Uzbek Homestay in Paradise

I’ve just returned from a homestay in a small mountain village in Uzbekistan’s Nurata mountains.  For a couple of days, I was welcomed into the life of a family in a small house perched amongst steep rocky hills.  Sitting on the porch of the house, one can hear a symphony of birds with occasional accompaniment from barking dogs, lambs calling for their mothers and donkeys braying in the valley below.

View from the House to the Southwest
View from the House to the Southwest

When our car pulled into the village the eldest son of our host greeted us and led us to the house up a narrow and sometimes steep unpaved road.  When the road became too difficult to drive, we walked the rest of the way up to the house.  Trees dripping with mulberries and young walnuts – the cash crop of the village – hung over a swift running stream fed by a mountain spring.

Our Host
Our Host

The entire village is made up of a few Tajik families who emigrated together from Bukhara a few hundred years ago to the Nurata mountains. Since then the village has pretty much kept to itself. People are born and die within the confine of these peaceful hills, they marry people they grew up with and expect their children to do the same. Now added to their centuries-old culture are mobile phones, sometimes electricity, wealth from local gold extraction, and thanks to the UNDP, homestay tourism.

Our host met us and ushered us across a planked bridge and up some steep steps to his home. When we arrived, his wife was busy already preparing dinner and met us later.

Most of the meal was cooked on an outdoor wood-fired stove with a pot inset into the stove. The pot was generally shaped like a wok, with steeper sides. In the photo below you can also see an Uzbek tandyr oven used for baking bread and roasting meat. Like the cylindrical, vertical tandoori ovens, it gets blazingly hot. There was also a smaller indoor stove – also wood fired – used for heating water, steaming and boiling foods.

Cooking Dinner
Cooking Dinner

As with all Uzbek meals, it began and ended with an endless pot of green tea. Accompanying the tea were small dishes of red-skinned peanuts mixed with local walnuts and raisins; and a selection of cookies and candy. We ate outside, which is done whenever weather allows. Breakfasts tend to be eaten inside because of the chill in the air, but lunch and dinner are taken au plein air.

Just before dinner, our host pulled out a small bottle of medicinal vodka and poured us all a glass – for our health. Bread and salads came first. The naan was different from city bread and made from a coarsely ground flour with no yeast. Hot and delicious, no meal is complete in this country without it. One of the salads was the usual chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with dill, salt and just a hint of dilute white vinegar. Another salad had rice noodles and with just a few diced tomatoes and onions and similar seasoning. Uzbek tomatoes are large, flavorful and meaty and lack the acidity often found in tomatoes in the west. They are also very juicy, but it is contained by the flesh of the fruit and it is easy (and not messy at all) to eat them on the fly like an apple as I love to do.

Cooking Dinner - Closeup
Cooking Dinner – Closeup

Uzbeks do love their yogurt and it is served with every meal. This being no exception, there was a medium size bowl of watery yogurt flavored with green onions, garlic and salt. This can be a community bowl for dipping naan or one can pour it into a tea bowl and sip it along with the meal. Another type of yogurt on the table was a yogurt cream with lots of dill, garlic and salt in it for a great blast of flavor. The yogurt was homemade and although wonderfully sour was also creamy and many degrees more gentle than the now popular-in-the-west Greek yogurt. The center of dinner was a type of Dimlama – large hunks of beef on the bone, stewed with chunks of potatoes and sliced carrots and onions. Seasoning was mild: a little fresh dill, a little pepper, a little ground cumin and coriander and salt. This dish had a thin, brothy, sauce that was delicious with the naan.

When we were nearly stuffed to the brim, our host’s brother sent his daughter up with a large plate of pilaf – or plov – rice with lots of carrots and onions topped with a bit of beef dripping off the bone. We tucked into it and finished about half before settling back in our chairs to watch the stars come out overhead.

We were treated to some sweet, sad songs on one of Central Asia’s stringed instruments the rawap* by our host. He sang an old Tajik song to remind us to appreciate what we have in life – when we have it. In a repetitive verse, he sang that when you have children, you don’t appreciate them. It is only when they are grown and gone that you realize what a wonder they were. In turn, we were also reminded to savor love, health, and life. Something that is easy to do under the stars in paradise.

(All words and photos by Laura Kelley)

* If you’d like to know more about the rawap and other Central Asian instruments, click here for my post on my trip to the Uyghur instrument maker’s shop in Kashgar last year.

A new company called, “Responsible Travel Along the Silk Road,” can arrange Nurata homestays, Yurt-camp experiences, as well as a variety of other eco-tour excursions.

Uzbekistan: The Crossroads of Asia

Throughout its history, Uzbekistan has been one of the world’s great commercial and cultural crossroads. Across its length ran the Northern Silk Road, the lifeline that the caravans and traders travelled exchanging gems, spices, and other rare items from the orient to the West and back again.

Palace at Bukhara

Evidence of episodic trade in semi-precious gems (jade and lapis lazuli) between China and Afghanistan along the Silk Road dates back almost 4000 years, with evidence of trading posts across Uzbekistan can be found from the first millennium BCE. During the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus, diplomatic and trade contact between Rome and China and India was common and it was Rome that linked the northern land routes with the southern maritime routes, drawing North Africa and the Levant states into the whole of the Silk Road web.

Mosque, Registan Square

From the first to the sixth centuries ACE, the Silk Road carried Buddhist teachings east to China and in the seventh century and thereafter, Islam’s messages went along with commercial goods to far-away lands. From Marco Polo to the famed Muslim traveler, Ibn Battuta, those wishing to go east by land all travelled the Silk Road land routes. This mingling of east, west, north and south on Silk Road routes brought a diversity of cultural influences to Uzbekistan that culminated in Tamerlane’s efforts to establish Samarkand as one of the world’s great centers of arts and letters.

Timur (Tamerlane) wanted Samarkand to be as beautiful and majestic a place as the world’s artists and academicians could make it. He wanted it to be fit for a king and after each of his successful campaigns he spared the lives of the greatest thinkers and artisans he could find and sent them back to Samarkand. During his long reign, lasting most of the fourteenth century, this established neighborhoods of Persians, Syrians and Armenians and Turks within the city that complemented the communities of Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese already living there.

Features of all of these cultures can be found in Uzbek cuisine, but by far the biggest dog on the influence block is Persia. From the Uzbek use of sour cherries to the use of grape leaves or the abundant presence of dried fruits and nuts in stews, many of the elements of modern Uzbek cuisine can be traced back to Persian cuisine.

Women Drinking Tea

Some of the strongest examples of Persian-influenced Uzbek cooking offered in the next volume of The Silk Road Gourmet – Volume 2 will be Lamb Stew with Chestnuts and Pomegranates, Meatballs with Sweet and Sour Cherries and of course, Yogurt with Garlic and Mint. Turkic influence is seen particularly in the Savory Stuffed Onions recipe and the Onion and Pomegranate Salad. An Arab-Levant influence can be found in the Yogurt Noodles and a modern Korean influence in Sesame-Soy Carrots and several other vegetable recipes. So many influences in one country – history is on every plate.

I’ll leave you with a sample recipe of Savory Stuffed Onions to inspire dreams about the Silk Road. This is a wonderful dish that is sweet and spicy at the same time. it can really be served as one of several meat dishes on an omnivore table or by substituting more precooked rice for the lamb and vegetable broth for the beef broth, it would work on a vegetarian table as well. I use sweet Mayan onions when available to offset the full flavor of the meat stuffing, but Vidalia or any other type of onion can be used if desired. Again, stuffed vegetables like this are a Turkic legacy that are eaten throughout Central Asia with several virtually identical dishes are found in traditional Turkish cooking.

Savory Stuffed Onions

2 large, sweet Mayan onions
1 rib celery, chopped
3/4 cup carrots, quartered
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoons pepper
11/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves
1 teaspoon dried marigold petals
1 teaspoon dried savory
2 hot, dried, red chili peppers
1/4 pound ground lamb
1 small egg, beaten
2 tablespoons cooked rice
3 tablespoons peanut or light sesame oil
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 cup chickpeas, cooked
1 cup beef or vegetable broth (or more if needed)

Peel, rinse and hollow out the onions, setting the insides aside and leaving a firm bowl for stuffing.

In a food processor, combine the celery, carrot, garlic, salt, pepper, 1 teaspoon of the cumin, fenugreek, marigold, savory, and chili peppers with the ground lamb. Grind lightly to mix, leaving vegetables with form.

Blend in the egg, 1 tablespoon of the tomato paste and rice into the meat mix, mixing only briefly. Stuff the onion shells with the mixture.

Heat oil and when hot, add the onion pulp and sauté. When starting to become translucent, add the remaining tomato paste, the rest of the cumin, lemon juice, chickpeas and meat broth, stir. Salt and pepper the tomato sauce to taste.

Place the stuffed onion shells in the pot and cover to cook. Cooking time about 45 minutes, but check every 10-15 minutes and stir, ladling some sauce over the top of the onions. If sauce becomes too thick, add more beef or vegetable broth to dilute.

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Palace in Bukhara © Enote | Dreamstime.com; photo of Mosque in Registan Square © Steve Estvanik | Dreamstime.com; Photo of Women Drinking Tea by Alexander Metelitsa)