The Flavors of Uzbekistan

Bкусный Oбедающий Uzbek!

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.)

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12 thoughts on “The Flavors of Uzbekistan

    • Hi Miles:

      The manti were good, and can be made with potatoes or a mixture of meat/fish and potatoes or pumpkin. Anyway, they are delicious. The sauce is not dissimilar to a Tibetan manti sauce, and quite good.

      Laura

  1. Laura,

    I enjoyed this post too… and for ever more I shall remember to use the term ‘crotchy’ when applicable, which I loved by the way, whenever the mood takes me :) A wonderful article especially for those of us who will probably never see an Uzbek restaurant. I have seen some fabulous textiles produced by the people in this region though.

    Cid

    p.s. I’ve posted my findings about spelt sourdough on Miles site this evening.

    • Hi Cid:

      You little miracle!

      Thank you so much for experimenting with the starter for me. I hope you took photos or would do it again and take photos so I can (or you can) write it up for Silk Road Gourmet.

      “beeryish” should be added, along with “crotchy” to our our culinary lexicon!

  2. Laura,

    See my latest comment on Miles site. I have taken photos so I’ll just see if they are good enough for your site. I have great expectations for future loaves if I can just get the proving and resting stages right for this type of bread…. problem is I’m a bit of a maverick and don’t always follow instruction but this could well turn out to be the one thing that requires careful measurement and method. I’ll be back…..

    Cid

    • Hi Cid:

      Thanks Cid:

      I added some more to Miles site as well about using palm-sugar to feed the initial culture, and also the possibility of making a mixed grain bread using spelt and rye or oats etc.

      Bake on!

      Laura

  3. I made manti once.. with lamb stuffing and yogurt… love this different take on them because they were delicious little bites. I had never had lamb balls before, but another blogger’s glowing report and a tutorial on what to do with them gave me courage to try them and they were delicious… reminded me of sweetbreads. It all looks terribly good… but the picture from Samarkand… well I want that room!!! Just the word… it positive defines exotic… Samarkand. Great post!

    • Uzbek manti are meat or vegetable-filled dumplings that have relatives all over Asia. My favorites are by far Tibetan Momos with szechuan pepper, soy and daikon in the meaty mix. Georgian Hinkali are also favs.

      I knew you would love the picture from Samarkand and thought of you when I selected it!

      Laura

  4. I am pleased to hear that back in the United States assessed the former USSR kultures are represented.
    People are there to represernt Latvian, but they never get the full Asian kitchen when posting those sites,

    Natalia

    • Hi Natalija:

      Welcome to the site!

      Yes, we have Russian and Uzbek and a bit of Kazakh in the area. I haven’t seen others from Central Asia or FSU looking, but there is a growing emigre population in both DC and Baltimore that makes the appearance of more restaurants possible.

      Thanks for the visit – come back soon.

      Laura

  5. The bit about the ‘delicatessen’ kebab made me really laugh – so funny! I don’t think I could have tasted them although I make an effort to overcome my Western tastes.

    Many of the dishes you describe remind me of the Afghan restaurant I loved when I was in Germany: the soup, the manti.. I recently tried Tibetan momos (new Tibetan restaurant here), and I love them as well.

    The bit about why you love travelling made me think. I tend to want to export my efficient and busy life style to travelling as well, and I never realized how wrong this attitude is and how much of the real experience it spoils. I’ve never challenged myself by taking the time to go to a really remote place. The only similar experience for me has been sailing holidays, where the schedule is decided by the wind, the tide, the weather, and you get no say in it – liberating.

    • Hi C:

      I’m glad the bit about the delicate kebabs made you laugh- I was going for that when I wrote it!

      Agree there are similarities with Afghan food – forms are often similar with different realization (flavorings etc).

      I love the remote places of the world – am going to a few in a couple of months up in Xinjiang and Gansu in China – old silk road stuff. Attaching this trip onto a business trip to the region. I look forward to it. Including the bus and train travel by myself.

      I like your sailing trips description – letting someone else drive for a change is kind of nice -eh?

      Laura

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