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.
My travel companions and I were welcomed to the Uzbek table three times a day, often to a spread laid on for honored guests. We had lunches and dinners in traditional home settings, and in local restaurants, and on rooftops with fabulous views.
Here is the order of business for the meals we experienced:
>>>> Break scrumptious bread with your table-mates, and pour cups of green and black tea according to personal tastes. Non is an integral part of Uzbek cuisine.
>>>> Share salads made of fresh and cooked ingredients. 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 seasonal 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 I visited. Egg-battered vegetables benefit from a dollop of tangy sour cream with fresh herbs.
>>>> Savor a soup, such as this hearty lamb shurpa, warming over coals in single-serving crocks at Tashkent’s Milli Taom. The open-air restaurant is popular with locals and a great place for orientation to Uzbek cuisine. Other great soups in Uzbek cuisine are pumpkin puree, and broth loaded with dill and chunks of meat or delicate dumplings, called pelmeni.
>>>> Wash everything down with more tea, bottled water, local beer or vodka.
>>>> Skip the dessert. 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 meals, there’s really no room for another course!
>>>> Make the most of the companionship around you. These ladies were sharing platters of plov in a food tent at Asrlar Sadosi, the annual Festival of Traditional Culture, held this year in the Kyzylkum desert of Karakalpakstan. Their simple meal—one main course, bread and tea, no forks—was clearly a festive occasion among friends.
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.