I returned from Uzbekistan a couple of days before and am still impressed by the mix of influences the country is shaped by. This is reflected in the food, which is in itself a mixture of Arabic, Turkish, Russian and Asian cuisines. The main component is meat, mostly mutton but also beef and goat is served. And then there’s the delicious fresh vegetables and fruits I’ve been already talking about.
Uzbek meals consist of three components, meat (grilled as Shashlyk, mostly), salads or fresh vegetables and bread. The bread is very light and always round in shape with a hollow in the middle, but every bakery has its own decoration style using round stamps with needles. It reminded me of Turkish pita bread, although the crust is more crispy and also slightly sweet. Sometimes the dough is quite heavy on butter, making it more cake-like. The bread is national symbol of Uzbekistan, in the shape of the sun it’s treasured as a memory of unity and independence. Usually a male guest breaks it in pieces for the rest to eat (I constantly broke this rule out of lack of knowledge and maybe inattention).
Meals usually start with or are accompanied by salads, although salads are not necessarily made of many vegetables in Uzbekistan, but mostly meat with pickles, some more meat and mayonnaise. Very Russian in style and often a meal in itself for weak European stomachs. I tried some of them, mostly choosing them by the fanciness of their names. Pictured above is for instance men’s caprice, earlier I tried women’s caprice. The difference might have been in the cheese topping for the men’s, but I’m not entirely sure…
My favorit was an Uzbek salad called Achichiq Chuchuk, a favorit because it was many times the only one to find on a menu that wasn’t dressed with mayonaise. It’s a mixture of fresh tomatoes, onions and often cucumbers and with the vegetables enjoying 300 sunny days a year, it’s boasting with flavor.
When it comes to eating vegetarian or without meat, there’s not much to get in Uzbekistan.* One of the most delicious dishes I had was this: Xomin (might also be called Honim). Of course it can also be filled with meat, but I had it as a fresh pasta dough filled with potatoes and other vegetables and topped tomato sauce with fresh herbs, spring and white onions.
Another dish I encountered frequently is Lagman, a fresh pasta with vegetables and meat (mutton, mostly). Seen here is a variety I had in a restaurant of Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group that mainly lives in Eastern China, as well as in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The dishes in itself are quite similar to the ones served in the rest of Uzbek kitchen, but the taste tends to be a little more Chinese or Asian – I’m quite lacking in words to better describe how this is actually accomplished. The Uyghur Lagman had a thicker broth and might even have had some chili in it, although I’m not entirely sure I remember that right. Lagman comes in many forms, sometimes more like a noodle soup, sometimes an pasta dish with a sauce.
Saved the best for last – the national dish of Uzbekistan is Plov, an Uzbek variety on Pilaf. It consists of rice that is cooked in a broth, completed by raisins and other vegetables and topped with braised mutton meat, horse meat sausage (optional, for me at least) and either a cooked chicken’s or a quail’s egg. The dish is heavy, with loads of mutton’s fat and the meat in itself it can be hard to stomach for someone not used to it. (I was warned beforehand that I shouldn’t eat too much Plov for the sake of my digestion system.) On our last day in Tashkent, we went to the Central Asian Plov Centre, a big name that its Plov totally lives up to. Although it’s in every available guide (and there aren’t many), we were the only non-Uzbek people there. Located by the TV-tower on the borders of the city center, it looks like a camp site with its four (or more) giant Plov pans handled by strong cooks loading the plov onto plates and into big bowls for take-away.
When we got our plate – at a catching price of not even 3 Euros each – we went on to eat in a giant dining hall that’s rented out as a wedding location over the weekends and thus always features a wedding-decoration with white satin chair covers and two marriage thrones. (As did our hotel’s breakfast hall in Hotel Uzbekistan, by the way.) We got some additional Achichiq Chuchuk and pickles and enjoyed our last Uzbek lunch.
In case you feel like you want to try some of it now, I haven’t been able to find an Uzbek restaurant in Berlin via googling so far, maybe some recommendations will come up in the comments. Until then you might want to try these Uzbek cooking blogs: Uzbek Cooking and Husband’s Caprice.
*A little explanation of me being known as eating vegetarian in Berlin might be necessary. Since I did not quit eating meat and fish out of ethical reasons but out of political and environmental and the concern for the way it’s produced and distributed. I have to admit I do like the taste and am often just too curious on what a certain local speciality tastes like. I usually refrain from my vegetarian eating when I travel, which doesn’t mean I’m getting myself a burger at the airport diner as soon as I jump off a plane. I keep it for the specialities, so I had some fresh tuna and squid in Hawaii and I had loads of mutton in Uzbekistan. Although the latter was often out of pure lack of alternatives, it’s just very unpractical to eat vegetarian in Uzbek restaurants on a tour where we were constantly invited by locals to restaurants (it would also have been quite weird and maybe even rude to our hosts).
Anyhow, I am back in Berlin and vegetarian (no fish, no meat) because I don’t see myself to be able to be consequent on the I-only-eat-well-raised-organic-meat way-of-eating. And I don’t miss a thing.