Central Asia holds what I’ve been affectionately referring to this week as “the ‘stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The major cultural reference Westerners usually have for this region (and what people have been asking me about all week) is the movie Borat. While I think some of Sasha Baron Cohen’s comedy is brilliant, I felt like Borat was uncomfortably disrespectful of an entire nation of people, without much love or sympathy added to the humour. This is particularly biting given that almost 40% of the population of Kazakhstan starved to death in the 1930s during a famine, during which time Stalin also systematically executed the great writers, intellectuals, artists, historians and politicians of the nation. Kazakhstan was subsequently a site of mass exile of political prisoners from other parts of the Soviet Union. So, if it were true that they were a little backwards in the grand scheme of globalisation, maybe we should cut them some slack? Having said that, many Kazakh officials have praised the movie as “putting Kazakhstan on the map” and increasing tourism to the region. Regardless, if I’m sure of one thing, it’s that shared food is the great equaliser, healer and peacemaker, so I was excited to share the cuisines of these regions. When I first started my research, however, the broad impression I received was “horse appetiser with a horse main course with horse salad, horse soup and a side of horse”. I’ve never tried horse meat (to my knowledge), and although I would be curious to try, it is not readily available where I live in Brisbane, so I began to worry about my options for this week. However, after digging a little deeper, I discovered a wonderful range of colourful and fragrant meals, with wide-reaching influences from the surrounding Middle East, Russia and China.
Shashlik, tushpara, salad and flatbread
Shashlik goes by many names in Central Asia, as well as surrounding regions including the Baltic countries, Russia, the Middle East, and Central Europe. It consists of pieces of meat threaded onto a skewer and then grilled, fried or barbecued, and the name literally means “skewerable” in Turkic languages. Purportedly shashlik was much enjoyed by traders travelling along the Silk Road, which may go some way to explaining its popularity across the globe. I used lamb for my shashlik, which I marinated in a traditional Uzbek way, with onions, coriander, cumin, chilli, pepper and vinegar. With the shashlik I served tushpara/manti, which are small dumplings in wheat-based wrappers, filled in this case with spiced ground beef. I also made a traditional Uzbek salad with tomato, cucumber, and red onion, flavoured with oil, vinegar and dill. Breads of all varieties are an important staple of Central Asian cuisine, and I served this meal with some flatbread and a spread made out of yoghurt and dill. The breads of Uzbekistan are particularly famous: cooked in a tandoor oven and imprinted with infinite beautiful patterns and designs. My bread was not particularly beautiful, but tasted delicious all the same. All in all, I think this would be a meal much enjoyed by the people of Central Asia at a barbecue on a warm summer’s afternoon.
Across Central Asia, there are myriad names for this sort of rice dish, including plov/polov/osh plov/ash plov/pilav/pilau/palaw etc. There are even more recipes and varieties, as each grandmother seems to have created her own variation, ranging from the every-day recipe to the very rare cooked only for special occasions. It seems to have mostly been influenced by Persian roots, where rice pilaf is still popular. Tuy palovi, however, caught my eye because it is a Uzbek dish cooked mainly for weddings, which I imagine is when folk would most like to indulge and show off. The legendary origin of tuy palovi is that a handsome prince fell in love with a beautiful, but terribly impoverished, woman. His position dictated that he could never marry her, and his realisation of this fact caused him to refuse all food, gradually fading away to a waif. His father, the king, invited a skilled doctor to heal his son, who suggested that the prince needed to connect the hearts of lovers throughout the world by feeding them palovi in order to heal himself, hence the connection to weddings. The story has some good elements, including the delicious palovi, and the tradition that men are burdened with the mammoth task of cooking palovi for hundreds of wedding guests, but what happened to the poor girl!? Call me a hopeless romantic, but I prefer stories where the star-crossed lovers eventually overcome their social circumstances to be together. The story doesn’t say whether or not this doctor’s treatment worked, however: perhaps the prince told him to shove his stupid palovi and ran off to his love to live happily ever after? We can only dream… The dish is made of fried pieces of onion, lamb and carrots, which are then simmered in water along with chickpeas, raisins, turmeric, cumin, coriander and whole heads of garlic. Rice is then cooked in this broth and all of the ingredients are finally combined on a single platter. I adore the combination of lamb and rice – the lamb fat is rendered out of the meat and coats each rice grain, creating a sensational taste and texture. The sweet components of raisins, onion and carrots add an important balance to this base, and elevate the rice to a new status. I’m not sure that this dish would heal my broken heart were I to be forbidden from marrying my true love, but certainly it might help a little bit…
Laghman is a dish found throughout Central Asia, consisting of homemade noodles, with stir-fried meat and vegetables. It is thought to have Chinese roots, with the name perhaps deriving from the Chinese word “lamain”, meaning noodle. It is a favoured dish of the Uyghurs of Central Asia, a Turkic ethnic group who primarily practice Islam, and are descended from both Caucasoid and East Asian heritage. For my laghman, I stir-fried strips of beef, tomatoes, green beans, yellow capsicum, red onion, spring onion and parsley, flavoured with star anise, ginger, white pepper, Sichuan pepper, soy sauce, garlic, Chinese black vinegar and some tomato paste. Sometimes more water is added to form a hearty broth, creating more of a noodle soup than a stir fry. The flavour combination was wonderful – fresh and fragrant with a nice balance of salt, spiciness and acidity from the vinegar.
Beshbarmak is indisputably Kazakhstan’s national dish (although also enjoyed in Kyrgyzstan), traditionally consisting of boiled horse or mutton meat on top of a bed of wide pasta sheets, topped with boiled onion rings and parsley and some of the broth from cooking, called “sorpa”. The dish is often served at large gatherings of friends and families, where it is the host’s responsibility to cut the meat and serve it to each guest in order of their importance. A daunting task indeed! If a whole sheep is being cooked, the most prized cut of meat is the head, which is bestowed upon the most senior person at the table, symbolising their wisdom, which they then carve and dole out to the others at the table. Young adults would receive shoulders and legs, while young boys would feast on ears (a reminder to listen?) and girls the palate, but never the knuckle, as it will cause them to grow up to be spinsters. Newlywed women are allocated brisket, however older married ladies eat the neck, the symbolism of which I’m hesitant to comment on… Beshbarmak is thought to originate from the nomadic Turkic people, and initially I was surprised and a little sceptical of its simplicity (there are only a handful of ingredients in the “national dish”, after all). Also, I generally find the concept of boiled meat a little off-putting, as it puts me in mind of depression-era bland and nutrition-less meat-and-three-veg. The fatty cut of lamb that I cooked, however, was ideal for boiling, as it rendered much of the fat from the meat, leaving it incredibly tender, leaner, and flavoursome. The blander pasta sheets complemented the rich tastes of lamb and onion, creating a simple and delicious combination. However, I think I’ll stick to cooking it for myself, as the stress of allocating age, marital status and importance to your guests during the serving process would surely outweigh the deliciousness of the dish for me!