Korean food is Uzbek food. Uzbek food is Korean food. Well… in Uzbekistan it is. These two cultures are now inseparably intertwined to the point that Korean food has become part of the Uzbek national cuisine. There must be over a hundred Korean restaurants in the Uzbek capital Tashkent serving all the standard favorites. Kimchi is available everywhere, even in our local gastronom. Bibimbap, banchan, kimbap, bulgogi, and my absolute favorite, samgyupsal, are all readily available in restaurants all over the city. One doesn’t normally associate Uzbekistan with Korean food, but packed restaurants tell a different story. Full of Russian and Uzbek speaking clients, few of whom are actually ethnically Korean, Uzbekistan loves these perennial food favorites.
The story of how Korean food became part of the Uzbek national food scene is not such a happy memory. Some left Korea in the late 19th century to settle the Russian far east. Some of these so called “Koryo Saram” even fought on the side of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Others fled to Russia during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. In 1937, under increasing state parinora in the lead up to the Second World War, suspecting ethnic Koreans of being Japanese spies, Stalin forcibly deported by some counts up to 172,000 to Central Asia.
In communist Uzbekistan, Korean and Soviet culture were intertwined, through both language and food. Rice farming in collective farms along the Amu Darya, Korean language was forbidden. The assimilation into Soviet society was so complete that today most ethnic Koreans in Uzbekistan still speak Russian as their first language. More than 176,000 Korean diaspora remain in Uzbekistan today, the food and culture still distinctly Korean, but unquestionably Uzbek. As evidenced by the plethora of Korean restaurants in the capital, Korean food is just as much local food as plov or lagman, and a welcome part of the fascinating story of Central Asian cuisine.