Sunday, June 6, 2010

Ooooooo- It's Uzbek Cuisine!

Moscow, Russia

A plate of mysterious-looking Uzbek food. What is stuffed in those dumplings? (photo by Charles Mathes)

In response to the article about our picnic on May 15, 2010, alert reader Charles Mathes  sent a note saying  "I know from Uzbek food -- I spent two weeks in Moscow on business and tried a lot of restaurants. Our favorite Moscow restaurant was Cafe Babai (or something like that).  In fact of all the places and cuisines we tried from the various republics, Uzbek was the hands down winner!" Charles is a high-end art dealer, selling works by Picasso, Calder, and the like. He was in Moscow for an art show. In the interest of full disclosure, we went to high school together (Go Tigers!) If you're interested in purchasing a $100,000 tapestry, he's the guy to see at  or at least visit his website and look at the pretty pictures. Charles' and his colleagues were introduced to Uzbek food by their guide/translator/bodyguard, Julia Kalakova, a stunning and accomplished woman whose passion is gypsy dancing. Her pic is below, doing a little gypsy dancing in the Cafe Babai. (photo by Charles Mathes).

Back to Uzbek cuisine. If you will recall, on May 15, 2010, the Culinary Historians of Atlanta held a potluck picnic. Everyone was supposed to bring a dish that represented their ethnicity or an old family recipe. Glenn Mack brought a dish that represented his wife's ethnicity. He told a story of going to visit his in-laws in Uzbekistan to learn to cook Uzbek style. I wondered, what is Uzbek-style cookery? So, between Glenn's great story and delicious eggplant, and Charles raving about his experience with Uzbek food, I decided to look it up. Turns out, this is some fantastic kind of cooking. 

 Uzbekistan is a newly-emerged nation-state, once part of the Soviet empire, located in central Asia. It is a fertile region, reasonably stable politically, with an ancient culture and well-developed cuisine. 

The national dish is plov, which is Uzbek for pilaf. It's cooked by men. In fact, men get together just to cook pilaf. One of the nice things about this, in my opinion, is that men are doing something useful for a change, and it keeps them sober, because there is a rule that you can't drink vodka after eating plov. The men also hang out at teahouses, drinking green tea and eating plov.  If you are planning a wedding or other big event, you need to hire an oshpaz, a man who  is an expert at making plov.  An oshpaz cooks plov in a huge cauldron. In some cases, the recipe calls for as much as 200 pounds of rice, and is cooked in one enormous cauldron. It's possible to serve as many as 1000 guests from one of these cauldrons. (photo courtesy of

The basic ingredients are rice, meat, carrots, onions, and oil. But recipes vary with the region and the individual cook. There is a whole culture of plov in Uzbekistan, that I can only compare to barbecue here in the South. 

Plov is not the only Uzbek food. Uzbekistan is rich agricultural country with a temperate climate that allows for the cultivation of many foods -- a locavore's paradise.  Visitors to the country sometimes come back claiming that they developed an addiction to the bread, which is cooked in a clay oven, or tandyr. 

The photo to the left (courtesy of  shows a healthy-looking boy in Uzbekistan with lepyoshka, a round-shaped flatbread. Cooking bread in a clay oven gives it a distinctively crispy crust. 

Meanwhile, back in the Cafe Babai, Charles managed to get a nice shot of the kitchen, which, as  you can see, features a clay oven. 

Sometime, this blog will take a look at the history of clay ovens, but not today. And sometime it would be fun for the Culinary Historians of Atlanta to take a field trip to Uzbekistan, but not this year. 

Looking forward to your comments.....


kulloo said...

Uzbek Cuisines are my favorit. I love Plov, Lagman, Narin, Uzbek Lepushka, Kazan Kabob, Shoshlik, Keema, Damleman, Tandur Chicken but I am always surprised with Sumalyak. It is sweet Halava but the nystery is that it gets sweet with out any sugar. Uzbeks have laerned the art from Honey bees and they make Sumalyak from wheat and cook it in such a way in 7 days that it becomes sweet like honey.
To learn making sumalyak visit my site:

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this post! My university has the nickname of "Little Tashkent" due to the tremendous Uzbek majority (I am one of the very few American students). During almost every holiday the professors and students will throw a huge party and cook Uzbek dishes - to this day I have never eaten anything more delicious than that fresh, homemade plov with lamb.