Sunday, October 22, 2017

Uzbekistan: First Plov

Two weeks after arriving to Tashkent, I still hadn’t eaten plov, Uzbekistan’s national dish.  Plov – also known as palov, osh, and pilaf – is a dish of rice and meat with vegetables, seasonings, and sometimes extras like raisins, chickpeas, or fruit.  Here in Uzbekistan, it is usually made with lamb or mutton, and there are subtle regional differences.  In some areas, it is made with orange carrots; in others, yellow.  Some people use white rice; others use dark rice.  Many people include onions and garlic, but not everyone.  In some regions, it’s fried longer.  Some plovs are more oily than others.  Salt, pepper, paprika, coriander, cumin, and bay leaf are common plov seasonings, but, of course, there are variations on this front too.  It’s a dish where everyone seems to have a special recipe, but to an untrained eye like mine, the end results are all pretty similar.

In any case, I was overdue to give it a try, and our Uzbek friends Arpa and Tasma were keen to remedy this situation.  They invited Eitan and me for some Sunday afternoon plov, and we happily accepted.

The ladies picked us up in the early afternoon, and in a quarter of an hour, we pulled into the parking lot of a humble restaurant on the edge of town.

Passing by a meat case stocked with horse and other red meats, we were received by a waiter at the entrance to the dining room and seated near a window.  Rays of light slanted down on our table, illuminating the dust in the air.

In addition to our foursome, there was another table with a handful of people near us and a group of probably 20 people at the far end of the room.  This larger group seemed to be several generations of a family, from the elders to the toddlers.

Arpa and Tasma handled the ordering, focusing on the classics, and a minute after the order was placed, the waiter returned with a pot of tea and a round of naan.

It is tradition in Uzbekistan to return the first three cups of tea back to the pot, a duty which Arpa undertook.

“Is there any meaning behind this?” I asked as she was pouring the tea into the cup and back into the teapot.

“Well,” she replied, “it mixes the tea.”

The answer was more pragmatic than I had expected, but it did make sense.

Tasma tore the bread into several pieces, and we snacked on that until the plov arrived a few minutes later.

Eitan got a special vegetarian(-ish) plov, which was basically a normal plov with the chunks of lamb removed.  The rest of us had a normal, meaty plov, topped with horse sausage and quail eggs.  A small plate of chopped tomatoes and onions was served on the side.

Plov is served!

I started my plov experience by eating a few of the horse sausages off the top.  These sausages are made by stuffing the horse’s rib meat into its intestines, and they were pretty rich.

“Take care,” Tasma warned.  “Kazi [horse meat] is rich in iron and can cause high blood pressure.”

This news was most welcome as it gave me a lifetime excuse if I ever wanted to get out of eating horse.  It was just like in Pakistan when I had been warned not to eat too much brain masala as it was very high in cholesterol.  After that, I had only to mention that I was watching my cholesterol and whoever was trying to coax me to eat brain would relent without prejudice.  Now, in the case of kazi, I would simply have to say I was watching my blood pressure, and I would similarly be off the hook.  Brilliant!

After the horse sausage, I put a few scoops of plov on my plate along with a quail egg.

It certainly smelled good, and I was looking forward to my first bite.  I plunged my spoon into the edge of my mound of plov, and as I pulled it out, I recoiled.  Nestled in the oily rice, there was a black hair – wavy, but not curly, and a few inches long.

“Be this hair of man or beast?” I wondered.

I was repulsed to be sure, but since I was out with other people, I was forced to act like an adult.  I discreetly plucked out the hair and concealed it under my plate.

Then I slowly scooped the rice again, wary of finding another surprise.

Luckily no other hairs surfaced, and I was able to clean my plate.

“How do you like the plov?” Arpa asked me as I sipped my tea.

“It’s nice,” I answered.

When I was a child, my parents often prepared rice with meat.  Sometimes they used chicken, turkey, or pork, but most frequently, they used beef.  Add in some onions, maybe some bell pepper and garlic, and it was basically plov we were eating.  Thus, the Uzbek plov, while not exactly exotic, was satisfying and inspired a bit of nostalgia.  Indeed, it was nice.


Unknown said...

The hair could be human or animal , the length defines that is could be horse hair .
I would like to believe it was horse hair , rather than human somehow !

We also make lamb Pillai , it is a very popular dish at weddings , dinners , even at the meals served after funerals .
By the way menu for weddings or any other celebration , funeral meals amongst most of the ethnic groups in Pakistan is quite similar ,,,
Chicken or Lamb Qorma ,
The orange sweet rice Zarda
With salads and yoghurt .

Eleanor White said...

Thanks, Chris! I asked ("Tell us about Uzbek food, please") and you answered!

Nancy said...

Great read Chris!
I loved plov whenever I got to visit Tashkent (circa 1994-1996).
Good memories.

Unknown said...

Chris, your descriptions are always very accurate and can make us see, smell, and taste what you're dining on. Today, was NOT a great experience for me but I did enjoy reading your post, as usual.

Monica said...

Thank you for sharing the adventures! Mon -:)

Unknown said...

You forgot to mention they use the same batch of fat/oil for a whole to conserve the flavor from the previous Plov.