lo mein to you and me. Turkish manti are small, raviolilike beef dumplings, but the Uzbek versions here are supersize; one's stuffed with pumpkin and redolent of baking spices. Samsas are crispy, baked meat-stuffed cousins to the Indian samosa.
The one dish the sisters-in-law don't have a hand in is the plov. (The dish, like the word, is related to pilaf.) Alex chops the onions and shreds the carrots and meat before sauteeing them and stewing them in a kazan, a deep cauldron that back home would be wood fired outdoors. He adds the rice, spices, and roasted garlic, covers it tightly with cloth, and lets it steam for about 40 minutes. "You cover it with a blanket—like a baby," says Berrin.
That's another Uzbek tradition—plov making is men's work. Here in the New World, though, the women have more practical concerns. "He's the one who knows how to make it," says Berrin.
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.