No matter how open-ended and open-minded I think my tastes have become, the mere thought of beef stew can reduce me to a petulant child sitting at the family table, sighing dramatically while trying to choke down stringy pot roast and waterlogged carrots in a thin broth.
One glimpse at the dimlama at Silk Road Choyhona in Gaithersburg, and I can feel the old memories — and the prejudices they have hardened into — float to the surface like drowned men. It doesn’t help that the decorative platter of meat and vegetables looks like it could feed half of Uzbekistan; before I even take a bite, I’m devising an excuse to explain why the dish remains mostly undisturbed.
Turns out, no excuse is necessary.
The meticulously layered and prepared Uzbek stew — a dome of cabbage leaves covers the loose mound of ingredients to trap every mouthwatering vapor molecule — results in a humble, homestyle dish that ranks up there with lamb biryani, beef bourguignon and other meaty one-pot wonders. The key to Silk Road Choyhona’s dimlama is the broth, a garlic-heavy elixir of meat and vegetable juices naturally produced during the long, slow simmer. The broth enlivens every bite, like MSG without the headaches or the hysteria.
As much as I admire the broth’s lusty, salt-of-the-Earth persona, Azim Suvanof can only fixate on its deficiencies. Suvanof owns Silk Road Choyhona (and is a partner in Silk Road Bistro in Pikesville, Md.), and as one of the few immigrants trying to recreate Uzbekistan’s native dishes in a foreign land, the self-taught chef knows the cuisine’s limitations in America. Mostly, he knows he can’t get his hands on dumba, the cooking fat carved from the lumpy rump of the fat-tailed sheep. The hind fat is an essential element in Uzbek cooking, whether rendered into the base of dimlama or skewered between chunks of lamb on a kebab.
If you read scholar Russell Zanca’s delightful paper, “The Greasier the Better: Dumba and Its Place in the Uzbek Diet,” you quickly understand an Uzbek cook without tail fat is sort of like Sir Mix-A-Lot without back. “When it comes to food,” Zanca writes, “ask any Uzbek, and he will tell you that the real treasure of his country lies quivering on the butt of a sheep.”
Alas, Silk Road Choyhona is butt-fat-free. I’m sure a native like Suvanof can identify a dumba-less dish faster than the Uzbek president spots political opponents. But clearly the nuances of hindquarter fat from big-booty sheep are beyond my experience, and yet I understand the Uzbek perspective as easily as I understand the difference between refried beans cooked with lard vs. those cooked with canola oil.
Uzbek cuisine owes its wide range of influences to the name that Suvanof, in part, affixed to his restaurant: Silk Road, those historic routes that ferried exotic flavors from civilizations spread across several continents. The third word carries a more hometown flavor for Suvanof: “Choyhona” technically means “tea” (choy) and “room” (hona) in the Uzbek language, but in daily parlance, the word refers to small cafes or homes where men often stop for tea and kebabs or some other specialty of the house. Think: the Uzbek equivalent of supper clubs, minus the pretension.
Silk Road Choyhona doesn’t exactly feel homey. Set in a strip center as drab as Soviet-era government buildings, the restaurant suggests a banquet hall more than a family dwelling. Its stuccoed walls are largely unadorned, save for an occasional painted plate, framed photo or lovely, hand-embroidered wall hanging known as a suzani. But in the main room’s arched dining nooks, you’ll regularly find large families, perhaps celebrating a child’s birthday or just breaking into a crusty loaf of Uzbek non — a bloated-but-dense inner tube that in no way resembles Indian naan, as the name might imply.
The Persian influences are clear with plov, a signature meat-and-rice dish prepared countless ways in Uzbekistan. Suvanof’s raisin-sprinkled rice serves as the foundation for the braised lamb and a whole garlic bulb softened into buttery, barely pungent cloves, which both complement and counter the sweet, glistening grains. The line of kebabs here also has a distant connection to Persia, excluding those joyless hunks of juice-free salmon, so dry no amount of lemon could revive them. Stick with the skewers of lamb and beef, both satisfying on their own, but otherworldly when paired with slivers of vinegared red onion.
A variation of those red onions appears with the narin, a cold dish of “jerked” beef and velvety egg noodles, which delivers a kick as punishing as a mule’s. (Which reminds me: Horse meat is the preferred protein for this dish back in Uzbekistan.) The rest of the menu generally sticks to the milder, meat-and-vegetable diet common to the country, especially with the soups. The shurpa engulfs its chickpeas and bone-in lamb with a light, sweet, dill-scented broth, while a medium-bodied lamb broth serves as the base for the mastava, a rice-loaded soup that provides a welcome tanginess with an added dollop of sour yogurt called suzma. Many of the salads are untethered to any tradition, not counting the funky, mayo-slathered meat salads devised for the Russian palate back in those dark Soviet bloc days.
Which brings me to the manti, these flappy, fairly ungainly dumplings that look as if the cook had to wrap them in the dark. They come with your choice of filling: an underseasoned potato mixture laced with cumin seeds and black pepper or a sweet pumpkin filling that resolves to a wicked little burn. But my favorite remains the manti stuffed with a beef mix, which immediately summons another memory: I’m back at the family table with a plate of bronzed dough buns, each loaded with fatty ground beef, cabbage and enough sulfurous onions to tickle my nostrils. Suvanof’s beef manti are my childhood runzas, which have their own complicated connection to Russia. I closed the distance between Uzbekistan and the American Midwest in one delicious bite.
28 Bureau Dr., Gaithersburg, Md. 301-330-5262. www.silkroadchoyhona.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Shady Grove, 3.9 miles from the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $3.45-$12.95.