Saturday, 27 June 2009

Plov Plov Plov!!

Plov is Uzbekistan's national dish, and can be found in most restaurants across the country. The key ingredients of rice, meat (usually mutton), carrot and gallons of cotton oil are universal, but we found some regional varitions which added chickpeas and/or raisins to the mix. In Bukhara we were lucky enough to go to a family home to see how this evocative dish is made before feasting on a generous spread of soup, salad, bread, nuts and, of course, plov. So, here's how it's done...

Step One: simmer the meat, chopped carrot and onion in a lot of oil (cotton oil if possible) for about an hour, until very tender. This should ideally be done over a charcoal burner.

Step Two: gather the other key ingredients: washed rice (very like risotto or paella rice), cooked chickpeas and raisins, along with some salt. Mix the chickpeas and raisins with the cooked carrots and meat.

Step Three: spoon the rice on top of the rest of the mixture, but don't stir in - the rice should form a seal on top of the rest of the ingredients.

Step Four: cover with a tight lid and leave to cook for another 45-60 minutes, stirring towards the end to loosen up the rice and mix in the other ingredients.

Serve in generous portions, with bread and salad as accompaniments. Wash it all down with surprisingly decent Uzbek red wine (dry not sweet) and try not to think about what all that oil is doing to your waistline!

So, what's the food like in Uzbekistan?!?

Well, mostly it's about the meat. Lamb, mutton, chicken - probably some goat and horse thrown in there for good measure. Butchery isn't much of an art here, so there are no fillets, no lamb chops, and if you only like the breast of a chicken, you've come to the wrong place. Here the meat is chopped crudely with huge cleavers, and arrives on your plate complete with bone, skin and, most unappetisingly, unfathomable quantities of fat. Boy do they love their fat in Uzbekistan! It's all tasty enough, but not pretty to eat - and while the first five shish kebabs of a two-week holiday might taste deliciously exotic, upon realising that these compose the main part of the country's diet, the lack of variety soon becomes ... well, slightly dull to be truthful! But the smell of barbecuing lamb, smoky and savoury, is an intrinsic part of Uzbekistan life, and will forever take me back to Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and all the other beautiful places we visited on our trip.

Thankfully, it is also possible to find fruit and veg, especially in the lush and verdant Fergana Valley in the east of the country, where we spent the first three days of our trip. Produce markets abound in this fertile area, the beauty being that very little food is imported, so seasonality is everything. May is the time for luscious strawberries, juicy tomatoes, plump cherries and a baffling array of potato varieties. The traders put a huge amount of effort into displaying their produce carefully and beautifully - some of them producing real works of art - which makes wandering around these bustling markets a true pleasure.

The observant reader will have spotted that pescatarian Hippo may have struggled to find food in a double-landlocked country so clearly obsessed with animal flesh. Well, yes, that's true to a point. But by lowering expectations in terms of variety (and indulging in the occasional Snickers bar - OK, so they do import some food) I actually managed fine by grazing on handfuls of nuts, fruits and sweet treats picked up at various markets, and by sampling the various salad options that were presented to me along the way. The most baffling of these was referred to as "fresh salad" (as opposed to old, mouldy salad?!) which in all parts of the country consists of tomato and cucumber, sometimes with onion and always with dill. Dill is omnipresent in Uzbekistan. They have a multitude of herbs to choose from - we saw basil, coriander, parsley, thyme, you name it -but dill is certainly the herb du jour. Salad on its own might have made for a fortnight of meagre mealtimes, but happily there was always non. Non (bread) is the staple food of Uzbekistan, and the one foodstuff that actually varies from area to area. In the east it is fluffy inside and crisp on the outside; in central Samarkand it is more chewy, like a bagel; and in western Khiva the bread is flatter and altogether crisper. In all cases, however, non is cheap, tasty, comforting and, this pescatarian can confirm, makes wonderful tomato sandwiches.

Hungriest Hippo's back!

Yes, it's true. Although I've been slightly neglectful of the old blog as I a) became super-busy at work and then b) went gallivanting around Uzbekistan and Istanbul on holiday, I'm now back at home, cooking and eating like never before, and ready to write about it all. Stand by for tales of shashlick kebabs and plov, for mezze and Turkish cookery class, for chocolate cookies and anything else that takes my fancy in the coming days. It's good to be back. Cheers!