At Moscow’s Chaikhana restaurant, the one by the zoo, is a plate of cured horse meat, served above an overloud tablecloth, with raw onion on lettuce.
We should not eat horses—Secretariat, War Horse, and the like have taught us as much—but I like to anyway. Yes, horses are empathetic and their eyes are oceans of mystery. But pigs, for their part, are just as intelligent. And so for hangovers in Baltic Germany, I used to require a horse sausage dipped in a sharp mustard that would act as a smelling salt. Nor have I feared eating horse in France.
But Central Asia is where the horse roams wild, as it were, on the menu. The old kingdoms of the Silk Road made horse a key protein in their diet, and so it is only fitting that the small chain Chaikhana—named after the tea houses that used to line the Silk Road—would serve horse to its Russian clients as they sit among the tassled pillows and smoke shisha like the mini-Pasha each Russian believes himself to be.
But even as I ate this dish and enjoyed it—it tasted like smoked salt, and the marbled fat was just enough to break the toughness of the meat—I felt quite far from authentic Central Asia. That is because your average Central Asian in Moscow has the quality of life of a Mexican in Alabama: they work hard and are undocumented and are despised, chased by racists through the streets and in parliament. When Simon Shuster and I visited the main mosque in Moscow some time ago, we found it overwhelmed by the number of worshipers: the leaders of the city refuse to build more than three mosques even though there are close to a million Muslims in Moscow. Even as they build expensive, empty Eastern Orthodox churches for a generation of Russians who could care less.
It’s an impossible deadlock, being an Uzbek with no right to live or work, or being a horse slaughtered for meat and then left to loll under a half-shroud of raw onion. But I’ll leave you with a promise of rebirth, from the poet Rumi, who himself lived in the age of chaikhanas on the Silk Road, far from Moscow and far from today:
I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?