Any country that has a rich cultural history like Uzbekistan is also going to have a delicious culinary tradition as well. With huge camel caravans traveling from China to Europe and back taking the Silk Road that has cut across the entire country since before the the Roman Empire, over centuries their chefs and cooks have been exposed to nearly every culinary idea on the planet.
My time here has proven that to be true – with options including Greek and Italian salads, Caucus Mt. shish-kababs, Siberian pelymeni and Asian rice plof. Here are a few highlights that definitely are assuring that my initial hopes of an Uzbekhistan weight-loss program will an overwhelming failure!
Plof – if you ask any Uzbek what is their national food, plof is going to be overwhelming winner. Daily as you walk down the street you will find outdoor stalls where a restaurant chef is busy stirring a huge and seemingly endless pot of rice, vegetables and meat that is always laid on a plate in exactly that order.
First the thick layer of rice rich with beef stock is typically topped with at least one color of fried carrots and typically they are both orange and yellow. The meat layer is usually sliced beef but I’ve also had chicken, sheep and horse. This is often served on one large community plate, with everyone diving right in
with fork or spoon definitely optional as often fingers seem to be the utensil of choice. The small restaurant next to our institute must serve at least 200 plates of plof everyday – all cooked on the street by our chef Islam. This past weekend I was treated to what many say is the best plof in the nation – at the Restaurant Azizbek in Kattakarang.
Shashleek – this is a skewer of grilled meat, what we would often call shish-kabab with the difference here being that shashleek is always just a skewer of meat whereas if you want some vegetables on the skewer it’s considered to be Armenian or Greek kababs. Just like plof you can find shashleek everywhere with pre-skewered meat on the street in occasionally refrigerated cases and nearly every block in the town has a shashleek restaurant.
My favorite by far is sheep, usually marinated in a wonderful mix of spices and oil and served piping hot with a plate of thinly sliced onions. Likely the best shashleek I’ve had anywhere was at this Restaurant Samarkand with five of the teachers I’m working with – not only was it an incredibly beautiful restaurant with a main dining room designed after a palace ballroom and an upper story modeled after a Siberian log lodge –
the sheep shashleek was incredible, just melted in your mouth!
Lackman – this is a handpulled noodle and vegetable soup, usually strongly seasoned with pepper such that it has a real Spanish look and feel. The noodles are always
thick and doughy, about double the typical size of a spaghetti noodle you would find in USA. There are many other soup options, I’ve had boulion, borscht (a Russian beet soup) and a variety of rice / vegetable options but according my teacher friends that only soup that they consider to be really Uzbek is Lackman. This was my lackman soup with a dinner plate on the train to Khiva last weekend.
Pelymeni, Monti and Samsa – all variations on some sort of ground, seasoned meat wrapped in dough – these three vary in regards to both their size and preparation. Pelymeni is likely the simplest – small pieces of dough no bigger than a tablespoon wrapped around a ball of ground meat and boiled for 10-15 minutes. This is probably my favorite bachelor food – mostly because it’s easy to pull together a big batch on a Sunday and just stash it away in the freezer to quickly prepare any evening.
Monti is just bigger version – usually about 3 inches across – and both are usually served with a healthy topping of smetana, basically runny sour cream with a sort of greek yogurt flavor. Samsa is likely my favorite although it ways beyond my meager culinary talents to actually cook it. It’s a large flaky pastry wrapped about the same sort of meat you will find in monti – and it’s baked rather than boiled. My boss, Institute Assistant Director Dilbar . . . . makes a mean samsa and I always look forward to when our weekly meetings are scheduled over lunch since that means a full plate of homemade samsa is going to be on the meeting table!
Those are definitely the big 6 national foods, but I’ll also admit that although I enjoy eating
this with my Uzbek friends I have developed a couple comfort food habits in some new trendy restaurants all within walking distance of my apartment. First – with my sincere apologies to Archies of Shelburne, VT – my new favorite hamburger is without a doubt the “Amerikanets” burger at Farsh.
Now no worries about franchises taking the USA by storm since Farsh is Russian for MinceMeat and I just don’t see that taking off. But this burger is 1/3 pound marinated sirloin steak, marinated in a light teriyaki sauce and topped with lettuce, tomato, an amazing sauces that is part thousand island part chipotle and topped with a handmade bun. The
plate always has a set of surgical gloves – odd for a country that typically eats plof with their fingers but the meat definitely is moist with flavor and a bit messy to eat. But absolutely delicious and Feruk the owner / chef is a great guy! The handcut potato fries and a cold beverage definitely are a plus as well on those nights when I’m just too tired to cook.
With no Starbucks to be found I’ve been able to fill my latte habit at this local café called
Monte. Definitely a bit more upscale that I’m used to with a full selection of dessert pastries, table waiters and a sort of Italian / American motif.
Took a little bit of training but they finally even can make the perfect slightly sweet vanilla latte – something I often grab on the weekend in the end of my 10 km run around the Registan / Timur mausoleum
loop. Just tonight the summer ice cream shops near Registan opened – another sure sign that spring is just around the corner.
And lastly although I’m really a loyal Farsh burger fan – I also feel a bit of responsibilty to support the nearby BBQ Burger. My first week here I got brave and took off late one afternoon in search of groceries and various supplies for the apartment like some dish towels and a waste basket. As I roamed farther and farther from my apartment day turned to night and I suddenly realized that all of my landmarks were now indistinguishable since everything was a mix of
either darkness or bright neon lights. I was completely lost. Still a bit fearful of whether there might be any concerns about being an American here – I was also really hesitant to talk to strangers who would immediately recognize my still choppy Russian. But as I walked in what I thought was the correct direction I found a sign for BBQ Burger – one key landmark I knew was only a kilometer or so from my apartment building. It turned out to be the second BBQ Burger in town, but their delivery driver seemed really amused at my lame attempts to describe where I lived and simply pointed to his car with the OK sign meant to signal all would be fine. Turned out I was a good 3 km away from where I thought I was – but thanks to
BBQ Burger I avoided a full night of wandering aimlessly. So they have become my late night ice cream break – their burger compares to my beloved Amerkanets like a twinkie to a Napolean (like this one we had for dessert in Kattakurgan)– but they do make a mean milkshake that even comes topped with whipped cream and a chunk of dark chocoate.
I’ll end with the only meal that might not ever make my favorites list – that would be the Uzbek traditional meal of Head and Hoof. Dilyarxon, son of my Director Dilbar offered to
take me to the train station last week for a 1 AM train to Khiva and with time to kill asked if I wanted to try one of their favorite, but unusual ethnic meals. I’m still not entirely sure that this is really something they enjoy although both completely cleared their plates in a matter of minutes. But that might have just been so they could enjoy the sight of me slowly working through the collection of boiled cow parts including tongue, brain, stomach wall, hoof and various unidentified pieces of viscera and sort of meat. Imagine a texture of thick gelatin, but with enough rigidity that it really has to be chewed to be swallowed. I’m not a big coke drinker, but was so thankful to have something pretty caustic to clean my palate and hopefully dissolve the remnants from my teeth and tongue. I’m proud to say that except for a 3 inch chunk of some sort of white “meat” that I couldn’t even cut with a knife – the plate was cleared. Especially after seeing the starting point of this meal at the bazaar this week - next time – I'll buy at Farsh!