After the nineties fusion obsession and Americans' recent dalliance with comfort food, the latest culinary trend is a search for authenticity. From Peruvian to Tunisian, "melting-pot cuisines" are our new fixation: exotic yet homey food that brings together varied ethnic influences. Here, a primer on the five to try—plus great places to sample them at home and abroad. Nothing like an Uzbek shurpa or Korean soondubu to wake up those jaded taste buds.
Standing in the middle of Registan, Samarkand's monumental main square, it's easy to imagine yourself back at the center of the Silk Road, the ancient route from the Far East to Central Asia. Had this once-obscure former Soviet republic not been forced onto the world political stage by recent events (Afghanistan is its neighbor to the south), Uzbekistan's compelling cuisine—blending Persian, Russian, and Chinese influences—might have remained a secret.
Now the adventurous can discover a smoky world of kebabs perfumed with wild cumin and moistened with the fat of the Kurdiuk sheep (it tastes better than butter). Or the joy of manti, enormous steamed dumplings with a minced lamb and sweet-onion filling. At restaurants and bazaars you'll taste chile-laced shredded vegetable salads inherited from the Korean diaspora, round loaves of tandoori-baked breads speckled with black sesame seeds, and hand-pulled Uighur noodles crowded into big bowls of rich meat soup. But the dish not to miss is palov, the pièce de résistance at wedding feasts—a vast mound of spiced lamb and rice steamed together until every grain is infused with flavor. As worshiped here as paella is in Valencia, palov is ideally savored at a choyhona (teahouse) while sitting in the shade of a mulberry tree.
WHERE TO EAT IT
AT HOME Uzbekistan 7077 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; 323/464-3663; dinner for two $50. An Uzbek émigré version of Arabian Nights, with a Russian clientele hungry for such favorites as palov and shurpa (roasted lamb and noodle soup) as well as such Uzbek delicacies as liver sausage.
ABROAD Beloye Solntse Pustyni 29/14 Neglinnaya St., Moscow; 7-095/209-7525; dinner for two $50. Before you get to Tashkent, try this wildly entertaining Uzbek restaurant in Moscow, named after a popular Russian film (White Sun of the Desert). The grand buffet is a Technicolor vision of Central Asian cuisine.