The food of The Silk Road
Central Asia is not renowned for its cuisine, but with the launch of the recent cookbook Samarkand, and a new Central Asian restaurant of the same name just opened in London's Soho, perhaps the time is right for a rethink. Michael Pullman, just back from a tour of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, writes about his foodie experiences in Central Asia.
Before my trip a number of people had been telling me that while I could expect many highlights, food would unfortunatetly not be one of them. I was excited to see the natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan and the palaces, mosques and minarets of Uzbekistan, but the thought of two weeks of bad food didn’t fill me with joy. Yet to my surprise and delight, the food turned out to be much better than expected, and, with a few exceptions, delicious.
Soups are ubiquitous in Central Asia, particular the mountainous regions such as Kyrgyzstan, where fatty meaty broths provide much needed warmth and sustenance in the harsh climate. Pretty much every meal we had in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan began with a soup course. Particularly good was Laghman (below) – a Uighur dish which originated in western China but has been adopted by the whole of Central Asia. It consists of thick fresh noodles in a fragrant lamb stew, with a garnish of coriander, and is absolutely delicious, most people’s favourite dish on the tour. Other popular soups include Borscht, a beetroot soup which came from Russia and is particularly popular in Uzbekistan. Less well-received in our group were the numerous variations on mutton soups heavy on the dill – dill is not to everyone’s tastes and whilst I don’t mind it, even I was picking out the dill leaves by the end. We were also served some delicious pumpkin soups and a hearty Tajik green lentil and rice soup.
Popular in Uzbekistan is Manti (above) – dumplings filled with either pumpkin or minced meat. These are served either on their own , or sometimes in a sauce or even in a broth as part of a soup. All variations are delicious. A dish native to Khiva is Green Spaghetti (below), or shuvit oshi to give it its local name, which is green spaghetti served with meat and vegetables, and tastes a little like spaghetti bolognese. Kebabs, somewhat unsurprisingly, are also popular, although they often consist of just meat on a skewer, with no tomatoes or pepper
Crazy little thing called Plov
Plov is the national dish of Uzbekistan, and is on the menu of virtually every restaurant. It’s pretty much like a biryani without the spice, consisting of rice, onions and carrots with either mutton or beef. The dish is served to foreign visitors, at special occasions such as weddings, and in Samarkand is traditionally eaten on Tuesdays and Sundays. Legend has it that the dish was created in response to Alexander the Great’s request for a simple but satisfying dish to feed his soldiers. We had all kinds of plov, some with egg, some with raisins, but all were delicious. The best plov we had was at a homestay in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, just a few miles from the border with Uzbekistan, although the plov in Samarkand (below) was also superb.
The archetypal flatbread you find throughout Uzbekistan is called non bread. Non non non, as you might say when eating it. Circular and cooked in a tandoori oven, the bread has a typically chewy texture and is often decorated with a bread stamp, sometimes even including the name of the bakery and the date it was baked.
Melon grows plentifully in Central Asia and every single meal will end with a course of watermelon and sometimes honeydew melon too. Tea is also very popular here, particularly green tea, and you will receive copious offerings of the green stuff at the end of every meal. The Kyrgyzs are also keen on jam, and you will find a selection of sweet raspberry and apricot jams on the dinner table at breakfast time.
Besides green tea, beer is also plentiful in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, but not as plentiful as vodka. A hangover from the Soviet period in more ways than one, the locals in Central Asia have clung onto the firewater long after the Soviets departed, and you’ll find numerous opportunities to sample the cheap but surprisingly good local varieties when visiting the region.