Sitting along the Ancient Silk Road, Uzbekistan’s cuisine has been influenced over the centuries by merchants from around the world. As in any culture, there are variations across the country depending on the local produce available. In the north, main dishes consist of rice or dough-based courses. In the southern part of the country, preference is given to multicomponent dishes of vegetables and rice. In the Fergana Valley, the rice is prepared darker or fried, while in Tashkent it remains lighter. Regardless of the regional variations, some dishes remain staple to the Uzbek cuisine.
A common dish throughout Central Asia, plov is the national dish of Uzbekistan. Sometimes also called palov or pilaf, Uzbek plov was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016. “There is a saying in Uzbekistan that guests can only leave their host’s house after palov has been offered”, UNESCO says.
Lamb or mutton is fried or boiled with a mixture of diced onion and grated or finely chopped carrots. The rice is then added on top and let to steam over the rest of the ingredients. The dish is prepared in a large cast iron pot, called kazan, traditionally placed over open fire.
While women are the ones who cook the day-to-day food, until recently, men were the only ones allowed to prepare the plov, as it is considered a dish for special occasions, such as weddings, holidays, births and funerals. Over the past few decades, women started preparing the plov as well and the dish has made its way into the weekly menu for some.
Bread is an every day item, shared by families around the table. The traditional Uzbek bread, called noni or obi non, is a round loaf, thinner in the centre and thicker around the rim, baked in tandoor clay ovens, a particularly famous version of it being the one from Samarkand.
The dough is simple, made of flour, water, salt and yeast, kneaded well and let to rise. Once risen, it is shaped with a special tool which helps the bakers give the bread its iconic shape. A needle tool is then used to create small holes in the centre of the loaf, creating decorative patterns, but also serving as escape routes for steam and preventing the centre from rising during baking, thus preserving the hallow shape of the bread. Before baking, black sesame seeds are placed along the decorative patterns in the centre of the bread.
Shashlik is the name of kebab dishes in Central Asia, coming from the Russian “shashlyk”. Traditionally made with lamb, but sometimes also with beef, chicken and venison, the characteristic of Uzbek shashlik is alternating the meat with tail fat on the skewers to create the juiciest possible results. Moreover, the ingredients for shashlik, be it meat, fat or even onion, are always marinated, preferably overnight, before the mosaic is created on the skewers and grilled over charcoals.
Samsa are triangle shaped pastries, somewhat similar to the Indian samosas, but instead of fried, they are baked in the clay tandoor oven. They are stuffed with a mixture of ground meat, usually lamb, but beef and chicken are also possible, tail fat and spices. The meat ones are most common, but vegetable versions, filled with potatoes, pumpkin or onion can also be found.
Manti are steamed dumplings filled similarly to samsas, however, in this case, the onion is mandatory along the meat, increasing the savour and juiciness of the filling. The dough is made of just flour, water and salt and rolled out as thinly as possible without breaking. Once the dumplings are formed, they are cooked in special multi-tier steamers. Mantis are served with kaymak, a creamy dairy product similar to clotted cream or sour cream.