I’ve been doing food tours in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood for so many years that by now, notwithstanding the vicissitudes of hurricanes called Sandy and pandemics called COVID, I know Little Odessa like a second home. Consequently, there’s not a lot about the vast array of Eastern European, Central Asian, and Russian cuisines that leaves me stumped. But happily, every exploration brings some kind of surprise and a recent visit brought this one:
Each of the numerous markets offering prepared food presents a different roster of dishes. One of them (come on my Little Odessa ethnojunket and I’ll take you there 😉) had an unfamiliar item in the cold salad section. The sign read “спаржа,” the word for asparagus.
I caught the eye of the woman behind the counter. “The sign says ‘sparzha,’ but that looks like bean curd skin; is it bean curd skin?” I asked expectantly.
“You can read this?” she replied, avoiding my question. “I give you a taste.”
On this ethnojunket, we sample a broad range of culinary specialties. One of them is that of the Koryo-saram, people who in the 1920s and 30s fled from Korea to Russia when Japan occupied their homeland and who were subsequently moved to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan by Stalin; they adapted their cuisine to whatever was available there. Turns out this is another one of the dishes they created. (More about that – and why it’s called asparagus – on the tour.)
It is indeed bean curd skin, known as соевая спаржа, soy asparagus. In Central Asian cuisine just as in that of East Asia, it doesn’t impart a lot of flavor but it does provide a little chew – texture is its prime directive here. Fresh dill and a light dressing inform the dish but do not overwhelm it; the carrot is for color.
I’d consider it a side, certainly not a main. As a matter of fact, IMHO it would be a perfect foil for khe – think spicy Korean ceviche – which we sample on the tour as well.
Hope to see you soon!