FROM THE DESK OF: Deo
In 1937, just a couple years before the eve of World War II, Joseph Stalin forced the relocation of 172,000 ethnically Korean people who were living in the Russian Far East border. The reason, as in similar cases like internments, was paranoia. Korea at the time was under Japanese occupation—and tensions between the two countries were extremely high (they would later go to war). He was convinced that the Korean population within his borders had spies loyal to Japan. This was despite the fact that they moved away from Korea and crossed the borders especially to escape Japanese occupation. But Japanese espionage had to be prevented and his solution was to relocate all those people and move them to far away places within the Soviet Union—places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and central Asia, and the Russian Siberia. In this process, over 40,000 people died, either from starvation or from the difficulties of adapting to their new environment.
This population, known as Koryo Saram, began their move since 1800’s, searching for land and livelihoods and to escape Japanese population. When Stalin forced their relocation, they were scattered all over the fringes of the Soviet lands. Slowly, they assimilated into their new cultures, bringing to them a eclectic mix of Soviet and Korean style foods and culture. Sometime in the 1990’s, one of those families moved from Uzbekistan and into Brooklyn. They opened up a restaurant called Café at Your Mother-In-law. It took a while for people discover and write about this cuisine, but in the last few years, people, many of which are Koreans and Russians, have began to trek to Brighton Beach as a kind of pilgrimage to taste this unique hybrid Korean-Uzbeki food.
The beach was as packed as a beach could get in the middle of July. The waves were almost non-existent for some reason, almost like it was the Mediterranean, and it was packed with a melting pot of population from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and local Russian populations, playing in the water. We sat on the sand drinking Tito’s Vodka mixed with seltzer. Surprisingly smooth. The sun was blazing. Then, without warning, dark heavy clouds rolled in. Then the rain came. Massive amounts of people fleeing the beach. The rain ruined another summer plan. It was time to go to Café at Your Mother-In-Law.
People flocked there, and the place was packed. Frequently groups of people would come and see the line and turn around. The wait was forty five minutes, they said. Not worth it. But we were there just to try it, and we had nowhere else to go. So we waited. I went inside one more time, and a beautiful girl waved to me and said we could sit next to her and her husband. They were both Koryo Saram—the husband Victor from Uzbekistan and her from Kazakhstan. They looked like Koreans but their accents were Russian. He asked how we heard of this place. I told them that I went on a Tinder date with a journalist who wrote about it.
We didn’t know what to order. Luckily, Victor used to work there—so he told us all about the dishes and what to get. For this hot summer day, he suggested “kuksu”—a cold ramen-like soup. I’ve never tried cold soup before, but it was as satisfying as any hot soup.
Victor tells us to pair it with Chim-chi, which is a pickled fish. Chim-chi is a banchan, which in Korea refers to small dishes of food served along with the main course. Chim-chi has all the spices of kimchi, except that it is made of fish instead of cabbage.
What should we get for the main course? We asked victor. He said he likes meat. You have to get meat. He recommended the Uzbek plov. This dish is more traditionally Russian—served everywhere in the Russian and Central Asian regions. It’s basically a rice dish with a moderately fat lamb, shoulder or ribs on top. Cooked in vegetable oil, it also has carrots, onions, cumin, garlic, and chilies. What makes it delicious is that the animal fat melts into the rice. This was paired with hot green tea.
I would have liked to try the meat dumplings, but there was no more room in my stomach. I asked Victor how he met his wife. They met while he went on a visit to Kazakhstan. They’ve been married for two years now. We left Café At Your Mother In-Law very full of food and a lot of history learned.