Tajikistan runs on bread and tea. Wherever you are, from a customs post to a shepherd s hut, there will always be a kettle on the boil and a few china tea bowls filled with a light, steaming tea.
Tajik cuisine is definitely central Asian (plenty of grilled meats and dairy products), but with an influence from Afghanistan and Russia too. The national dish, as far as there is one, is plov or osh, an oily rice-based dish with shredded carrot, meat and occasionally raisins, roasted garlic or nuts. Plov is eaten with the hands from a communal plate at the centre of the table.
Equally popular is qurutob. Balls of salted cheeses (qurut) are dissolved in water and poured over dry, flaky bread. The dish is then topped with onions fried in oil. It may be accompanied by laghmon (noodle soup with mutton). Tajik restaurants tend to offer diners quite a limited menu.
Every meal is accompanied by round, flat bread called non. Non is treated almost reverentially: it should not be put on the floor, placed upside down or thrown away. If it has turned stale it shoud be given to the birds.
Common snacks include manti (steamed meat dumplings), somsa (triangular pastry with a meat and onion stuffing) and belyash (deep-fried dough stuffed with minced lamb).
Dairy products feature heavily in Tajik cuisine. In addition to the qurut are chaka (sour milk) and kaymak (clotted cream), both of which are eaten with bread. Western-style yoghurt, including bottled yoghurt drinks, is popular for breakfast.
If you are in Tajikistan 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.
TAJIK FOOD by Zarrina Shakir and Huw Thomas
For many, the joy of eating and drinking is enhanced by the ambience - the serving of food in its cultural context.
To share a meal with a Tajik family is a special experience. There is the warmth of hospitality, which is their second nature. You are welcomed to sit round an elaborate cloth placed on the floor, with cushions provided for comfort. This tradition is prevalent in rural areas or during large family functions. Urban families serve food on tables. There will be dried fruit, nuts, yoghurt and sweets. Your host will break the round nan (delicious flat bread) into pieces. The ritual of pouring tea into a cup three times and then back into the pot will be undertaken. Black or green tea will be served in small bowls. Normally there is a soup first course, followed by a meat dish, usually mutton or chicken boiled or roasted. Other dishes could be mantu (stuffed dumplings) or a variety of salads and other dishes. Often there are several other courses and it can become overwhelming - best to sample each one. Dessert is usually fresh fruit in season - apricots, mulberries, grapes, apples or pears. Even in the most basic and poor households, perhaps just having an omelette, you will feel an honoured guest and greeted with warm smiles and laughter.
You may be lucky to join a party; Tajiks do not need much of an excuse for a party. This could be out of doors, with a cauldron of palav as the centrepiece. There will be dancing and singing, and just relaxing. There may be some alcohol, but Tajiks can express their enjoyment without resorting to the quantity of drinking common in many Western countries.
There are the simple pleasures of lying back on cushions on a karavot, rather like a wide platform (bedstead) with rails on three sides, next to a stream; or whiling away time at one of the many choikhona — tea houses.
The Tajik cuisine varies from region to region. The meals in the east (Badakhshan) tend to be quite a bit oily. The weather in this region is rather cold in winter. Therefore the meals are designed to keep people warm. In the south the meals are less oily but can be bland. However, the south is abundant in extremely delicious seasonal fruit and vegetables. The cuisine in the north is more sophisticated and tastier - sharing similarities with Uzbek cuisine.
In general, Western travellers might find the food in Tajikistan somewhat oily, but there is a trick to get round this. The Tajiks always serve a bowl of live yoghurt with all their meals. If you put a spoon of that yoghurt in your soup or the main course, it will neutralise the oil in your meal, as well as adding a very pleasant flavour.
There are also culinary influences from Russia and Iran.
Some of the main dishes are:
Shurbo: boiled meat on the bone with chickpeas, red and green peppers, potatoes, carrots and onions.
Laghmon the same with homemade noodles.
Mastova: meatball soup, with diced carrots, potatoes and rice.
Borsh. a Ukrainian beetroot and cabbage soup, very popular in Tajikistan, served with sour cream.
Palav. the national dish - braised meat on the bone with onions, garlic, finely sliced carrots, rice, and then all steamed together.
Shashlyk: common throughout Central Asia; meat (chunks or minced meat) on a skewer cooked over an open fire. Vegetarian versions are often available.
Mantu: steamed dumplings filled with meat and onions, or filled with grated pumpkin.
Qurutob: yoghurt, tomatoes and onions, served with freshly baked flat round bread.
Kabob: stew with meat, carrots, potatoes and other seasonal vegetables. Sometimes chicken is used instead of red meat.
Golubtsy: minced meat and vegetables wrapped in cabbage leaves. This is a Russian dish, but rather popular with Tajiks. To make it more Tajik, the Tajiks often wrap the minced meat in vine leaves.
Bliny: Russian style pancakes.
Samosas: similar to Indian samosas, but slightly larger in size, and made of minced meat or grated pumpkin, wrapped in puff pastry.
Qurut: hard balls of dried yoghurt (an acquired taste), best gnawed with beer.
Tajiks are great tea drinkers - black (choi siyoh) or green tea (choi kabud). If you are having tea while visiting a Tajik family, your host will keep filling your cup. Once you have had enough, you are advised to turn your cup upside down, which means you have had enough tea. A popular breakfast in the Pamirs is pieces of bread dunked in shirchoi (tea with milk, butter and salt).
One of the great joys is to have warm nan just out of the tandoor, spread with the best homemade apricot and almond jam. If you visit a Kyrgyz family in their yurt in the Murghab area you will be offered nan with rich cream, butter and yoghurt from cows or yak milk. Kumys (fermented mare's milk and mildly alcoholic) is sometimes available.
When you leave a home you may be offered dried apricot and mulberries, and nuts. This is a traditional gift to travellers, which is nutritious and would keep for the long and arduous journeys ahead.
Remember that most families are very poor and they will make sacrifices to provide you with a meal of which they can be proud, and fulfil their tradition of hospitality. They will usually refuse payment, but leave a gift of money 'for the children'.
There are good beers; the most popular are the Russian Baltika series.
Vodka is available everywhere, some 'clean', some less so. Vodka is popular with some men, and there is an addiction problem. It is customary to propose toasts after a meal, and is done by downing a small bowl of vodka in one gulp. There can be many toasts, so you may need to pace yourself. It is perfectly acceptable to take a sip and then change to beer or a soft drink.
There are now some excellent restaurants in the cities, including some Turkish ones. Fast food outlets are becoming popular - but so far no McDonalds or KFCs.
Having enthused over Tajik food, there are some downsides. Unfortunately in many cafes and restaurants standards of hygiene are low, so check out the toilets (often an indicator). Better to stick to cooked food and avoid salads. Never drink tap water. Bottled water is widely available.
The restaurant industry is still in its infancy in Tajikistan and the food served in a lot of them is not very exciting, although there have been improvements. But beautifully cooked food can always be found, if you get invited to a Tajik home.