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)

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).