An Evening in Tashkent

If you ever find yourself hungry in Tashkent and want a wonderful sit-down dining experience, go to The Caravan.  The food is classic Uzbek: Lagman, Norin, Beshbarmak, and Manti, and it is very good.  But the dining experience at Caravan goes beyond the food, the restaurant is a work of art, and its beauty enhances the enjoyment of the food. The garden is draped with grape arbors and colorful ikat fabrics as well as beautiful handicrafts.

The Caravan
The Caravan

Traditional Uzbek music plays softly and water gently flows and turns an old-fashioned water wheel. Broad, shallow threshing baskets adorn the roughly plastered walls, and chili peppers are everywhere to warn off the evil eye. Kitchen utensils of heavy cast iron – pans, spatulas and ladles are also add to the authentic look and feel of the place. In addition to western table-and-chair eating arrangements, there are traditional Uzbek platforms with low tables on them around which people curl up, sip tea and enjoy the light Spring breeze.

Caravan Restaurant, Traditional Uzbek Table
The Caravan, Traditional Uzbek Table

In case you missed it the first time, go back to the first picture and take a look at the antique Suzani that hangs on the back wall. I love how the embroidered circles in the cloth work with the baskets hung on the wall, and I love the personal touch that it brings to the table. It was once part of a girl’s dowry and her temperament and patience was judged by how finely and consistently she perfected her stiches. Every stich tells a story.

Chili Peppers and Water Wheel
Chili Peppers and Water Wheel

Our meal started with a pot of green tea with lemon. I got re-acquainted with the Uzbek tea ritual in which the host pours the tea into his or her own cup and back into the pot three times – this mixes the tea with the water and makes it more flavorful. Then the host drinks a few sips from his own cup to show that the tea isn’t poison. Then he offers tea to his guests in a pecking order based on age with the oldest or most senior person first. Another wonderful tea ritual is that if bubbles form in the middle of the cup when poured, you quickly touch them with your fingers and then touch your head and pocket. This symbolizes money and that money will come to you.

Basket Decoration, Detail
Basket Decoration, Detail

With the tea we had a plain lepyoshka with a few sesame seeds on top. It was very puffy and airy which means that yeast was used in the baking. Lepyoshka with yeast is a variation that has become very popular as an alternative to the more traditional, dense, unleavened constructions. With the lepyoshka we had katik yogurt with lots of cream on the top of the glass.

I had the lagman. Simple, I know, but I do love it, and this bowl was by far the best I have ever had. The bowl was filled with different types of noodles, greens, meat and bathed in a light but flavorful broth. There were wheat-based noodles, rice noodles and an egg-based angel-hair noodle that had different textures and flavors. Onions, spring onions and slices of garlic made up the vegetable base, along with red and green bell peppers and bits of tomato. There were also minced greens, with cilantro and dill leading the way for added flavor. The bits of mutton provided its usual earthy flavor blast but was wonderfully tender. What really made the dish stunning was the broth. A lamb or mutton-base with a distinct tomato overtone formed the soup-base. Above that were subtle but definite flavors of star anise and cinnamon. I shared a bit with one of my dining companions and she agreed that it was fabulous.

The Best Lagman Ever
The Best Lagman Ever

The lagman was served with a carafe of diluted pomegranate vinegar flavored with dill, daikon radish and a red pepper. Condiments were a minced combination of green chili peppers, scallions, red chili peppers, onions, tomato and garlic with a light, dilute white vinegar on them, and some chili peppers pounded with lots of sumac. Simply heavenly!

Also on the table were pumpkin manti with a mild garlic yogurt cream dressing, lamb dolma with a gentle yogurt and dill dressing and chuchvara – a wonderful dumpling swimming in a flavorful broth. The selection of drinks on the table included tea, fresh-squeezed orange juice and the ubiquitous carbonated cola. All in all it was a great meal to begin a wonderful adventure. Tomorrow, I go in search of norin. Stay tuned!

(All Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)

A Menu for a Caucasus Celebration

We had friends over again, and as usual, I spent a couple of days in the kitchen preparing for their visit. This time I whipped up a regional tasting menu of Caucasus Celebration specialties from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. As they ate and in between the “yummy sounds” my friends kept on commenting that there were, “so many flavors on the plate”.

Many thanks to my decorator, line chef, historian and cyber-guy husband for making everything possible. All dishes were enjoyed with Georgian Tvishi or Kindzmarauli wines.

The Menu

Georgian Dolmas
Pomegranate Pickled Garlic
Armenian Red Pepper
Yogurt and Cucumber Dip

Main Courses
Grilled Chicken Garo
Azeri Lamb Chops with Sour Cherry Sauce
Eggplant in a Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce
Azeri String Beans in a Sour Tomato Sauce
Sesame and Almond Pilaf

Saffron Ice Cream
Dried Figs and Apricots

All recipes are, of course, from Volume One of The Silk Road Gourmet.

Georgian Dolmas

Georgian Dolmas: Stuffed Grape leaves, dolmas or dolmades are eaten from Eastern Mediterranean Greece and Turkey clear across Central Asia and in several Eastern Asia countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Georgian variety I served stuffed the leaves with lamb and rice mixture with the strong flavors of dill, lemon and walnuts. Delicious!

The Pomegranate Pickled Garlic: I’ve written about this pickle before in the blog and will likely mention it again, because it is one of my Silk Road pickles. This Georgian dish uses unsweetened pomegranate juice with a hint of vinegar and dill and lots of cracked black pepper to flavor the garlic. The longer it pickles, the milder and more fruity the garlic becomes. Enjoy with naan or other flat bread.

Armenian Roasted Red Pepper Salad: This salad offered a sweeter alternative to the appetizer table. Roasted and skinned sweet red peppers marinate in grapeseed oil and white vinegar with a bit of garlic and roasted almonds added.

Yogurt and Cucumber Dip: Once again, yogurt dips are enjoyed from Eastern Europe throughout Western, Central and Southern Asia. Keeping with the Caucasian theme of the dinner, I chose an Armenian version flavored with mint, garlic and black pepper. The yogurt and the cucumbers create a cooling dip to soothe the palate challenged by spicy or fiery foods.

Grilled Chicken Garo: A sensational Georgian way to prepare chicken that will tease and amaze your guests with unfamiliar flavor combinations. The chicken is first marinated for several days in lemon juice and light sesame or peanut oil and generous amounts of the Georgian spice mixture Khmeli-Suneli. Then the chicken is grilled and enjoyed with the cilantro-based Garlic and Walnut sauce with overtones of fenugreek and lemon.

Azeri Lamb Chops with Sour Cherry Sauce: Lamb with a light crust of freshly grated nutmeg and cracked pepper is baked and sweetened with a sauce of sour cherries, cinnamon and a hint of lemon juice. Together an amazing and unforgettable combination!

Eggplant in a Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce: This recipe couples earthy eggplants with a Georgian pomegranate sauce flavored with red onions, sweet basil and a couple of chili peppers.

Azeri String Beans in a Sour Tomato Sauce: One of my favorite vegetable dishes of all times. Green beans sautéed with onions and then joined by a sour tomato sauce made with white vinegar, black pepper and yogurt. Fabulous!

Sesame and Almond Pilaf: A buttery, nutty, Azeri pilaf flavored with roasted sesame seeds and almonds that is related to Gulf and Levantine rice dishes. I like this pilaf because it has a strong enough flavor to be paired with the main meats and vegetables described here, but complements without interfering with those flavors.

Ravane: This cake is once again a regional favorite eaten from Greece through Central Asia. The Georgian version I made is baked with a mix of nut flours and wheat flour and then permeated with a simple syrup flavored with citrus and cinnamon that is allowed to sit overnight before serving. Sweet, but earthy at the same time. Some versions use only wheat flour, while others make the syrup from honey instead of sugar.

Saffron Ice Cream: Just a little something to complement the ravane. A saffron flavored ice cream made with chopped pistachio nuts and rosewater. Semi sweet and a bit nutty – really good!

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Dolmas borrowed from the Food and Wine Blog by Azat Aslanyan).

A Subcontinental Feast

We had a wonderful dinner party on Saturday night with a selection of Indian subcontinental food. The dinner was to celebrate the announcement of the secret marriage of a couple of friends and to give a former Londoner some of the curry that he so sorely misses. The meal was also a rewarding end to a couple of days of cooking by yours truly. In truth, I’ve been working this dinner for a couple of months. I made the mango pickle a couple of months ago, the vindaloo paste two weeks ago and the chutneys several days ago. Despite all the work, I simply love hearing that the shrimp in spicy tamarind-tomato sauce with hints of mustard and fennel is, “amazing” to one of our guests. Our menu included:

Spicy Cucumber Wedges
Pakistani Bean Salad
Pakistani Riata (Yogurt and Cucumber Dip)
Cashews with Black Pepper
Punjab Snacks

Bread, Condiments and Rice
Naan (plain)
Papad (cumin seed and chili)
Mango Pickle
Tomato Chutney
Cucumber Chutney
Rice with Garlic and Pine Roasted Nuts
Spiced Saffron Rice

Main Dishes
Lamb Vindaloo
Bangladeshi Chicken and Pineapple
Shrimp in Spicy Tomato Sauce
Sweet and Sour Okra
Butternut Squash in Coconut Cream

Gulab Jamun
Bengali Rasgulla
Cardamom and Rose Lassi

Chicken and Pineapple Curry

The Pakistani Bean Salad is an all-time winner with its grapeseed oil sweetness blending with chili peppers and white vinegar for a sweet and sour treat, and for the cucumber wedges, I used a garam masala to flavor them instead of ground cumin for a sweet but spicy surprise. The spicy Pakistani Riata, the chutneys and the pickle were also enjoyed with the selection of breads while we waited for the mains to heat up. My favorite of the three is the cucumber chutney with malt vinegar and ginger bringing a great zing to the natual cool of the the cucumbers.

The main dishes were served with two contrasting rices. The mild Pakistani rice with loads of garlic and roasted pinenuts brought a gentle flavor that origninated in the Arab world and traveled to Pakistan along with goods, beliefs and ideals, and the spiced saffron was flavored with cardamom, cinnamon and cloves was well as saffron and sweet butter. For our London friend, I made a proper lamb vindaloo that made him sweat after a few mouthfuls. For his new American wife, who has less of a taste for spice, I made a sweeter Bangladeshi curry of chicken and pineapples. For myself, I prepared one of my favorites: a curry of shrimp in a tamarind tomato sauce with dashes of mustard and licorice-like fennel. The vegetables on the omnivore table were a lovely butternut squash with mustard seeds in sweet coconut cream and a sweet and sour okra served a sides – but they could easily have been enjoyed as part of a series of main dishes on a vegetarian spread.

Our guests were serious Whovians, the desserts – two subcontinental sweets in syrup were an afterthought – eaten in near silence while watching the second “Weeping Angels” episode of the Matt Smith Dr. Who series. We also had good chardonnay and Williamsburg mulled and plain ciders flowing all night

A lovely evening with some happy people. Good food, good friends, a shared interest – a wonderful evening which I am happy for, but still tired from as I look forward to another week of work. Still, these are the moments that sustain us. Leftovers, however, will also sustain both families for some time to come as well! (All recipes from the Silk Road Gourmet Volume 1; Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Chicken and Pineapple Curry borrowed from Google Images).

A Magical Nepalese Menu

Bohjan Griha Menu

Our house is a bit magical. The front of the house is on a relatively ordinary suburban street, but the back of the house looks over a seemingly endless tract of woods through which herds of deer, wild turkeys, pileated woodpeckers and indigo buntings live. We share the house with thousands of books. Books of all shapes and sizes that overflow creaky shelves, books in foreign languages, really old books, rare books and . . . you get the idea. Since books are trees by another name, I have often fancied that the books inside the house and the trees outside somehow work together to make things appear and disappear from the shelves. This is miserable if you are looking for a particular book and simply cannot find it no matter how hard you look, but absolutely wondrous when you find something unexpected or rediscover something once forgotten.

A couple of days ago, something wondrous happened. I was rummaging through the poetry section of the library when a scroll wound around some twigs tumbled out from in between a couple of the books. I picked it up, feeling the familiar feel of coarse Himalayan fiber paper in my hand and smiled – remembering what the scroll contained. I unrolled it and was instantly thrown back in time. It was a menu from Bojhan Griha, a fantastic restaurant in the Dilli Bazar section of Kathmandu, Nepal.

It’s a startlingly simple Nepalese menu, but as with all great restaurants – a simple menu often means that the chef has perfected a few of his or her best dishes and that you are likely to dine on some really marvelous food. Such is the case with Bojhan Griha where flavorful, butter-soft lamb is blanketed with a rich curry, resplendent with ginger, cinnamon, black pepper and accompanying vegetables, the quail and ducks are roasted to perfection and served with a mango-peppercorn sauce, and even the simple side dish of spinach overflows with the flavors of cumin, red pepper and just a hint of dill. Even the building that Bojhan Griha occupies is special. It is a restored building from the mid 19th century, once owned by a state holy man, that has many of the original luxurious appointments still intact.

That whole trip was so unexpected. On an ordinary Tuesday, I got a phone call at home from a colleague who asked if I could go to Nepal on Saturday – that I was needed for a particular project. He went on to tell me that he had already cleared it with anyone who could potentially object, and that the paperwork for my visa had already been filled out – and that all they needed was my approval. Being a new mother with an infant son, I said, “absolutely!” figuring that I could clear it with my hubby later So, in a few days, I was in the airport lounge hugging my kids and husband goodbye and boarding a flight for what was then the great Himalayan kingdom that I had always dreamed of visiting.

Terraced Fields Outside of Kathmandu

A driver met us at the airport and whisked us past the white-washed homes with tiled roofs of the fertile countryside directly into Kathmandu city which – like many cities in the developing world is a modern sprawl built around a historical old-town center. In this case, the old-town in Durbar Square reflects Kathmandu in its glory days of the 12th to the 15th centuries – with square pagoda-like towers next to more Indian-inspired arched buildings. One of the fascinating things about Kathmandu is that it is a very human-sized city – no building was more than a few stories tall.

Me being me, I had to climb the 365 steps of the Swayambhunath Temple and bounded up the first 25 steps or so, proclaiming that it was so easy! My guide shrugged his shoulders and followed. Well, the slight rise in the wide bottom steps turned increasingly vertical until the last 50 steps or so seemed like climbing a stone ladder. Even though I was pretty tired and a bit disheveled about half way up, I continued climbing – kind of like Jimmy Page in his fantasy sequence in The Song Remains the Same – striving toward the mountaintop.

Finally I reached the top and joined the other pilgrims by touching my forehead on the giant vajra in the middle of the courtyard. Only I did a little more than touch my forehead – I sort of rested it there as I caught my breath – leaving only when my guide gently, strong-armed me away to some nearby benches. After I rested, I spun some prayer wheels, said a few of my own prayers and as I was set to leave the way I came – my guide pointed out the driveway round the back of the temple where our driver was waiting patiently for us. I looked incredulously at him and he shrugged, reminding me that I said I wanted to climb.

Bouddnath Stupa

Even though I have spent a good portion of my life in cities – New York City included – I’m not really a city person. For me, nothing beats the sound of birds and the glimpse of elusive, wild animals – so I went the most obvious place one can go in Nepal – straight up. First, we went to Bhaktipur and watched the Maoists withdraw into the shadows of the temple as our car pulled into the main square. Quite on purpose, most of the temples in Nepal occupy the local “high ground”, so this is where the people who were –at that time political dissidents – hung out. It gave them a good vantage point from which to mind the comings and goings of people and merchants in the city. After touring the old temples, we continued on up the hills until the air got a bit thin and summer sun burnt us through our clothes. Not outfitted for climbing and having absolutely no interest in pitting myself against nature, we stopped at what might be the highest restaurant on earth open to the public – Club Himalaya – and had lime sodas on the patio as we looked down onto the backs of the golden eagles soaring far beneath us. A bit later in the day, the almost constant cloud cover dissipated a bit and we caught a glimpse of elusive Everest with the sun shining down on it – a rare site in the summertime-our guide told us-we were blessed.

Back in Kathmandu, I reconnected with some old friends who were living part-time in the city and who were able to take me down some of the paths trodden by Tibetan refugees and women and children fleeing abusive men. At a shelter, I met a little girl who was almost systematically starved and beaten to death by her father – simply because he wanted a boy. This lucky child – who had been given to aid workers by her mother in an effort to save her life – now attended school and hoped to be a pharmacist. Still, she missed her mother terribly and hoped that she will survive.

Durbar Square Kathmandu

In the city, I also bought shoes for a gaggle of shoeless children, and handed out countless bills to pregnant and cripple beggar-women and women with children in tow who had no other way to earn a living. For all of their faith, most prosperous Nepalis seem to overlook charity as part of their earthly duty. This is not something inherent in Buddhism, for I found the Theravada Thais to be generous almost to excess to those less fortunate, and suspect that it symptom of a more modern ill that afflicts wealthy Nepal. I am a bit anxious about the future of the country, now in the hands of self-proclaimed Maoists, but hope that someday, better social programs will be able to help those who cannot help themselves.

Other memories from that trip include a dinner at a restaurant that curiously specialized in both Nepali and Russian food named Wunjala Moskva. We sampled the Russian part by having shots of good vodka inside the house and then ate Newar Nepali out in the garden in one of a series of a small, private, screened-in, dining rooms arranged around a large central patio. The food was a prix-fixe menu of vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialties and was nothing short of amazing. Memorable even now, are the gingered duck with its accompanying flavors of garlic and lovage; the spicy potatoes with ground sesame seeds and manjo juice and a mixed vegetable tarkari with lots of black cumin, cinnamon and cardamom.

Each woman in our party was offered a pashmina shawl to help stave off the coolness of the evening and men well – they just had to tough it out. They were after all – men. About halfway through the dinner drums started beating and entertainers took to the patio-stage and began performing Nepali folktales in luxurious costumes depicting both gods and monsters. One of the monsters was even bold enough to come right up to our party and show us just how fearsome he was. He was eventually slain by the hero-god, but in true Nepali fashion, continued quivering from time to time after the hero proclaimed his victory. Eventually he slunk off the stage – one day to return – bringing his special form of chaos back to the paradise that is Nepal. (All text and photos by Laura Kelley).