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.

Lamb Kebabs with Star Anise and Mint

I’ve had a major change of scenery lately that involves getting up at five and out to a job that I love but that is far from home. No more getting paid to write big thoughts at the kitchen table and subsequently less time for the blog as well.

To celebrate the change, I’m calling all readers to contribute posts to the blog – travel stories, contemplations on food or things Asian, recipes, or anything of substance that fits with kind of pieces I’ve been writing. I’m also posting the first recipe of the blog. Its a delicious lamb kebab from Tajikistan – a land that have been ruled by the Indians, Persians, Bactrians, Sycthians, Arabs and Mongols and that had important early cultural and economic contacts with Han China from the second century on.

The kebabs blends the western and eastern Asian flavors of mint and star anise in a unique and wonderful way, and the yogurt and onion based broth has the distinctly Central Asian use of lots of garlic to spice things up a bit. I suggest serving it with plain rice or bulgur or a simple pilaf. If you cook it, please leave comments on it – especially if you enjoyed it.

Ingredients

Kebabs
1 pound ground lamb
1 large red onion
1 medium tomato
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground coriander
4 star anise corms, ground
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon fresh, chopped mint leaves
1 small bunch of cilantro leaves, chopped (15-20 sprigs)
3 hot, dried, red chili peppers
1/4 cup flour (optional)

Stew
2 large yellow onions, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 generous tablespoon of garlic, peeled and chopped
3 hot, dried red chili peppers
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 small bunch of cilantro leaves, chopped (15-20 sprigs)
1 cup beef broth
1/2 cup plain yogurt.

Method

1. In a food processor combine onion tomato and spices and blend lightly so that the vegetables are chopped but still have their form. Add meat, blend lightly again to mix. Let set in the refrigerator for several hours before rolling into kebabs.

2. Preheat broiler on highest setting. Remove from refrigerator and roll the kebabs into sausages or loaves about 3 inches long and 1½ inches wide. Flour very lightly, if desired, to help the meat hold together.

3. Place on a baking sheet that has been oiled or sprayed. Cook about 6 inches from the flame for 5 minutes on each side. If meat still feels soft to the touch, cook another few minutes, but do not let the kebabs burn. When done, remove from heat and set aside as you make the stew.

4. Melt butter in a large saucepan or sauté pan. When hot, add onions and sauté briefly to coat the onions. Cook a few minutes stirring often and then add the sugar and lower the heat to the lowest setting. Let onions cook and caramelize, stirring them only every 10 minutes or so. When they are light brown and very soft, add the garlic, chili peppers and coriander and stir well. Cook until garlic begins to brown.

5. Add the yogurt and the beef broth and add to the onions and garlic, stirring well. Add the lamb kebabs and, if necessary, add more beef broth. Cover and continue to cook over a medium-low flame until the kebabs are hot. Serve the kebabs on a bed of rice or bulgur and spoon the onions and sauce over the kebabs for a bit of extra flavor. (Recipe to be published in The Silk Road Gourmet Volume 2.)