It’s been quite some time since anyone called me “devushka.” A Russian word meaning “young lady,” it’s a noun, but it’s also used as a polite address for any woman up to middle age whom you don’t know by name. It’s how you call a waitress over, and also how you admonish someone acting uncouth in public.
I was consistently addressed as “devushka” on a recent Sunday trip to Tashkent Supermarket, a spectacular grocery store in Brighton Beach that opened in 2017. Many people associate the neighborhood with large banquet halls playing Soviet disco and serving mediocre Russian and Ukrainian food. But since the breakup of the USSR, the south Brooklyn neighborhood has become the home of people from across the region, especially Central Asia. This is good news for gourmets. Countries like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, of which the capital is Tashkent, have vibrant and rich cuisines, full of crunchy vegetable salads, spicy stews and rich, savory pastries. Tashkent Supermarket has two bakeries—one for breads, one for cakes—plus the produce section, imported dry goods and butcher department to enable cooking Central Asian cuisine in Brooklyn kitchens. But if you want a crash course, lose yourself in their buffet.
Actually, the word buffet feels inadequate. A better way to describe the prepared foods on offer at Tashkent is “full immersion.” It’s two long, double-sided, double-tiered aisles heaping with food made in-house. You’ll find fish dishes like cured salmon wound into rosettes, fried whole mackerel and fillets of something called paltus, which you’ll think is a mystery fish but it’s actually an English transliteration of the Russian word for halibut. You’ll find between four and six varieties of plov, warmly seasoned rice dishes studded with jewels like lamb, carrots and rice, and as many beet salads; my favorite, called Fantasy, is topped with juicy and color-coordinated pomegranate seeds.
In fact, the category of salad here breaks down into three distinct subgenres: cooked vegetables dressed in mayonnaise, snappier veg preparations heavy on vinegar, and, what’s really special, meat salads. Try norin, a cold dish of wispy wheat noodles and horse sausage, or the Tashkent salad, thin-cut beef tongue with daikon and dill.
One of the two lines are bookended by, on one end, a pickle bar and, on the other end, a soup bar. Stand in line for hot soup, and wait for the devushka behind the counter to ladle you a serving from one of her dozen tureens. If you’re in a rush, though, you can grab a prepackaged pint of one of their bestsellers, like borscht, of course, or the refreshing, kefir-based okroshka. Make a meal of it with a fresh-baked samsa, a crunchy flaky pastry stuffed with meat. If you’re lucky, grab a cheburek, which is like a Crimean Tatar empanada, when it’s fresh out of the fryer.
Despite the prominence of the prepared foods aisle, there’s nowhere to sit in Tashkent, and the hot foods are room temperature at best. There’s a microwave you can use behind the soup section, but the grocery store, and its future extension Tashkent To-Go, are designed for takeout. After a stroll through these aisles, you’ll be struck by the incredible culinary diversity of this region. Tashkent ably caters to Russian and Central Asian tastes alike, and shows the mutability of foodways, as in the coriander-heavy Korean carrot salad (there’s a vat of on the pickle bar), or the Thai-style glass noodles. Islam is the dominant religion in Uzbekistan, so Tashkent Supermarket is halal, which means it can also accommodate Muslim eaters from across the borough.
Though there is this broad appeal, it can feel a bit hectic to the Anglophone shopper. Shoppers push, and employees constantly run through the aisles carrying mountainous containers of salads and steaming hot trays of meat and baked goods. Many people who work there speak to each other in Uzbek, but the language of service is Russian. So, if you’re standing there in awe of the varieties of dumplings or sirniki—small, round, barely sweetened cakes of farmer’s cheese—and you hear someone shout “Devushka, ostorozhno!” (“Young lady, be careful!”), give way. Something delicious is trying to migrate.
Tashkent Supermarket is located at 713 Brighton Beach Avenue, near the Brighton Beach stop on the Q. It’s open 24 hours, seven days a week.