Damira’s smiling face beams into my Los Angeles kitchen from her home in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and we have something in common already—both of us have the same bowl of flour and butternut squash on our kitchen counters. We’ve come together under the umbrella of The League of Kitchens (LoK), a cooking school based in New York City where students can learn to cook Japanese, Persian, Lebanese, Indonesian, Mexican, Bengali, Russian and Argentinian dishes, among others, from women representing those cultures.
In non-COVID times, these workshops take place in person, in the home of the immigrant cook hosting the class. But in a socially-distanced climate, The League of Kitchens has gone virtual, offering students around the world the ability to take these New York City-based workshops.
For Damira, a retired doctor who immigrated from Samarkand, Uzbekistan, teaching students how to make her family’s passed-down recipes, including delights like delicate little dumplings called barak and a classic Uzbek salad of thinly sliced tomatoes and red onion with a dash of cayenne called achik chuchuk, has been a pure pleasure.
“I’m very happy with being an instructor for The League of Kitchens,” Damira says to our group. “Today we are all like good friends gathering in the kitchen and cooking together and enjoying this process of making a new dish. At the end, I hope you will enjoy that you cooked it.”
Today, we’re making butternut squash sambusas and radish salad. Sambusas are flaky triangular pastries filled with cumin-scented butternut squash and onion, and the radish salad combines thinly-sliced radishes with an abundance of fresh herbs in a rich yogurt dressing.
As we mix cumin in with our chopped butternut squash, Damira tells us how to identify and purchase Uzbek cumin seeds to enhance flavor. These specialty cumin seeds are tinier and possess a sharper smell than the milder, lighter-colored, larger cumin seeds we commonly see in American grocery stores.
Damira also informs us as we begin mixing our dough that making the sambusa dough is a little different in Uzbekistan, where the salt goes in the water, instead of being mixed in with other dry ingredients like the flour. It’s those little nuances that make this cooking class so special and preserve Damira’s cultural traditions.
As we sautee our chopped squash in oil, Damira tells us she likes to use sunflower oil. “A Mexican cook from The League of Kitchens told me ‘Sunflower takes all the light of the sun,’” she says. “In the East, they say, ‘You bring sun to my home.”
As we students huff and puff rolling out our dough by hand with everything from wine bottles to wood rolling pins, Damira tells us stories of how she learned to cook from three very important women in her life: her mother, her mother-in-law, and her grandmother.
“I’m still learning to cook from many friends, and from other The League of Kitchens instructors,” she says humbly, though by all appearances she is much more of an expert at rolling out dough with her long Uzbek rolling pin than any of us.
As we cook her family’s dishes, Damira enriches our sense of the context of these dishes by recounting childhood memories of playing in the family yurt with other kids while her grandmother gardened nearby, harvesting the tomatoes and squash to feed them. The same grandmother, she says, taught them how to cook as they got older.
Damira also gives us plenty of context when it comes to the two dishes, especially in terms of how and when these dishes would be eaten and what they mean. “Sambusas are a very popular dish in Uzbekistan that would always be on the table at home, but you can also buy them on the street or in restaurants,” she tells us.
We learn that there isn’t just one right way to make the dough, the filling, or even the shape of the sambusa. The sambusa can be crafted as a triangle as we’re doing today, or as a circle, square, or half-moon. It’s an ancient dish that, she tells us, was mentioned in Persian poetry in the 9th century, and later migrated to North Africa, Spain and Central Asia. She tells us that when the 16th century Uzbek ruler Babur went to India, he brought the sambusa back home with him.
Cousins of the Uzbek sambusa can be found in many varieties in many countries, and in Uzbekistan they are cooked for weddings, given to the family of the groom as a gift that symbolizes prosperity and happiness, and “means a lot for a young family,” Damira adds.
More Than a Cooking Class
If it seems like a lot of labor, Damira tells us that if we were making sambusas traditionally with an Uzbek family, everyone would pitch in.
“Everyone has a job,” she says. “One person makes the filling, one person mixes and rolls out the dough, one person assembles the spices, and it’s not just about food or cooking — it’s about telling stories while you’re doing it. It’s about spending time together as friends and family.”
As we start massaging our sambusas with our knuckles in preparation for filling them, Damira is already educating us about our next step: the squash. In Uzbekistan, she says, butternut squash are not usually eaten after March 22 due to seasonality. However, the expert cook says, holding up a small bowl, they’re often used to make “beautiful and useful things,” including bowls, cups, souvenirs, or boxes for chewing tobacco, often with writing or painting on the side.
We happily fill our pockets of dough with sauteed squash and prepare to pinch them into triangles. After our sambusas go in the oven, we start assembling the ingredients for a very popular, and very easy, Uzbek radish salad made with Greek yogurt and herbs, but which I adapt with a soy yogurt and the Korean herb minari, since it’s what I have on hand. Again, having Damira teach us is so much more meaningful than copying this recipe from a random cooking blog or website because of the nuance and cooking adjustments she offers us—but also because we feel she truly cares for our health.
“Spring is great for radishes,” Damira says. “Radishes have lots of vitamins, and in Uzbekistan, food was not only food, but for recovery from illness. If you like garlic, use up to two [cloves], but if you don’t, use only half. But garlic is very good for you.”
When I ask her if preparing a vegetarian Uzbek cooking class required significant modifications, she shakes her head.
“When my boss at The League of Kitchens said I had to do a vegetarian class, it was simple for me, because we have a lot of vegetarian dishes without meat,” Damira says. Uzbek cuisine naturally includes many vegetarian dishes, she says, like soups, butternut squash rolls, and steamed and roasted vegetables.
When some of us have leftover butternut squash filling after stuffing all our dough triangles, Damira tells us how to use the leftover filling to create Uzbek dishes, including roast vegetables, and a gingery soup with sauteed onions, potato, squash, cumin, salt and bay leaves.
She caps the class with a Q&A and a feasting party where we just chat and talk about where we live, how COVID has been for us, and what we like to cook. Damira is peppered with questions about cultural traditions, eating customs and her own personal cooking preferences, and is happy to answer these questions. As we munch on our creations, I’m surprised by how tasty my dishes are, considering I’m no pastry expert and this is the first time I’ve made them.
Damira leaves our class with what is, despite the utterly delicious dishes we churn out, the most valuable part of the class.
“In Uzbekistan, cooking is not just cooking,” Damira tells us. “It is the time of socializing before, it is the time of meditation, so you have to cook with joy, you have to cook with love, and you have to enjoy this process. Usually as I cook, I think good thoughts of the people who will eat the food, and I think how they will enjoy the food.”
Realizing I’ve just had a thoroughly fun and edifying experience that enlightened me about other cultures through food, while also casting a small ray of sunshine on my COVID social isolation, I vow to take more virtual classes. To find out about other unique virtual cooking experiences during the pandemic, read on for more from our list below.
Additional Virtual Cooking Courses
Classes: Uzbek, Japanese, Persian, Lebanese, Indonesian, Mexican, Bengali, Russian and Argentinian cuisines
Instructors: Women who represent their respective cultures, many of whom are immigrants or have lived internationally
Cost: $60 per virtual workshop
Classes: FFI Foundations; FFI Home (Plant-based chef and educator Matthew Kenney developed both courses)
Instructors: Chef Matthew Kenney, Chef Mike Aurigemma, Gia Larussa, Jenee Bridges, Joanna Wallace, Justin Hilbert, Patrick D’Ignazio
Classes: Video-based online program of more than 400 videos
Instructors: Husband and wife duo, Kim and Carlos—founders of Brownble
Cost: $11.99 per month/$115 per year/$199 lifetime plan
Classes: Kids cooking course with more than 30 lessons to teach children basic to intermediate cooking skills
Classes: Courses on an array of plant-based Mexican and South American recipes, such as roasted poblano mac n’ cheese, carne asada tacos, and Menudo.
Instructors: Courses with Todo Verde founder, Jocelyn Ramirez
Cost: $15 per course