Have you tried our national dish? – Is a common expression of genuine Uzbek hospitality that rapidly translates into a lengthy and revered process.
Plov is the national pride and joy, for which an excuse is barely needed, from visiting guests and circumcision feasts to election day parties to make voting the party more appealing. Legend credits Alexander the Great with its invention, for he bade his cooks devise a substantial yet light campaign meal. Only the first requirement was met. Locals claim over 100 versions of plov, differing in rice and extras such as raisins or quince, and tuck in to the steaming mutton mound with their right hands, massaging the only mix into bite-sized balls. It is believed that outdoor cooking, by men only, yields the best results.
Staple number two is shashlik, mutton kebabs from smoldering charcoal grills. These are the skewers of life, the traveler’s foremost companion across Central Asia. Connoisseurs enjoy the chunks of fat neighboring each piece of meat and regulars relish the occasional variety of grilled liver. Your order is served on the skewer, usually in rounds of four or five, beneath raw onion and beside fresh bread.
Popular too are manty – small dumplings of chopped mutton and onion, topped with the Russian favorite smetana (sour cream) and pelmeni (Russian ravioli).
Samsa are meat and onion pastries baked on clay ovens. Common appetizers are tomato and cucumber salads, enlivened with the sour cream dip charka, and cold meat platters featuring kazy horse sausage.
Energetic dough tossing means laghman creation, a thick noodle soup with fried meat and vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and cabbage.
Other soups include:
mastava, rice and vegetables;
mampar, meat, fried eggs and chopped noodles;
chalop – a cool bowl of yogurt with chives and cucumber;
Nakhot shura is a chickpea dish stewed with onion and meat;
damlama a chicken stew potatoes, carrots and tomatoes;
naryn, a horsemeat and noodle soup.
For many travelers non (bread) and fruit are twin fat-free saviours of Uzbek cuisine. A bazaar has no claim to the name without baskets and prams of warm, fragrant, crispily-crusted yet soft –centered non. These unleavened roundels form the perfect shashlik partner and plate. They enjoy exalted status in Uzbek society, for legend claims rulers once paid the minters of coins in nopn while the 11th century Avicenna recommended non and plov as cures for any debilitating disease. Wheatflour dough, sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds, is thrust against the clay walls of a tandyr oven falling only baked to perfection. Besides the common variety of flatbreads, obi-non (lepyoshka in Russian), fancier types are called patyr, baked from puff pastry flavored with mutton fat to preserve freshness. Samarkand boasts over 20 different varieties of non, colorfully patterned as gifts for special occasions.
Fresh fruit is the bazaar’s other main attraction. Over 1,000 years ago, the region’s famous melons and grapes were packed in ice for export as delicacies. Even the briefest encounter will leave you in sympathy with Babur, great-great-great-grandson of Tamerlane, who recsalled the exquisite taste of the fruit of his homeland long after becoming emperor of India. In summer and autumn look forward to a temping array of peaches, apricots, plums, apples, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, mulberries, persimmon, pears, grapes, pomegranates and figs. A sea of melons and watermelons spills from truck and cart; expert buyers check for fragrance, the correct resonance on tapping and weight over size – the heavier the better. Other than fruit, an alternative pudding and widespread street snack is locally made ice cream, often delicious and always a flagrant violation of medical advice. Sunflower seeds are a national obsession.
To drink tea in a chaikhana is to follow a long and venerable Central Asia tradition. Hot green tea not only quenches thirst and cools the body, it also aids the digestion of greasy food. In an Uzbek home tea may come with halva - wheatflour sweets. Restaurants commonly serve bottles of mineral water or lemonade; ask to try sok, sweated fruit juice, or kompot, a concoction made from local berries. Street vending machinrs offer glasses of strangely water but look instead for crowded kvas – tankers selling a refreshing brew made from bread and yeast. For breakfast, drinking yogurt kefir or kaimak is excellent. Coca-colonization has reached the choice of Western brands of soft and alcoholic drinks.
Despite resurgent Islam, alcohol is readily available, in state and private shops, and publicly consumed. Vodka may prove the most enduring Russian legacy, normally drink in units of 100 grammes with a grimace and a hastily snatched piece of sausage or tomato. Prepare your excuses well to avoid nightly excess, for when a bottle is opened your hosts expect it to be finished, one short after another, as in the court of Tamerlane. women may decline but men face tremendous peer pressure. Export Stolichnaya or Rasputin are the preferred brands. Other well brands are Stoletov and Uzbekskiy Standart. Chilled champanski (sparkling wine) is a welcome table guest and the only partner to caviar (ikra). Viniculture has a long history in this land – legend boasts that Samarkand grapes produced the world’s first wine. Our company can arrange wine-tasting sessions – just contact us. Beer is sold on the street from bottles or tankers, where drinkers nibble kurut, hard balls of salted milk. Not to be missed is the nomadic specialty koumis, mare’s milk fermented into a mildly alcoholic and thoroughly invigorating brew, said to cure all manners of ailments. Marco Polo, enjoying the Mongol original, through it “like white wine, and very good to drink”. Find it in all good Kyrgyz / Kazakh yurts or bazaar churns, ignore the smell and believe it improves with practice.