To this day, no one knows exactly what Joseph Stalin had in mind when he ordered the relocation of some 170,000 ethnic Koreans from a small corner of the Soviet Far East to unsettled regions of Central Asia in 1937. It’s safe to say, however, that an unassuming café in Brooklyn was not one of them.
Although owner Elza Kan told Public Radio International that she felt “absolutely 100% Korean, from inside out,” she speaks mostly Russian. The flatscreen hugging the pastel-orange wall of her café in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood (also known as “Little Odessa”) plays Russian-language shows and music videos. Raised in Uzbekistan, Kan is part of a community known as Koryo Saram.
Their origins trace back to 1860, when Russian czars allowed Korea’s northernmost inhabitants, fleeing local famine, to settle on the Russian side of the border. But Koreans soon outnumbered Russians in the region, and, in the Soviet era, even widespread assimilation was not enough to placate Stalin’s fears of a betrayal. In 1937, these Soviet-Koreans were forcibly relocated to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to cultivate undeveloped lands of the harsh Eurasian steppe. While scores died in the roundup and subsequent train rides west, the Koryo Saram successfully adapted to their new environment, employing agricultural know-how while developing ties with locals.
The cuisine that emerged, as showcased at Cafe at Your Mother-in-Law, combines the kick of Korean cuisine with the heartiness of Uzbek and Central Asian fare. While a fusion is apparent in dishes such as laghman, a traditional Central Asian soup, served at the eatery with a scoop of chili paste, the menu also features independent examples of each cuisine: Beet-red Russian borsch and soy-based Korean duk-tyay share space in the soup section.