Looking for traditional Ukrainian or Uzbek food? Head to America’s Midwest

A culinary road trip to the heartland reveals a surprising mix of international cuisine.

America’s breadbasket, ripe with green fields and grazing dairy cows, is known for its simple but hearty dishes. But if you think the Midwest’s menu boils down to the traditional staples of cheese curds and bratwurst, then think again.

Conflicts in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and beyond have fueled a surge of immigration to the United States in recent years. Amid the heartbreak and loss, these communities are breathing life into Midwestern cities, many bringing with them culinary delights not typically found in the region. 

As you set out on your highway travels this summer, skip the drive-thru and follow this culinary road trip through Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky to some of the best immigrant-owned restaurants and cafés in the region. 

Cleveland, Ohio

On any given afternoon, a steady stream of customers files into Mama Maria’s Ukrainian Kitchen to buy cabbage rolls, chenaky (stewed pork, potatoes, and carrots), and savory borscht (beet soup with pork and vegetables).

“On a busy day, we’ll make 250 orders of half-dozen pierogies,” says George Salo, Maria’s son who now runs the restaurant as well as the State Meats Deli next door. 

One of the first Ukrainian-owned businesses in Parma, a Cleveland suburb that’s been home to Ukrainian immigrants for the better part of a century, Mama Maria’s has been a local staple for about half that time. “It was my mom’s place for decades before I took over.” 

In recent months, Salo and his staff have been working to offer a slice of home to thousands of resettled Ukrainian immigrants who’ve been forced from their country by the Russian invasion.

“It reminds me of home because they make authentic Ukrainian food that you cannot really find anywhere else,” says Viktoriya Skubyak, a regular customer who is originally from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. 

Mama Marie’s Ukrainian Kitchen, 5342 State Road.

Dayton, Ohio

Gulnaz Makhmudova runs the Turkish halal Dayton Village Pizza restaurant. Born in Uzbekistan and raised in the Krasnodar region of western Russia, she recalls a childhood spent cooking for her siblings as her father worked the fields and her mother sold harvested crops at the local market.

“My parents were out all day, [so] since I was eight years old, I was cooking for my family,” she says. Today in Dayton, those ties to the land remain. Behind the restaurant, which serves Uzbek and Turkish dishes, as well as regular pizza, her father, Sabirzhon, has built a small greenhouse for growing watermelons and vegetables for the restaurant. 

(Here’s how to take a European road trip without leaving America’s Midwest.)

The diner has become a safe haven for local Ahiska Turks. Many of them arrived in Dayton in the 1950s after fleeing persecution in Central Asia, and Village Pizza now serves as a gathering place for marking important life events: high school graduations, birthday parties, and romantic gatherings over Turkish coffee.

Popular dishes with the locals include lahmacun (a pizza-type dish topped with meat and spices) and sigara borek (crispy cheese rolls). 

Dayton Village Pizza, 3630 N. Dixie Drive.

Indianapolis, Indiana

Located inside a former Coca-Cola bottling plant, Azúcar Morena’s centerpiece dishes are based on an ingredient that’s every bit at home in the Midwest as it is in South America: corn.

Owner Andreina Paredes Angulo and her son, Juan, came to the U.S. from Maracay in 2018. Despite having no restaurant experience, Paredes Angulo wanted to help bring a new food culture to Indiana’s capital. 

“Millions of people have left Venezuela because of the economic problems there,” says Juan, who runs the day-to-day operations. “So now, for the first time, our food is being known everywhere, and people love it.” 

Customers’ favorites include the reina pepiada—a corn arepa stuffed with pulled chicken and avocado covered in cilantro, mayonnaise, and lime juice—with a glass of papelón con limón, a lemonade made from dehydrated sugar cane juice.

Azúcar Morena, 906 Carrollton Ave.

Owensboro, Kentucky

Edris Akbari, Tariq Pakzad, and Khaiber Shafaq first met each other in late 2021 at a visa processing center in Virginia, after fleeing the Taliban takeover.  Within weeks, all three were resettled in Owensboro, Kentucky, alongside about 200 other Afghans.

(Afghans look for new ways to share their culture far from home.)

Craving a taste of home, the trio was inspired to open Pamir Afghan Cuisine, not only as a place where Afghans could connect but also where the wider Owensboro community could learn about Afghanistan through their food.

Savor bites of torshi (pickled vegetables), borani banjan (seasoned eggplant dish with yogurt and tomato sauce), and mantu (beef and onion-filled dumplings served atop garlic-flavored yogurt and tomato sauce). 

Pamir Afghan Cuisine restaurant (inside Windy Hollow Biscuit House), 630 Emory Drive.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist and author who reported from the Middle East for a decade before moving to Ohio. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.

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