In Manalapan, Shirin Cafe serves up
one of Jersey’s rarest cuisines: Uzbek
Photography by Thomas Robert Clarke
W hen Albert and Marina Sevumyants married in the Central Asian capital of Tashkent 34 years ago, Marina only knew how to bake a few traditional pastries, like baklava and honey cake. Albert, on the other hand, had learned from his father to grill meat kebabs and make some of the hearty soups and rice dishes popular in Uzbekistan, a former republic of the Soviet Union, just north of Afghanistan.
“Every Uzbek guy can cook,” Albert proclaims. So as a young bride, Marina had some catching up to do. She quickly expanded her repertoire of traditional Uzbek, Armenian and Russian dishes, learning the recipes alongside her mother and mother-in-law. One of the first dishes she learned how to make was borscht, the rich Ukrainian beet soup enjoyed throughout the region.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan became an independent state in 1991. Many Central Asians had the opportunity to emigrate for the first time. The Sevumyants family, with two teenage boys, left Tashkent for Cleveland in 1996, where one of Albert’s cousins lived. “We left so we could feel more free, and not worry about tomorrow,” Marina says. A few years later, the Sevumyants family moved to Monmouth County, New Jersey, where friends from Tashkent had settled.
Uzbek cuisine features grilled meats,
hearty soups, savory pastries, and rice dishes
spiced with cumin and coriander.
By then, with a third son born in the United States, Marina had become a confident and skilled cook. Such a good cook, in fact, that she and Albert decided to open a restaurant.
In 2000, Albert and Marina opened Rendezvous, a restaurant and banquet hall in Manalapan, complete with live Russian-language music and dancing, in the style of the exuberant Russian nightclubs of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The menu mixed some Uzbek dishes with typical Russian banquet food. Despite having no previous experience in the restaurant business, the Sevumyantses made Rendezvous a popular destination for the immigrant Russian-language communities of New Jersey.
After seven years of running Rendezvous, Albert and Marina began looking for a smaller spot where they could focus on the food and showcase Marina’s recipes. On a tip from Marina’s hairdresser, they found a location in a nearby Manalapan shopping plaza. The Sevumyantses sold Rendezvous and opened Shirin Cafe in 2007. Shirin, according to Marina, is an Uzbek and Armenian word that means “sweetie.”
“It was a good decision” to open a restaurant, Marina says, “but it is very hard work.”
Shirin Cafe occupies a small storefront next to a salon and across from a Japanese restaurant. A small sign out front advertises “Uzbek & Russian Cuisine.” The first thing that draws your attention upon entering the café are two large dolls in traditional wedding dress. The counter below them displays a collection of colorfully dressed Uzbek figurines. The café can accommodate around 40 people at ten tables. The dining room is simple, nothing fancy. The room’s two televisions are often tuned to Russian music videos.
“If you want live music and dancing, there are other places,” Albert says. “If you want food that reminds you of where you grew up, you come here.”
While there are a number of places in New Jersey that serve Russian cuisine, Shirin Cafe is one of the only restaurants in the state featuring Uzbek. Customers come from as far away as Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Queens, where there are larger communities of Uzbek immigrants, to sample the Sevumyantses’ menu. That menu reflects the varied cultural influences in the Sevumyantses’ life. Russian menu items include vareniki (potato pierogi, served with carmelized onions and sour cream) and chuchvara (tiny meat dumplings, boiled or fried). Marina and Albert also serve an Armenian red bean salad with diced basturma (pastrami), fried onions, garlic, and crushed walnuts; and Armenian dolma (stuffed grape leaves).
Meals at Shirin usually start with a pot of Uzbek loose-leaf tea, black or green, served in a brightly painted teapot and short teacups without handles, as is customary throughout Central Asia. Don’t miss the homemade Uzbek bread (non) served warm, a round flat loaf, depressed in the center and dotted with sesame seeds.
Uzbek cuisine features grilled meats, hearty soups, savory pastries, and rice dishes spiced with cumin and coriander. Lamb (or traditionally mutton) dishes are common. Plov is the most popular Uzbek dish at Shirin. Similar to a Spanish paella, it is composed of Uzbek rice cooked with chunks of beef and lamb, shredded carrots, scallions and spices. The secret to a proper plov, according to the Sevumyantses, is the exact proportion of water to rice, so that every grain remains separate. “Too much water, you end up with a porridge, too little, the rice is undercooked,” affirms Albert. He and Marina searched for almost a year before they found a source of imported rice that produced the right consistency. The right cumin was also difficult to find in New Jersey—the available supermarket versions didn’t taste like the Uzbek version they knew. Marina loves New Jersey tomatoes, however, which she says taste and smell like the best tomatoes she grew up with.
Try one of the excellent soups from Marina’s kitchen, like mastava, with fatty lamb pieces, rice and vegetables spiced with cumin, from Turkey. Chebureki are fried turnovers filled with juicy minced meat and onions. Order ahead for Marina’s homemade samsa, puff pastry stuffed with meat and onion or pumpkin, and manti, large steamed lamb dumplings, which take 45 minutes to prepare.
When I visited with my family, my daughter Gabi’s jaw dropped when she saw the size of the pork kebab. Shirin’s grilled kebabs (ten different kinds, including lamb, veal liver, quail, chicken and pork), offer very large pieces of marinated meat grilled on impressively long metal skewers. They are served under strings of cooked onions with a tomato-based dipping sauce.
And save room for Marina’s homemade pastries. The friendly servers will bring an impressive tray displaying each kind to help you decide among the Armenian pakhlava, a decadent kartoshka made from cocoa powder and crushed pecans (my daughter’s favorite), or the delicate honey cake from Marina’s childhood.
After all these years, Albert concedes that Marina is now the better cook, though he still makes the kebabs.
Seafood does not figure prominently in Uzbek cuisine. Not only is Uzbek landlocked on all sides, it’s also completely surrounded by landlocked countries, making it one of only two “doubly landlocked” nations in the world (the other is Liechtenstein). The closest coastline to Tashkent is more than 1,000 miles away. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Marina Sevumyants has a fondness for fresh fish
THE SILK ROAD
Many cultures have shaped Uzbek cuisine. Tashkent is an ancient city on the Silk Road trade route that for centuries connected China with the Middle East. As a result of this cultural exchange, flavors from Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet can all be found in Uzbek cooking. Albert and Marina’s family roots include Armenian and Jewish branches, which are also reflected in the diverse food they grew up with.
345 Rte. 9 South, Manalapan