The Flavors of Uzbekistan

Bкусный Oбедающий Uzbek!

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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.

Shurpa

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 Javarman@Dreamstime.com. Ozbek Valsi performed by Mashriq and borrowed from Uzbek Classical Music.)

Choyhona Silk Road Bistro on Urbanspoon

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).