Sunday, July 11, 2010

Flavors of Uzbekistan

Being vegetarian, I was a bit worried about what I would be able to eat in Uzbekistan. I had heard and read that the Uzbek cuisine is centered around mutton, rice, potato and bread. I didn't think that the concept of vegetarianism even existed in Uzbekistan, so I mentally prepared myself to just eat whatever fruits I could find there.

Tough luck! There were no fruits besides cherries!!! I was so disappointed, especially as many pictures of Uzbekistan showed people carrying or eating watermelons! What deception!!!

Still, the guide made a lot of effort in arranging vegetarian food and I did get to try some authentic Uzbek dishes. I must also admit they were not too bad!

I want to start off by writing about Uzbekistan's national dish, Plov. Plov is a dish made in Central and parts of South Asia and is made up of rice, carrots, onions, chickpeas and mutton. What gives it its flavor is the very aromatic cumin seeds. We had the great opportunity to visit a family in Bukhara and they prepared a vegetarian Plov for us. I was especially thrilled as they were going to show us each step of the cooking process.

There are various ways of making Plov in different regions of the country. In Bukhara, each layer of ingredients is cooked separately and is not mixed at any time during the cooking process. That way, each item retains its flavor.

Ingredients for Plov:

- potatoes cut in medium sized chunks
- grated carrot
- soaked chickpeas
- raisins
- soaked rice
- cumin seeds
- butter

1. The first step is to heat a large copper pot on high flame. Once the pot is hot enough, add butter, the potato chunks and grated carrot. Let them cook until they are soft.

2. Add the chickpeas and raisins on top. Do not mix with the potatoes and carrots. Again, leave to cook until they are soft. Add the cumin seeds to this mix.

3. Now, add the soaked rice on top. Keep filling the pot with water until the water level is just above the rice. The rice should simmer. If water is fully absorbed but the rice is not fully cooked yet, add more water.

4. Cover the pot and leave the mixture to cook for about 40 minutes.

5. Once the time is up, stop the flame and gently mix all ingredients together.

6. The Plov is ready to be served!

Although Plov doesn't have many spices, I loved it for its mild flavor. The cumin seeds added so much flavor and I really enjoyed eating this dish. The combination of the vegetables, pulses and spices was just perfect.YUMMY!!!

Besides Plov, I also got to try Manti. This dish is a type of dumpling with mutton as its filling. The dumpling is usually made with sheep's tail fat, but I was assured that we were being served vegetarian Manti. The vegetarian version consisted of pumpkin and cumin seeds filling. I also enjoyed this dish, although the whole time I really prayed that it indeed was a 100% vegetarian!

One other traditional dish I tried was green pasta with pumpkins. I don't remember its actual name, but this is what it looked like and is from the Khiva region:

I hope you enjoyed learning about some of Uzbekistan's traditional dishes. I was definitely surprised by the vegetarian cuisine and can assure all vegetarians that there are some things we can actually enjoy in Uzbekistan! Do let me know how your Plov turns out when you try it! I am yet to try!
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The beautiful lady without make-up...

Bukhara, which is Uzbekistan's fifth largest city was an important trade center along the Silk Road. The word Bukhara means source of knowledge in Zoroastrian, however, the locals refer to the city as the beautiful lady without make-up. Compared to the cities of Khiva and Samarkand, many monuments in Bukhara are not decorated with turquoise stone and are rather plain. Still, the city is nicely laid out with its fair share of domes, minarets, fortresses and also has a very lively atmosphere.

Our hotel was perfectly located, right in the city centre. The staff told us that we had the best room there as we had a huge terrace with a fantastic view of the Poy Kalon complex. The room was also massive and we enjoyed our stay there.

The Poy Kalan complex is a very beautiful site comprising of the Kalyan Minaret, Kalan Mosque and Mir-i-Arab Madrassah. These monuments were constructed in the 1500s and have a dominating presence over the city. Truly an amazing and peaceful place.

Another beautiful monument in Bukhara is Chor Minor, or four minarets. Chor Minor was built in 1807 by Khalif Niazkul. Khalif had seen the Char Minar in Hyderbad, India, and was so impressed with its structure that he wanted to design a similar monument in Bukhara.

An interesting place in the city centre was the 40 Pillar Mosque. The mosque only has 20 pillars at its main entrance but because it is situated almost above a pond, there is a clear reflection of these pillars. Thus, people refer to it as the 40 Pillar Mosque. The interior decoration was pretty nice as instead of the usual turquoise and royal blue colors, there was a good mix of gold, red and green.

Slightly further from the city centre are the Ismail Samani and Chashma Ayub Mausoleums. Built in the 9th-10th century, the Ismail Samani Mausoleum is a sacred place as it is the resting place of Ismail Samani, the last ruler of the Persian dynasty. The Chashma Ayub Mausoleum was built during Tamerlan's reign and is very close to the Ismail Samani Mausoleum.

A bit further away is the Ark, a large fortress, similar to the Ichan Kala in Khiva. It served as the residence of many rulers in Bukhara and now has a museum, palace, workshops and souvenir shops inside. Looks beautiful from the bird's eye view, eh?

Bukhara has a few Jewish families living there and we were lucky to visit a typical Jewish house. I loved the spaciousness and simple design of the Jewish house.

The liveliest part of Bukhara (and whatever I saw of Uzbekistan) was Lab-i-Hauz. This area is a place where there are many bars, restaurants, cafes and shops situated around a large pond and is frequented by locals. It was fun to see many people just passing their time playing card games with their friends, enjoying drinks and just gossiping. We also stopped there in the evening for drinks. I really enjoyed the whole atmosphere.

In Bukhara, there are many bazaars selling local produce and merchandise from abroad. After all, this city was a major part of the Silk Road, and trading played and still plays an important role in the day-to-day life. I saw many products from India but what really got my attention was the spice section. The aroma just pulled me towards that part of the bazaar and soon enough I was in my own world with the spices.

My favorite part about Bukhara were the cultural dance segment and entertainment provided by young artistes. It was so nice to see the colorful dance costumes and grace of the dancers as they danced about to traditional Uzbek music. I found many of the costumes to be very similar to the Kathak costume and even the moves were similar to Indian dance moves, but slower.

We also enjoyed a very cute performance by puppets and the puppet masters. The theme was a traditional Uzbek wedding and how the bride prepares for this important occasion. It was fun to watch the show and we had a good laugh too.

I'll be back with more about the national dish in Uzbekistan, Plov, and the evolving role of the women in Uzbek society.

In the meantime, hope you enjoy this video of my time in Bukhara!

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