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)

Celebrating Central Asia

In addition to my day job, my duties as a wife and mother and holiday preparations, I’ve been busy writing the text for the second volume of Silk Road Gourmet. The volume covers what I call the “fusion” cuisines of Central Asia, the Himalayas and the Indo-Pacific. These are the countries that combine distinctly western Asian and Eastern Asian elements in unique ways to form the backbones of their national cuisines. The cuisines of Indonesia and Malaysia already have been celebrated for these sorts of combinations – but Central Asia?

A quick survey of the web seems to suggest that in the 21st Century, Central Asians survive on boiled and dried meats, horsemeat sausage and yogurt. Beautiful fruits and vegetables, bursting with flavor are never mentioned, fresh herbs and spices are rarely spoken of, and traveler’s dairies all bemoan the terrible food they encountered on their journeys. For the Central Asians that visit the blog, for those already in the know, and for the curious – I am happy to help dispel some of these myths.

Central Asian Shurpa

The varied cuisines of Central Asia are basically blends of the Arab, Persian, and sub-continental Indian cuisines from the west and Chinese traditions from the east. These great cuisines were combined with the native food preparations of the Turkic tribes that ruled these nations prior to the Mongolian conquest of the 13th Century. Uzbekistan had many added cultural influences that came from Tamerlane’s efforts to establish Samarkand as one of the world’s great centers of arts and letters. Because he wanted Samarkand to be as beautiful and majestic a place as the world’s artists, craftsmen and academicians could make it, he sent the greatest thinkers and artisans he could find during his conquests 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. Russian influence in Central Asia began in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and this brought European elements into already cosmopolitan cuisines.

The eastern love of the great Chinese meal-soup is part of every Central Asian cuisine from Kazakh shurpa to Uzbek lagman. All of the cuisines also enjoy the use of a wide variety of noodles in addition to rice and other grains as a foundation for stews and soups. Dumpling meals are also enjoyed as is tea – spiced, salty or buttered. On occasion, a method of quick sautéing is also used that is not too different from the East Asian stir fry. Distinctly eastern flavors are seen in the use of star anise, soy sauce, rice vinegar, Sichuan pepper and lime juice.

From the west, influences include the Persian love of layering casseroles and combining meat dishes with sweet fruits such as dried apricots, sour cherries and quinces. Indian elements include the use of large amounts of cinnamon and complex spice mixtures used to flavor rich stews. Native Turkic traditions are reflected in commonly eaten stuffed vegetables, such as peppers, onions and tomatoes. Arab or Levantine elements are seen in the love of blending olives with dishes, roasted pine nuts used to flavor pilafs and in a dish that features gently flavored yogurt-noodles used to offset spicy roasted meat and vegetables.

The cultures of Central Asia have cherry-picked some of the best that both Eastern Asian and Western Asian traditions have to offer – but they have also given a great deal back to the cuisines of the world. Central Asian produce which are now incorporated into cuisines around the world include onions, garlic, carrots, and the herbs dill and tarragon. (Words by Laura Kelley).