Jamil Kurbonmamadov has no respect for the fillet. “It’s an easy cut,” says the usually jovial and airy chef as he leans over a table at Samarqand, his London restaurant, suddenly stern and serious. “People here just eat easy cuts of meat [like fillet or cutlet] because it’s soft and easy to cut. You need to get the meat that the animal has worked harder. Like the hand and the neck, as close as you can get to the bone, that becomes the tastiest and most dense meat,” he explains, holding up a balled fist and tracing cut lines along the edges of his finger bones.
Most restaurants, according to Kurbonmamadov, just work with what they have. But for him and every other chef of the Central Asian diaspora I’ve met, just working with a fillet is unacceptable. As Muzaffar Sadykov, the chef at Pasha Kyrgyz Kazakh House in Camberwell, explains, every dish in Central Asian cooking requires a unique cut of meat to anticipate the effect that boiling, searing, chopping, or any other combination of processes will have on the length of the fibers, the degradation of the tendons, or any other element of the end-texture of the meat. Muzaffar’s disdain for mechanized butchery, which focuses on the presentation of the raw cut, leads him to make his own bespoke cuts of meat for many of his dishes. Kurbonmamadov takes it a step further, bringing in a Bukharan butcher, Maksud, apprenticed to his father in Uzbekistan from the age of ten, whose cuts sail right along the bone leaving no meat behind.
It’s not just the chefs coming from Central Asia who go to such lengths. In fact, Kurbonmamadov was not a chef at all—back home in Ishkashim in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, he was a soil scientist and the regional director for the Aga Khan Foundation, but after starting as dishwasher in the University of Oxford’s kitchens, he rose through the ranks and gave up his other part-time jobs in 2009 to become a full-time chef, taking over his own kitchen in 2011. The hours are miserable—60 to 70 hours a week—but the ability to recreate home and a communal space for the Central Asian community, he says, drew him in. He’s not alone in feeling that magnetism—Central Asian culinary traditions draw many members of the diaspora to what can seem like extreme ends.
This obsession with the right meat follows the diaspora wherever it goes. In California, voters made the slaughter of horses, the exportation of horses for slaughter, and sale of horsemeat for human consumption illegal in 1998, shutting down one of the last bastions for horse-based cuisine in America. The ban hit the Kazakh and Kyrgyz diasporas in San Francisco hard, says Alma Kunanbaeva, a native Kazakh and professor of Central Asian nomadic cultures at Stanford University; horsemeat is the pillar of their cuisine, from beshbarmak (boiled horse dumplings) to shuzhuk (fatty horse-intestine sausages) to zhal (smoked horse neck fat). But, Kunanbaeva says, there are rumors of members of the San Francisco community finding a way around the ban—sneaking out of the city in the middle of the night to poach wild horses in Nevada and smuggling the carcasses across the state line by dawn.
The horse poaching might be folklore, Kunanbaeva stresses, but at the very least it’s common to see slabs of lamb (the next-best thing to horse) hanging from San Francisco balconies, being salted, dried, or smoked by determined Central Asian households. When Zhanara Nauruzbayeva, now a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University, first came to California she found a halal butcher who would agree to sell her whole lamb legs (which she carried home bloody and dangling into view of the streets from her open backpack) so that she could butcher them herself at home and properly divide out the symbolic bones.