Silk Road Café in Honolulu Is One of the Closest Places to Eat by ‘Iolani Palace
Exploring restaurants by the Islamic community on O‘ahu means tasting flavors from Uzbekistan, Iran, Morocco and ... Italy.
Silk Road Café owners Mamura Yuldasheva and husband, Akrombek Yuldashev.
Silk Road Café, an Uzbek restaurant, is one of the closest places to eat by ‘Iolani Palace. Tourists sometimes find their way to Silk Road Café, after visiting the former home of the Hawaiian monarchy and the site of its overthrow. It’s a strange juxtaposition, that some might get their first taste of Uzbek food here in Honolulu, and yet, it’s almost appropriate. The two regions have long been where East and West connect—Uzbekistan by land, the Silk Road running through on its way from China to Rome, and Hawai‘i by sea, lying in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, between Asia and America.
It’s also why the contemporary cuisines of both are so hard to classify. Originally, I came to Silk Road Café to explore Islamic cuisine, inspired partially by current news and recent visits to Doris Duke’s Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Design. But I discovered trying to define “Islamic cuisine” is like trying to explain “Christian food.” Concentrations of Muslims live everywhere from Egypt to Pakistan to Indonesia (which has the most Muslims in the world). So instead, I set out to taste restaurants owned by Muslims on O‘ahu, and in doing so, discovered flavors as different as the countries the cooks came from and menus influenced as much by business and adaptation as spices and tradition.
Clockwise from bottom left: fried lagman ($9.75), pelmeni ($8.75), chicken shish kebabs ($9.75), plov ($9.50), beef borscht ($8.95)
Uzbek food feels primal. On the TV at Silk Road Café, a YouTube video shows food being prepared in Tashkent—slabs of bread stacked upon each other, hunks of tail fat and lamb, beef or mutton shanks cooked in wood-fired cauldrons the size of bathtubs, plates garnished with horse sausage. And yet, when it’s served—family-style, heaped onto a large plate in the middle of the table—there’s always a light, fresh counterpart nearby, like tomatoes and raw onions tossed with dill or small dishes of a thick yogurt. Each dish occupies an extreme, but balance exists on the whole table.
At Silk Road Café, you’re served a compact version of that Uzbek table, like the Hawaiian plate lunch, a lū‘au corralled into a Styrofoam clamshell. The base flavors are meaty, rich and warm with cumin, but they’re balanced by a flurry of dill and green onions on top, salads and a wedge of Uzbek bread, neither dense nor soft.
An entry into Uzbek food begins with plov. Here, the rice dish is equal amounts rice and meat, with carrots, chickpeas, currants, and a sprinkle of dill and green onions brightening it. “Plov is the king of Uzbek foods,” says Mamura Yuldasheva, who owns the restaurant with her husband. “We make it during weddings, make it during birthdays. You have a guest, you make plov. Mom comes, you make plov. Mom leaves, you make plov. Somebody dies, you make plov. Somebody’s born, you make plov.”
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Chicken shish kebabs
But if plov is considered traditional Uzbek, delving into the rest of Silk Road’s dishes reveals a menu—just like those of Hawaiian restaurants—that’s not as tidy as it seems; one that raises the questions: Where does tradition begin and end? Where does one country begin and end?
The questions are mixed into dishes like the lagman, a fried noodle dish (from Uighurs, Muslims who live primarily in the northwest region of China and in Central Asia) and pelmeni (from Russia). When Silk Road Café first opened in 2017, Yuldasheva’s mother used to hand-pull the noodles for lagman but has since substituted the time-consuming process with chewy udon noodles that approximate the bounce of stretched noodles. They’re stir-fried with cumin, ground beef and fresh tomatoes. The shredded carrot salad served alongside every dish provides a bright counterpoint, doused with salt and vinegar. The carrot salad, common in Uzbek, is thought to have been created by Koreans in Uzbekistan, who were relocated there by Stalin from the Soviet Far East.
One of my favorite dishes is that pelmeni, doughy dumplings filled with beef and served in a vegetable broth mixed with cream. While Uzbekistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it’s impossible to draw borders around food, which is why Russian pelmeni and Ukrainian borscht are on the menu.
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The kebab, though, Yuldasheva insists, is Uzbek. “The Turkish, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, they are kebab people,” she says. “Café Maharani is different from ours, ours is different from Olive Tree. We all have kebab, but taste, what the ingredients [are], what they skewer it on, is different.” At Silk Road Café, the kebabs are pierced with flat metal skewers—the lamb ones are tender, juicy, and flavored with whole cumin seeds.
Not long after opening the restaurant, Yuldasheva turned part of it into a Russian grocery store. There’s an entire freezer stocked with herring, a fridge with Russian cheeses and salami, and shelves of birch juice and kvass, a nonalcoholic drink brewed with black rye bread. Most of it isn’t used in Silk Road’s kitchen—Yuldasheva seems mystified by some of the ingredients and by how much herring they sell—but the Russian expats trickling in throughout the day are grateful.
Yuldasheva is currently studying for an MBA at Hawai‘i Pacific University. She was born in Tashkent and moved with her family to Austin, Texas, when she was 11 so her father could pursue aerospace research, and then to Honolulu when he was offered a professorship at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. When she was 26, “my parents decided it was time [for me] to get married in Uzbekistan—they wanted me to marry [an] Uzbek person because of culture and religion,” she says. After a few years there, she returned to Honolulu with her husband, Akrombek Yuldashev, and sensing an opportunity, they opened an Uzbek restaurant. Yuldashev had never cooked much before—his specialty was shoemaking, and he had worked at Joe Pacific Shoe Repair when they first moved to Honolulu—but he learned recipes, including, of course, plov, from people at home. He also watched a video on making plov from a Russian man in Uzbekistan, so detailed in its knowledge of culture and food that Yuldasheva says, “You watch it and you become Uzbek.”
Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 212 Merchant St., (808) 585-8212, silkroadcafehawaii.com
Read more stories by Martha Cheng