In Uzbekistan, my travel companions and I were welcomed to the table three times a day, and very often to a spread of Uzbek food laid on for honored guests. We enjoyed lunches and dinners in traditional home settings, in local restaurants, and in Khiva, on a rooftop with a fabulous view. In such evocative settings, we soon came to look forward to our next meal, and especially, our next opportunity to sample Uzbek cuisine.
Uzbekistan does not top most foodies’ bucket list of places to go, but Uzbek cuisine satisfies in unexpected ways: lots of fresh ingredients; more veggies than I’d anticipated; slow-food preparation methods; mostly family-style service; and plenty of time for camaraderie around the table.
At every meal, a dining regimen
We quickly learned that the first–and last–order of business at every meal, is simply to wash up, and restaurants make this easy to do. Basins are located just outside the main dining areas in all eating establishments.
In Uzbekistan, every meal opens with something sweet: sugared nuts, tiny plates of dried fruit, small candies. It’s not every day you sample homemade mulberry jam before lunch, but why not?
Bread, or non, is an integral part of Uzbek cuisine, and it comes to the table in numerous scrumptious forms. Breaking break with one’s table-mates, and downing cups of green and black tea according to personal tastes, proved a wonderful way to begin our meals.
Salads, both fresh and cooked, are seasonal delights of the Uzbek table, and for vegetable lovers, the prevalence of salad in Central Asia is a godsend. Cucumber and tomato or tomato and onion salads are ubiquitous, but there are myriad other options, as well.
Appetizers come to the table along with salads. Good ones to sample are naryn, a cold noodle salad with minced, spicy horse meat; and deep-fried cauliflower, inexplicably labeled “cabbage” in at least two restaurants we visited. Egg-battered vegetables benefit from a dollop of tangy sour cream with fresh herbs.
Soups, such as a hearty lamb shurpa, are popular ways to start a meal, and in popular open-air restaurants, single-serving crocks are kept warm over coals. Other great soups in Uzbek cuisine are pumpkin puree, and broth loaded with dill and chunks of meat or delicate dumplings, called pelmeni.
Hearty main courses
We had many opportunities to chow down on lusty servings of of plov, the national dish, a rice-and-meat staple with cult status. At other times, we opted for meat-and-veg-filled steamed dumplings, called manty. Other options included platters of roast beef with cabbage, carrots and potatoes, or a mixed boil-up of meats, stuffed peppers, and cabbage rolls. Main courses in Uzbekistan were always hearty and generally featured meat. However, vegetarian travelers here need not fear, as there are many meat-free options on offer throughout the country.
Uzbek cuisine go-withs
We learned to wash everything down the Uzbek way, quaffing more tea, bottled water, local beer or vodka. And along the way, many of us began to skip desserts. Most of the cakes I sampled were not on a par with the rest of the meal and goodness knows, by the end of these dining adventures, there’s really no room for another course! Besides, the sweets served alongside savory nibbles at the beginning of almost every meal, added a little something special to the experience.
The food, good as it can be, is just one component of Uzbek cuisine. The eagerness of our hosts to introduce their native foods, coupled with large doses of laughter around our table at mealtimes made for some unforgettable memories, not to mention enjoyable sharing of new foods and flavors.
Everywhere we went, we had opportunities to interact with locals, and to make the most of the companionship they offered. And despite the generosity we were accorded as guests in Uzbekistan, we learned that Uzbek meals can be simple as well as convivial. When traveling in the Kyzylkum desert of Karakalpakstan, we stopped for a day at Asrlar Sadosi, the annual Festival of Traditional Culture. There we met a group of friends sharing platters of plov in a food tent. Their simple meal—one main course, bread and tea, no forks—was clearly a festive occasion, one we were privileged to join.