Monday, October 20, 2008

Notes from Uzbekistan

I have some pretty freakin' cool friends, I have to say. One of my many cool friends, Travis, whom I met while in grad school, also happens to have a supremely cool job. This job allows him to travel to parts of the world that most could not identify on a map, but happen to have extensive culinary and cultural histories. Having just gotten back from one such place, Tashkent (the capital of Uzbekistan), Travis wrote me a great long email telling me about all the food he ate while on his trip, pictures included. I was captivated. In addition to being totally cool and having an awesome job, Travis is also an eloquent and engaging writer. I asked his permission to repost his email here in the form of a guest post because a) it's wonderfully well-written and b) no one knows where Uzbekistan is, much less what is eaten there. I think this post will serve as education along with fascination. So without further ado - a cool post from a cool person with a cool job. Feel free to envy Travis (and me, for being his friend). Thank you, Travis!

I returned from Uzbekistan last night. I am struggling with the jet lag, so I thought I would waste some time by sending you pictures and descriptions of a few of the dishes I had while in Tashkent.

First of all, I did eat a significant portion of my meals at small, street side cafes and chaikhanas (teahouses). Most of the food at these establishments is everyday Uzbek or regional fare but still tasty...and definitely cheaper than eating at larger restaurants and hotel chains. I would also argue that because of the turnover rate and hot soups, it is probably a little more sanitary as well.

I did eat plov on several occasions, but did not have my camera with me at those times... so the disappointment is no pictures of plov. Tashkent plov is a heavy affair... laden with mutton and sheep tail fat (the locals contend that several cups of green tea after the meal help the passage of all this fat through the system... call me not convinced). On top of the mutton is the ubiquitous slices of horse meat. Depending upon where you eat it, there is typically a boiled egg or two included (chicken or quail). At one place, they had apricots in the rice, which was quite nice. In Tashkent, the plov isn't an aromatic dish like you would expect from related South Asian rice dishes. The rice isn't as good as jasmine or basmati like in neighboring countries to the West and South.

OK, on to the dishes that do have photographic evidence. First, there are two main soups in Uzbekistan that you can get at just about any cafe or chaikhana: laghman and shurpa. Laghman has large noodles (think udon) in a spicy broth with large chunks of garlic, green beans, onions, and mutton. The actual contents vary from establishment to establishment and from day to day depending upon what fresh vegetables are available that day. Like most dishes in Uzbekistan, it is eaten with "non" (yep, very similar to the Hindi word naan for bread...but this bread is leavened). Shurpa is a little different than laghman in ingredients, but the broth is somewhat similar. Shurpa consists of root vegetable (potatoes, turnips, carrots, etc), onions, and, again, mutton (usually on the bone).

I also had a very common Kazakh dish called Besh Barmak (literally "five fingers" as it was traditionally eaten with the hands). It is a heavy dish consisting of diced horse meat and boiled noodles. Think of it as a horse stroganoff without the sour cream and mushrooms. Because the dish can get dry, it is generally also served with a steaming bowl of what can only be described as "horse consomme." If you are wondering about the flavor of horse just let me say it is somewhat "gamey" and very reminiscent of how the actual animal smells.

When the horse broth was being brought to the table before the main plate, the waitress was about eight feet away and I thought to myself, "yep, that definitely smells like horse." The odor completely filled your nose with a deep, musky animal scent. It was overwhelming. Usually on the side is a small container of yogurt that can also be mixed into the dish... thus almost completing the transition to a stroganoff-like dish. Few spices were used on the meat and probably consisted of mostly coriander... which I wasn't really expecting.

I also had the opportunity to eat at a really good Korean restaurant. Now you might be thinking, "what the hell?" when I mention Korean food in Tashkent, but you have to remember that after World War II, Stalin relocated vast numbers of North Koreans to Central Asia. Many of these communities still exist and there are still cultural, familial, and business relations with Korea. I ordered the bi bim bop as you usually cannot go wrong with that in a Korean restaurant. I wasn't disappointed.

Bi bim bop is one of those "some assembly required" Asian dishes that allows you to personalize the dish to your own tastes. In addition to the large, sizzling stone bowl containing the egg, rice, meat, sprouts, and spinach, there was a number of smaller dishes of "salads" (as the wait staff called them) to modify the dish. Central to this was the homemade kimchi. It was very nice, but not overwhelmingly spicy. As you can see in the photo, there were a variety of other salads to either have individually or mix into the bowl. I ate most of them!

I hope you enjoyed the descriptions... feel free to pass them along to anyone that might be interested in Central Asian cuisine... or just interested in novel foods.

P.S. I really hope I matched the correct picture to the description. If I didn't, please correct me Travis!


Lissa said...

Awesome! Thanks for sharing (and hi to Travis). Again, I bow to both of your food exploration instincts... A restaurant that smells of horses would not necessarily be at the top of my list. ;) I am learning a lesson in food open-mindedness from this, somewhere.

JC said...

Pfft, I had Uzbek food for lunch today.

OK, not really.

That food sounds very interesting. The dish with the udon-like noodles looks pretty good.

Aisha & Jason said...

Anna- I know you're up for most anything- but do you think you would try horse meat? I just don't think I would eat it- especially from the description of the smell!

Aisha and/or Jason said...

Re-reading what I wrote above, it's so painfully obvious I'm not a foodie! I have so little spirit of adventure!

Travis said...

Lissa: Hello right back at ya! The restaurant that served the horse meat was actually a giant yurt (Central Asian nomadic tent thingy).

Aisha and Jason: I am not all that adventuresome...but I do like meat! My host had a wife that is three months pregnant and she was really craving the horse meat dish. And as all new husbands learn, you get what the mommie and baby want! Before we left, he ordered another plate of it to take home to the mother-to-be.

Anne said...

i read so many food blogs and i have to say, this is the first time i've ever seen uzbek food. looks quite delicious!

Bakhodir said...

Travis, your friend Anna (who wrote this article) says that you have an awesome job which enables you to travel to various places around the world. I am Uzbek, I grew up in Uzbek SSR during the Soviet times. Now I live in the US, but I still have connections, family etc. over there. I am always looking for a job that would enable me to travel to Uzbekistan among other places. For the last 8-10 years I have been working in Accounting/Finance for various corporations here in the US. By any chance, you are not in this field, are you? Do you know of any US companies with existing business ties in Uzbekistan? How can I get a hold of you? By the way, Anne: thanks for the article, most people in America have no idea where Uzbekistan is, much less its national dishes. I returned from my trip 2 weeks ago and already crave for some of the dishes. Thanks.

Bakhodir said...

Plov is not russian or georgian dish. Not by any means. First of all, it is pronounced "Osh-Polov", some refer to it as Osh and others as Polov. Russians call it Plov, because they can't or not willing to pronounce it right. That's where the English pronunciation comes from. Osh-Polov is a national dish of Uzbeks in Uzbekiston-->note the correct spelling of the country. There are so many variations of Uzbek polov, that even I have not tried all of them. I am a native Uzbek. Polov is also cooked by Tojiks in Tojikistan and Turkmens in Turkmeniston, as well as Uzbeks residing in Afghaniston and even Eastern Turkiston of China. Georgians and russians may just know the recipe, but they know better about the origins of this dish.