Bread, noodles and mutton all feature heavily in Uzbek cuisine, and vegetarians are in for a tough time: the concept is little understood, and even less frequently сatered for. The Uzbeks are a very hospitable people. They take delight in treating their guests with dishes that used to be prepared by their ancestors. The Uzbek cuisine has been influenced by other cultures, but all borrowed dishes have unique Uzbek traditional rituals and ways of cooking. National recipes are passed on from one generation to another.
Pilaff (also known as osh) is the main dish of the Uzbek cuisine: an oily rice-based dish with pieces of meat, grated carrots, onions and, if you are particularly fortunate, roasted garlic and hard-boiled egg. Uzbek men are proud of their skill of cooking the most unique and tasty pilaff. It is said that Uzbek pilaff has 1,200 recipes. It is typically only available at lunchtime, and is popular at weddings and other large celebrations when huge quantities are cooked in a single dish. Plov invariably is accompanied by obi non (see below) and is washed down with green tea, the astringency of which helps to cut through the mutton fat.
A special importance is placed on hot soups (shurpa). Usually they are spicy and rich in vegetables and greens. Shurpa is cooked from fresh or fried meat. Vegetables are cut into large pieces in order to preserve their flavour. Norin and lagman, two mutton-broth soups with noodles that may also be topped with a piece of horse meat.
For a quick snack, consider either manti (also called qasqoni), a steamed dumpling containing minced mutton, or somsa, a fried or baked pastry parcel that contains either mutton or, occasionally, mashed potato.
Such meat dishes (as rissoles, shashlyks, manty, kebab, lagman, samsa and different kinds of pasties with meat, rice, pumpkin and other stuffings) are among the most popular second courses. When Uzbek dishes are cooked, usually meat is not separated from bones. Moreover, meat is fried on hot oil or a mixture of oil and butter, which improves its taste and flavour.
Pastry with different stuffings makes up almost half of the traditional Uzbek cuisine. Exotic oriental sweets are a common thing in Uzbekistan. More than 50 types of halva as well as sweets from nuts, fruits and juices are prepared here.
Every meal is accompanied by the flat, round loaves of bread known as non. The most common form, obi non, is cooked in a clay tandoor oven. The bread's rim rises, the centre is decorated with a pattern or dots imprinted in the dough. Non is generally torn into chunks rather than sliced, and you should show respect by not placing it upside down on the table.
If you are in Uzbekistan in late summer and early autumn, the country is bursting with fresh fruits. Roadsides stalls sell watermelons the size of beach balls; the sweet, juicy pomegranates are a glorious shade of pink; and you can also enjoy grapes, apricots, apples, figs and peaches.
The Uzbek cuisine would be incomplete without green tea. An Uzbek's veins run with tea as much as blood, and the chaikhana (tea house) is central to any community: people go to do business as much as to gossip and relax. For centuries Uzbek people have solved the most serious problems and had heart-to-heart talks while drinking a cup of tea at chaykhanas. A meeting at chaykhanas is a traditional privilege of men. Green tea is served with pilaff and meat dishes. Uzbek people drink tea without milk or sugar, but with plenty of sweets. Expect a funny look if you want your tea with milk.
In summer you may also be offered ayran, a chilled yoghurt drink.
Alcohol is consumed in Uzbekistan, though less so than in the other central Asian republics, and both beer and spirits are widely available in shops and larger restaurants. The Russian beer Baltica is affordable and very drinkable: it's quite gassy and comes in large bottles so is ideal for sharing between two. Uzbekistan has a number of vineyards, some quite well established, and if you're offered the opportunity to try a glass or two, you should take it. The best Uzbek wines are produced around Samarkand from local varieties of grapes.
The day of his entry into Samarkand, the Emir made, by public notice, a national holiday. Several of their kettles of monstrous size were put in requisition, and brought forward in the Righistan, for boiling the 'princely pilow' [plov], which consisted of the following ingredients in each kettle:- a sack of rice, three sheep chopped to pieces, a large pan of sheep's fat (enough to make, with us, five pounds of candles), a small sack of carrots; all these were allowed to boil, or perhaps we had better call it ferment, together, and as tea was also served out at discretion, the eating and drinking proceeded bravely.
Arminius Vambery, Travels in Central Asia (1864)
"Have you tried our national dish?" is a common expression of genuine Uzbek hospitality that rapidly translates into the lengthy and revered process described above. Plov (or pilau) is the national pride and joy, for which an excuse is barely needed, from visiting guests and circumcision feasts to election day parties.
Legend credits Alexander the Great with its invention (Greek: poluv = a variety of ingredients), 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 oily mix into bite-sized balls. It is believed that outdoor cooking, by men only, yields the best results. Plov is essentially a lunchtime dish, ready by 11am and hard to find in the evenings unless it is made specially.
Staple number two is shashlik, mutton kebabs аrom smouldering charcoal grills. These are the skewers of life, the traveller's foremost companion across Central Asia. Connoisseurs enjoy the chunks of fat neighbouring each piece of meal (unless you've ordered a kiyma/farsch/Adana-style minced kebab) and regulars relish the occasional variety of grilled liver (jigar kabob) or chicken (tovuk kabob). Your order is served on the skewer, usually in rounds of four or five, beneath raw onion and above fresh bread.
Popular too are manty, small dumplings of chopped mutton and onion, topped with the Russian favourite smetana (sour cream) and pelmeni, filled ravioli rather similar to (but not as good as) Chinese jiaozi. Energetic dough-tossing means laghman creation, a thick noodle soup with fried meat and vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Among various shurva (soups) are dymbul shurva, with sweetcorn, potatoes and stuffed peppers; nakhot shurva, with chickpeas (mokhora is a Bukharan chickpea soup); and chuchvara shurva, with large mutton dumplings. Other soups include mastava, rice and vegetables; mampar, meat, fried egg and chopped noodles; and chalop, a cool bowl of yoghurt with chives and cucumber. Nakhot shurak is a chickpea dish slewed with onion and meat; damlama, a meat stew with potatoes, carrots, cabbage and tomatoes (kovurma also indicates a stewed dish); and noryn, horsemeal and noodles. Samsa are meat and onion pastries (samosas) baked in clay ovens and generally very greasy. Common appetizers are tomato and cucumber salads, enlivened with the sour cream dip charka or cottage cheese suzma, and cold meat platters featuring kazy horse sausage.
For many travellers non (nan) bread and fruit are the twin fat-free saviours of Uzbek cuisine. A bazaar has no claim to the name without baskets and prams of warm, fragrant, crisply-crusted yet soft-centred non. These unleavened roundels form the perfect shashhk partner and plate. They enjoy exalted status in Uzbek society, for legend claims rulers once paid the minters of coins in non, while the 11th- century scientist Avicenna recommended non and plov as cures for any debilitating disease. Wheatflour dough, sprinkled with sesame (kalonji) or poppy seeds, is thrust against the clay walls of a tandyr oven, falling only when baked to perfection. Besides the common variety of flatbreads, obi- or uy-non, (lepyoshka in Russian), fancier types are called patyr, baked from puff pastry flavoured with mutton fat to preserve freshness. Samarkand boasts over 20 different varieties of non, colourfully patterned as gifts for special occasions, while Khorezmian non is larger and flatter.
For authentic Uzbek food search the older parts of town, within or close to a bazaar. First stop is the teahouse or chaikhana, a time- honoured place for men to gather on carpeted dais and swap the latest news over chai and Uzbek favourites like shashlik, plov and laghman. You will not starve in Uzbekistan but without making an effort you run a high risk of repetition, while the liberal use of fats and oils often provokes disagreement with foreign stomachs.
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 recalled the exquisite taste of the fruit of his homeland long after becoming emperor of India.
In summer and autumn look forward to a tempting array of peaches (shaftoli), apricots (orik), plums (olkhori), apples (olma), cherries (olcha), raspberries (malina), strawberries (kulupnay), mulberries (toot), persimmon (khurmo), pears (nok), grapes (uzum), pomegranates (anor) and figs (anjur). A sea of melons (kovun) and watermelons (tarvuz) spills from truck and cart; expert buyers check for fragrance, the correct resonance on tapping and weight over size-the heavier the better.
Dried fruit and nuts are another must-eat, from dried kish-mish raisins to deliciously salted apricot kernels. Crushed walnuts and local Central Asian honey (assal) on hot non bread make for a heavenly dessert. Semechka sunflower seeds are a national obsession.
Drinks: To drink chai in a chaikhana is to follow a long and venerable Central Asian tradition. Hot green tea (kok chai in Uzbek; zilyoni chai in Russian) not only quenches thirst and cools the body, it also aids the digestion of greasy foods. In an Uzbek home tea may come with halva wheatflour sweets.
Despite resurgent Islam, alcohol is readily available, in state and private shops, and publicly consumed. Vodka may prove the most enduring Russian legacy, normally drunk 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 shot after another, as in the court of Tamerlane. Women may decline, but men face tremendous peer pressure.
Viniculture has a long history in this land-legend boasts that Samarkand grapes produced the world's first wine. Travel agencies can arrange wine-tasting sessions in Bukhara, though the emphasis is on the very sweet. Shakhrisabz is reputed as the best local blend.
Beer (pivo) from Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (and usually drunk in that order of preference) is widely sold in bottles and increasingly on draft. Sarbast Beer is the local Uzbek brew, in Original, Special and Extra varieties, produced by the Tashkent Carlsberg brewery, which also bottles Tuborg Green and two versions of Baltika Beer. Drinkers nibble kurt, hard balls of dried, soured milk.
Another acquired taste, and not to be missed, is the nomadic speciality koumis, mare's milk fermented into a mildly alcoholic and thoroughly invigorating brew, said to cure all manner of ailments. Marco Polo, enjoying the Mongol original, thought it "like white wine, and very good to drink". William of Rubrick, however, was less impressed: "at the taste of it I broke out in a sweat with horror and surprise". Find it in all good Kyrgyz/ Kazakh уurts or bazaar churns, ignore the smell and believe it improves with practice.