Uzbekistan population is made up of many ethnic groups, such as the Tartars, Kharduri (Tajiks), Uzbeks, Russians, Koreans, etc. This reflects in the wide varieties of dishes. Due to its history in the Silk Road trade routes, one can also see Turkish (they drink Ayran-a yoghurt drink popular in Turkey) and Chinese influences in their special dishes (dumplings and noodles).
The local markets are the perfect starting points to explore, like the 600 year old Siyob (also written as Siab in English) market in Samarkand.
In truth, each region and household have their own version of the popular dishes. The best of Uzbek cooking is most likely cooked by someone’s babushka (grandmother).
Here are the dishes that I tried and mostly, love:
Plov (Pilaf Rice)
Each city has their own versions of plov. Barbaries seeds are used in making plov. They are red and/or black in color.
Bukhara plov is less fatty and is made of beef, instead of lamb. In Bukhara, they use the yellow carrots only and they do not mix the carrots with the rice and meat. They layer each ingredient. I tried the Bushkara plov at Osh Markazi Shezgizon. My guide took me there. Osh Markazi means plov centre. One can choose what other items one want in one’s plov, such as quail eggs and horse sausage.
Tashkent plov uses both orange and yellow carrots (mostly orange). They cook the plov with lamb fat. Quail eggs and horse sausages are optional in both places.
Plov is cooked in a large pan called kazan. First, meat is cooked in the bottom, then carrots and rice are added on top. I had an amazing time observing how the Tashkent plov was made in the Central Asia Plov Centre. I arrived around 11.45am and by 12 plus, the huge dining room was full – with locals.
Samarkand plov is similar to the Tashkent plov, though it is less fatty. It is served with green radish (turf) mix with local yoghurt. It is called Chaka in Samarkand and Cucma in Tashkent. It is also served with a side of mountain onions (Anzur). At the end, Gurob (vinegar drink from grapes) is served for digestion. It is definitely needed. We went to the plov centre in Samarkand called Osh Markazi Filial No. 1.
In familiar setting, people would eat directly from a large platter (called lyagan) in the middle of the table. Otherwise, it can be served on individual plates or one takes the plov to his/her own plate.
Laghman Uighur Noodle (Soup or Fried)
One of the best meal I had in Uzbekistan is the Uighur laghman noodle in soup. I had it in fusion restaurant in Tashkent, called Assorti Restaurant. The broth is tasty and full of meat flavor. The noodle has a nice bite and bouncy. I love their ingenuity in designing the chopsticks for easy use.
I tried the fried version in the Old Bukhara restaurant. It came looking like spaghetti bolognaise, and it tasted very sour.
Mantis dumpling is another oriental or overseas influence in Uzbek cuisine. They can be very similar to Chinese meat dumplings. However, some mantis look more like pelmeni or varenikiy in Russian and Ukrainian cuisines. Either way, they are served with sour cream dipping sauce like in Russia and Ukraine.
Samsa is a triangular pastry with meat inside. Each region has their own versions. It served as a nice snack or appetizer. Samsa is traditionally baked in the tandoor clay oven. The meat inside is not minced, but cut into small cubes to keep it juicy. Again every region has their own versions. I have tried samsas with flaky pastry that are baked in ovens, like the ones I had at Platan Restaurant in Samarkand.
Samarkand is famous for their breads, especially the dense round one called Gala Osiyo. This bread can last 3 years, and the recipe is at least 1,000 years old.
I brought back some for my friends in Tashkent. Apparently, if one makes this bread outside Samarkand, even following the recipe, the bread would not be the same as those made in Samarkand. There is something perhaps, with Samarkand climate, air, and/or water.
In the Siyob market, many of the breads are decorated for weddings and parties. There are also other types of breads, such as fatir (round flaky bread), chap chak (soft bread), and kulcha (milk-based small bread).
Uzbeks would eat the heavy, fatty, yummy plov with bread.
In Bukhara, the bread is sprinkled with sesame.
Naryn Homemade Short Noodle and Horse Meat
This dish definitely is an acquired taste. The noodle is served at room temperature. So is the horse meat (kazi) mixed into the noodle. I have eaten horse meat and horse sausage a few times. I like them. However, the horse meat broth that is served with the naryn is way too overpowering. Naryn noodle is also not my favorite, unlike the laghman noodle, naryn is soft and has no bites. I suppose it also depends on which grandma’s recipe one follows. I tried this in a chain restaurant, called Anor.
Shashlik or kebabs are grilled meat on skewers. In Uzbekistan, they eat many types of meat: beef, lamb, chicken, horse, and even pork. Uzbekistan is a moderate Muslim country, similar to Indonesia. Most people does not fast during Ramadan anymore.
I had grilled meat in a few places. In a restaurant in Samarkand called Restaurant Samarkand, I tried the famous Gijduvan (a region in Uzbekistan) lamb kebab. The meat was tough and chewy. I think the barbecued pigeon in Moldova in a street fair and the lamb in Azerbaijan have no equals.
I had this fresh meat (kaytnama) soup in a little square in Bukhara between the Registan Square in Bukhara and Djami Mosque, and in Restaurant Samarkand. It was so simple and delicious, especially after walking around in the windy winter climate. The Restaurant Samarkand version has more lamb fat in it. Shurpa is supposed to be cooked with lamb fat.
Mastava is a hearty meat and rice soup. It can make a meal in itself. It is perfect for a cold winter day or night. I am a big eater, so at Platan restaurant in Samarkand, I had this soup with a portion of mantis and samsa. In my defense, the portions are all appetizer portions and everything is delicious.
Achichuk salad is made from tomato and onions. It is light and fresh. It is the perfect accompaniment to the heavy plov and shashlik, or as appetizer with bread.
Spicy Beef Salad
This dish is popular in Uzbekistan. The Korean flavor in the spicy sauce is apparent. It is nice and fulfilling for my spicy craving. It is a nice change after all the fatty, heavy food.
As a solo traveler, overdosing on the appetizers and the main dish, I skipped dessert most of the time. However, I did enjoy the naturally sweet dried fruits and the sweetened, coated nuts as my snacks. I bought this at the markets.
Uzbeks consume a lot of tea. It is usually green (called blue by the Uzbeks) or black tea. It is commonly served in porcelain utensils with a very familiar and commonly used design. This design is not antique. It is made in modern factories, and most likely started during the USSR days. You can see the design on the plov plates above.
I went to Uzbekistan at the height of winter. In the summer, there are Chaikanas, which is a traditional eating place for summer get-together. It is a teahouse that serves basic meals. Chaikanas are also traditional in the sense that they have low tables only, and people sit cross-legged. It can be outdoors.
No Uzbek meals can be had without tea (black or blue (aka Green tea as known in the rest of the world, sweets, vodka, and unfortunately cigarettes.
For more details on the local traditions and nuances, check out MIR Corp blog post.