Jewish Life

Gefilte sushi? A cholent roll? 

Japanese meets Jewish in Queens, New York

By Josefin Dolsten

NEW YORK (JTA) – More than a dozen kosher eateries – selling pizza, bagels, falafel and schnitzel – dot Main Street in the Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood of the New York City borough of Queens. But a newcomer on the block is sure to turn some heads, and maybe stomachs, too.

Sushi Kingdom & Asian Fusion may look like a typical kosher Japanese joint, but in addition to classic dishes such as salmon avocado and spicy tuna, the menu offers rolls stuffed and topped with traditional Jewish food.

There’s a gefilte fish roll, where the traditional Ashkenazi loaf is wrapped with seaweed and rice and topped with carrot and horseradish. Another roll is topped with such a generous serving of cholent, the heavy bean stew traditionally served on Shabbat afternoons, that it nearly disappears. A falafel-filled roll is deep-fried and served atop hummus or tehina.

“We need to stand out from everybody else, so we decided that we’re going to have some special rolls that nobody has had before,” owner Rabbi Nahum Kaziev said.

Though sushi has been popular for decades, it entered the kosher dining scene more recently. It’s pareve, so it can be served alongside either meat or dairy, and many kosher restaurants offer sushi in addition to dishes such as burgers and pizza. Sushi has become a staple at kosher weddings and b’nai mitzvah, with the fish station on one side joining the long popular corned beef and pastrami carver on the other.

Jerry Xiu, the sushi chef at Sushi Kingdom & Asian Fusion, has warmed up to the idea of Jewish-Japanese cuisine. Credit: Josefin Dolsten

What makes Kaziev’s restaurant unique is that he combines sushi with traditional Jewish food in one dish.

The owner offered the JTA a tasting of the restaurant and its menu on Friday, ahead of its opening last week.

The combinations are sure to boggle the minds of those used to traditional Japanese and Jewish foods (such as this reporter). There’s something about eating a sushi roll dipped in hummus that just feels wrong. But I came to realize that in order to enjoy the roll for what it is, I had to think of it as an entirely different dish. The rice in the deep-fried falafel roll complements the falafel in a way similar to how a pita might. And cholent served over a sweet-potato-and-onion-stuffed roll isn’t too different from stew over rice.

While I don’t foresee myself ordering Jewish-themed sushi rolls again anytime soon, they tasted better than I had imagined.

Kew Gardens Hills, along with nearby Rego Park, is home to a large Jewish community, including a high concentration of Bukharian Jews – an estimated 50,000, according to community leaders. Bukharian Jews come from Central Asia, and follow many customs practiced by Jews from the Middle East. They speak Russian and a dialect derived from Persian.

Kaziev, who is Bukharian and was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, draws inspiration from that culture at his sushi joint. On the menu is a Bukharian pilaf tempura roll and a roll named after a traditional embroidered “joma” coat. He also draws inspiration from Eastern European Ashkenazi food, in the gefilte fish and cholent rolls, and Moroccan cuisine: A roll featuring spicy tuna is a nod to the spicy fish dish traditionally served on Shabbat.

For the rolls, Kaziev also draws inspiration from two world leaders: President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kaziev, who also serves as rabbi of Ohr Natan, a nearby synagogue, cites the President for recognizing Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights and moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem as reasons why “Trump is good for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel.”

The Trump roll is a California roll topped with tuna, avocado, caviar, crunch sweet sauce and spicy mayo.

There’s also a Putin roll, which contains spicy tuna and imitation crab and is topped with two kinds of caviar. Kaziev said the roll only costs $4.95 because he wanted to acknowledge that Russia’s economy is struggling. Other rolls range from $2.95 for a cucumber or carrot roll to $10.95 for a roll with multiple kinds of fish.

But there’s one country whose politics Kaziev won’t wade into: Israel.

“In Israel, you have so many parties, so many politics, and we saw the turmoil now with the elections there, so we decided with everything going on there, no,” he said.

Besides the Jewish-themed and politically inspired rolls, Sushi Kingdom & Asian Fusion also serves Hawaiian poke bowls and sushi pizza.

The restaurant’s Japanese-educated sushi chef, Jerry Xiu, acknowledged that the first time he heard the concept, he found it unusual. But he has since warmed up to the idea. His favorite is the cholent roll because the stew’s “flavor is really rich.”

Meanwhile, Kaziev believes he’s on to something.

“I think many other places are going to copy it afterwards,” he said. “And we’re going to be happy that other restaurants, other sushi eateries, in America, in Israel, in other places, are going to copy it.”

CAP: A plate of gefilte fish roll, served at Sushi Kingdom & Asian Fusion, combines fish, carrot, horseradish and rice. Credit: Josefin Dolsten.

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