Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Week Twenty: A Journey to Uzbekistan

Studying and experiencing the cuisine of the Republic of Uzbekistan enlightened me.  With limited knowledge of the country’s culture and people, I expanded my usual research to include more than just food, and I discovered a history that goes back to the Bronze Age, around 3200 BC.  Because of its location along the original Silk Road in Central Asia and its long history of rule by various empires and countries, Uzbekistan’s cuisine reveals many influences with definite nods to Persia, China, and India.  Uzbekistan farmers raise wheat, barley, corn, and rice, which accounts for the strong presence of rice, noodles, and bread within the cuisine.  The primary source of protein is mutton due to the fact that sheep can be grazed on desert pastures which cover half of the country.  Interestingly, I found that most Uzbek dishes are defined as much by the methods used to make them as they are by the actual ingredients.

Monday Night Dinner:  Lagman (Handmade Noodles with Soup)

Lagman, also called Lagman Shurpa (Lagman=Noodles, Shurpa=Soup), consists of rich, brothy soup served over homemade noodles.  The dish presents an example of the Chinese influence in Uzbek cuisine as this dish’s preparation resembles that of the lo meins introduced by Chinese travelers along the Silk Road.  In Uzbekistan, the noodles range from gently pulled for wide noodles to exquisitely long thin strands.  The soup begins with a stir-fry of meat (lamb or beef) and vegetables.  After being stir-fried, they are covered in water and simmered for about an hour to infuse the flavors of the stir fry into a rich broth.  I followed a recipe featured on the Lola Elise website that included a stir-fry of beef, onion, bell pepper, carrot, potato, tomato, and garlic.  Overall, I was pleased with the flavors of the dish.  This was my first attempt to make handmade noodles of this size, and although they were tender and delicious, they would have been lighter had I rolled the dough thinner and/or pulled them into longer strands.  The broth had a rich flavor profile, and the best bites of the dish came at the end of the meal when I had small pieces of leftover noodles to combine with a big spoonful of broth, meat, and veggies.

Sunday Afternoon Snack:  Tashkent Non
Tashkent Non

Uzbek non is a flatbread.  Like Indian naan, this is a yeast flatbread traditionally baked in a tandoor; however, its shape and presentation are a bit different than naan.  While it is shaped into a round like naan, the middle is compressed with a decorative stamp called a chekich, which results in a bread that looks like a large bagel with a thin layer in the middle, instead of a hole.  A chekich is stamp made of tines organized to create a decorative pattern and also serves to punch holes into the bread so that the center does not rise.  Nigella seeds are traditionally sprinkled on the bread, but sesame seeds are also used.  I used black sesame seeds, because their color and crunch provide the same elements of nigella seeds.  (I was surprised that the Middle-Eastern market near my house didn’t carry nigella seeds, and I didn’t feel like driving all over the city in search of them.)

I followed a recipe from someone who had previously traveled through Uzbekistan and found that the different cities and regions made their own variations of non.  Tashkent is the largest city and capital of Uzbekistan, and this recipe reflects the style of non found there.

As a note, I attempted to make a homegrown version of a chekich with a biscuit cutter, some toothpicks, and tape, but it didn’t quite do the job.  If you looked at the link I provided for a chekich, you already know that this was a creative, yet pathetic, attempt to mimic this tool  My centers puffed more than they should have, and the pattern disappeared when the bread baked.  Can’t get them all right.  At least the bread was light, fluffy, and tasty!

Sunday Night Dinner:  Plov
To say that Plov, also known as palov and osh, is the national dish of Uzbekistan is an understatement by all standards.  In general terminology, it is a rice pilaf with meat and vegetables.  Mutton is the preferred meat because of its high fat content, but lamb, beef, and chicken are also considered acceptable proteins in this dish.  By Uzbek standards, the dish represents so much more than a simple pilaf.  To date, I have yet to encounter a dish with as many customs, rules, and possibly even superstitions associated with it.  This is a dish defined by its preparation, not so much by its ingredients.  For the most part, men make plov.  Each man develops his personal manner of preparation, and it is not hyperbole to say that each man’s plov defines him and his family.  After reading that plov is also popular in other former Soviet states, I took a few moments to ask a friend who grew up in the Ukraine about plov, and he told me that his mother always made it with chicken because lamb was not easily available to them.  He also shared his experiences of seeing men gathered around a big platter of plov eating it by hand with mutton grease running down their forearms.  He definitely agreed that it is a SERIOUS dish in Uzbekistan.

As I prepared to select a recipe for Plov that best represented a traditional preparation, I discovered that most Plov recipes are not so much recipes as they are guidelines and specifications.  Based on my research, the most important rule is NOT to combine the rice with any other elements.  The components are to remain separate, even when plated at the end.  I integrated several different sets of instructions into my own personal guideline and saught to “define myself and my family” to my best abilities.  Here is a general overview of my steps to making plov:
  • I began with the zirvak, the stewed meat, vegetables, and spices that serve as the base of the dish.  In a 4 quart dutch oven, I sautéed the lamb meat and onions in vegetable oil until the onions were golden brown.  I seasoned them with cumin, coriander, salt, and pepper.  Then, I added water, put the lid on the pot, and cooked the mixture over medium high heat for 15-20 minutes. 
  • I removed the lid and added julienned carrots on top of the stewed lamb and onions…making sure not to mix the carrots into the lamb and onions.  I nestled a whole bulb of garlic into the center of the pot, and I continued to cook this mixture untouched for fifteen minutes without a lid.
  • The next steps, also known as the Rice Steps, carry the most weight with Plov masters.  Again, it’s very important to keep the rice separate from the other ingredients.  I placed basmati rice (washed, of course) in a flat layer on top of the carrots ensuring that there was enough water in the pot to cover the layer of rice.  I put the lid on the pot and let the rice absorb the water for 5 minutes. 
  • After five minutes, I removed the lid and flipped the rice with a spatula trying my best to not mix in the carrots as I turned it.  I put the lid back on and continued to cook it until the rice absorbed all of the water.
  • When the water was absorbed, I carefully moved the rice to the center of the pot into the shape of a dome.  I poked holes through the rice to the bottom of the pot with the end of a wooden spoon, and I covered the rice with a plate.  Then, I put the lid on the pot and let the plov cook for another 10 minutes. From what I can tell, this homemade “percolator” step aids in pulling the flavor and fats from the zirvak into the rice.
  • After about 10 minutes, all of the liquid disappeared, and I prepared our platter of plov.
  • I removed the bulb of garlic from the center of the pot and harvested the deliciously sweet cloves of garlic.
  • I transferred the the rice from the top of the pot to the bottom of my platter to create its own layer.  (Not getting carrots mixed into the rice is a trick that a plov master will have to teach me.  From what I read, the most important part of this step is not mixing in the onion and meat with the pilaf, which I did accomplish, so I'm not going to worry about those stray carrots.)  I topped the rice pilaf with the lamb mixture and garlic cloves.  Then, I garnished the platter with scallions.
I served the dish with non and a side salad of tomato and onion.  The amount of flavor imparted into the rice from the lamb and vegetables surprised me.  The way the components came together resulted in a rich, flavorful dish, and the side salad of onion and tomato provided the perfect fresh bite against the heaviness of the plov.  I’m definitely not a Plov master, but I’m pretty sure this was good enough to make me a Plov apprentice!

This week represented so much more than a lesson in cuisine.  I self-enrolled in a crash-course lesson of the history, culture, and customs of Uzbekistan.  It truly felt like a journey as I discovered land, people, and cuisine completely foreign to me.  As I cooked plov, I thought of the generations of fathers passing down family recipes to sons, and I openly embraced their customs and endeavored to appreciate something far greater than the dish.  I discovered the tradition.

1 comment:

  1. Last year me and my friend plan to visit Uzbekistan one of my Uncle book flights through Uzbekistan airways for us which is very reliable and comfortable for group travel.