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)

The Flavors of Uzbekistan

Bкусный Oбедающий Uzbek!

[mp3-jplayer tracks=”ozbekvalsi.mp3″]

Uzbekistan is a place to dream about: a far-away land of palaces, emperors, mosques and some of the world’s most beautiful stark and stunning scenery. A sigh, a sip of tea, and no matter where you are, you imagine yourself perusing the exotic goods in crowded market, or on a caravan heading east towards the Fergana, with its dangers, mysteries and potential treasures.

Interior in Samarkand

You could go to Uzbekistan and have adventures, true, but an easier way to get there is by feasting on good Uzbek food. A few weeks ago I discovered a restaurant just outside of Baltimore that offers the ability to imagine Uzbekistan while sampling some of the many great dishes the cuisine has to offer.

As soon as we entered Choyhona’s unassuming storefront I knew this was going to be a good place to try Uzbek food. There were two tables of men talking loudly, eating kebabs and drinking out of BYO-bottles of vodka and a table of women gathered to celebrate a baby shower, drinking tea and enjoying Uzbek naan and salads.

Colorful Uzbek needlework adorned the light-colored walls which were decorated with areas of mud and straw around which wooden beams were set to give the restaurant the feel of a traditional country dwelling. Yes, Choyhona felt like the real deal, and it had a roomful of Russian and former-Soviet émigrés who all looked like regulars to prove it. Even before I took my seat, I realized that the people here came for the food, for the camaraderie, and for the authentic ambience of a Central Asian cafe.

The menu is in both Russian and English and has a nice selection of Uzbek and Central Asian food. Most of the traditional dishes are found under salads and soups – several meat and vegetable salads dressed with mayonnaise, or several with the sour yogurt called suzma. There are also a few salads based on fried vegetables (eggplants) and on grated or shredded vegetables, such as the Markovcha salad of matchsticked carrots.


My husband and I started with a lagman and a shurpa, two of the great Central Asian soups, and they were both delicious, if a bit on the mild side. I smelled the dill from the shurpa before the bowl even hit the table. Its translucent broth harboring bits of meat and vegetable with a bit of fat glistening on the surface was a wonderful way to warm up on a cold day. The not-quite even edge of the lagman noodles told us that they were indeed homemade and they were both flavorful and cooked to perfection.

While waiting for the soups we had a glass of ayran – lightly drained yogurt and soda water – to get in the Western and Central Asian groove. The one we had that day was plain, but it can also be flavored with black pepper or mint. The kids, stayed far away from the ayran and the soups and contented themselves by sucking down sodas as they waited for their food.

Next up were a plate of pumpkin manti – stuffed steamed dumplings – served with a lightly spicy and sour tomato-based sauce. The pumpkin was seasoned with a combination of cumin, coriander and a bit of dill along with salt and black pepper, and was absolutely delicious – especially with a dollop of sauce. FYI, for those with children, this dish was also kid tested and approved.

The center of the meal was a plate of kebabs that provided a nice sampling of the menu. We tried chicken, lamb, beef lulya, and the delicatessen kebab. We enjoyed these with a plate of marinated vegetables and a lightly-spiced yogurt dressing as well as more of the manti sauce. The chicken and lamb were good, but the most fabulous was by far the kebab made from strongly spiced minced beef – the lulya kebab.

Uzbek Manti

I can’t review Choyhona without discussing the very classy way they slipped lamb testicles onto the menu – they are the “delicatessen” kebabs. I’ve never really been a fan of eating genitals for dinner. I don’t like the smooth, dense texture, and I don’t really care for the strong flavor – which I call “crotchy”. That said, these little kebabs were the best testicles I’ve ever had. Still, I’d rather have a second lulya kebab than a delicatessen kebab, so there will be plenty around for those of you who like them.

My son had the lamb chop kebab with fries had he absolutely loved it!! I tasted it and the lamb was quite good – well cooked, but still soft and delicious. My daughter had the chicken tabaka the flattened and spiced fowl dish eaten from Western through Central Asia which she liked a lot. Our kids usually travel with us and eat a lot of unusual food when we are on the road. However, when they return home, their dietary habits tend to take a turn for the pedestrian. So, it’s great to find an ethnic restaurant here in the States that the kids like.

We ended the meal with a nice pot of green tea and some good conversation, before leisurely trundling back out into the cold. If you are in the area – run don’t walk to Choyhona. But don’t eat and run. Rather come to spend part of an afternoon or evening, enjoy the food and flavors, and “travel” to Uzbekistan. If you can get out to Uzbekistan or some of the world’s far places – do.

Something that we in the west all too easily forget is that there are still lots of wild places in the world and there are many adventures to be had. That’s why I love traveling. I like to get outside of my comfort zone to, for example, wait for a bus which may or may not ever show up. Sure, I love the fantastic sites – I’m not too jaded or ironic to admit that I was blown away by the still-sapphire, celestial ceilings of Hatshepsut’s Tomb – but I also simply like to appreciate the rhythm of life that is different from the one I am accustomed to. Appreciating a sunset or finding beauty in a cardgame brought on by boredom provides a moment to hold in memory and provides a welcome return in the swirl of a more complex life.

(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Interior in Samarkand by Ozbek Valsi performed by Mashriq and borrowed from Uzbek Classical Music.)

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Birthday Dim Sum at Asian Court

Dim Sum Buffet

Asians love to stuff things. They love to stuff little things into bigger things, or roll leaves, dough or meat with all manner of minced vegetables, cheese and meat. From Georgian hinkali to Philippine lumpia with Indian samosas and Tibetan manti in between, dumplings, rolls, fritters, turnovers and tricorners are ubiquitous throughout the Asian continent. These morsels are eaten largely as appetizers in the west, but are enjoyed as part large multicourse meals or even as light meals throughout most of the Asian expanse. No where else, however, is the dumpling concept so perfected (or arguably, strained) as it is in Chinese Dim Sum.

For the uninitiated, Dim Sum is a meal consisting almost entirely of smaller bits of food, usually in the forms of rolls, buns or dumplings – sometimes in broth or soup but sometimes in the form of steamed or fried eggs or other animal parts. Generally, Dim Sum is a leisurely meal shared with family and friends that takes place over the course of hours. Tea or other drinks are enjoyed, stories are told, in parts of China, cards or other games are played and throughout all – a delicious wave of shared food binds everyone together to create the experience. Think tapas or mezze – Chinese style.

Dim Sum started in Canton as a light meal enjoyed with tea, enjoyed sometimes as early as dawn, but generally from about midmorning to noon or mid-afternoon. Dim Sum has evolved a great deal from these humble origins. Today, Dim Sum is eaten at any time, with traditional presentation still served as a brunch. It has also developed from a lighter meal or snack to a large multicourse meal that can last for hours, and it is enjoyed not only all over China, but all over the world as well. Each province and region has its own variations and specialties – so you can ask for a char sui bao or meat stuffed bun“Singapore Style” and get something different from a char sui bao in Canton.

Phoenix Talons

My favorite part of the Dim Sum experience – other than the leisurely pace which appeals to my Italian side – are the cart ladies who compete with each other to hawk their dishes as if on a stiff commission. Carts roll and dishes and steamers rattle as they pass turnip and rice cakes, steamed, baked and fried dumplings and rolls, and exotic body parts – my favorite of which are Phoenix Talons. Say it with me – “Phoenix Talons” – that name conjures up Jungian archetypes of life, rebirth by fire, and the majesty and beauty of soaring raptors. What you get is a plate of chicken feet – sometimes in a black bean sauce or vinegar dipping sauce. Now if you’ve never eaten chicken feet, let me tell you – its sort of like trying to suck tiny bits of pork out of a tight surgical glove (don’t ask me how I know what that’s like – I’m not ’fessing). Andrew Zimmern may love chicken feet but I’ll pass in favor of another shaomai steamed dumpling, thanks.

All of this is leading up to the fact that to celebrate a recent family birthday, we headed out to a Sunday afternoon of Dim Sum in the neighboring county which is 12 percent Asian. Arriving at the restaurant named, Asian Court, I was thrilled to find that we were the only Caucasian customers in house. Everyone else there was of some Asian flavor. There were older ladies gossiping as they watch a large screen TV behind us, there was a couple dining with a woman and her new infant who was kept tightly wrapped in his carrier and slept through most of the meal. There was a large party of men watching football, a South Asian couple and us. Dim lights, large decorative fish tanks with clown fish darting between anemones – I thought, yeah, this is the place as we walked in.

We ordered in concord with the traditional Dim Sum rhythm, lighter, steamed dishes, followed by heavier fried ones. We skipped the exotic dishes that usually come between the lighter and the heavier dishes and yes, we were too full for dessert as well. We did, however, spend the better part of and hour and half there enjoying the atmosphere and drinking chrysanthemum tea – which is something of an accomplishment with two children in tow, and we left with several boxes of delicious leftovers.

Making Dim Sum

For those who would like to try to cook some of the dishes they find at Dim Sum, I recommend you to start with Andrea Nguyen’s beautiful Asian Dumplings book. The book is beautifully illustrated, and has clear easy to execute recipes – complete with copious illustrations. Although it contains a few South Asian and Himalayan recipes, its focus is on eastern Asia. For Asian dumplings rolls and snacks from western, southern and central Asia, please consult The Silk Road Gourmet.

If you haven’t eaten Dim Sum – I urge you to get out there and try it. Because of the proven market for mezze and tapas dining, Dim Sum is experiencing something of a surge in popularity here in the states. This is a centuries old payback, of course, because these Arab and Mediterranean styles of eating were inspired by traders and travelers bringing back tales of the tea-house feasts popular in Canton in the early days of the Silk Road. So, another way that the Silk Road continues to touch our lives is through these “little bit” dining styles which taken together can add up to something grand. (Words by Laura Kelley, photo of Dim Sum Buffet by; photo of Chicken Feet by and photo of Making Dim Sum by

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