I have been extremely remiss so far in devoting little or no commentary to the wonders of Central Asian cuisine. Possibly that’s because “wonders” is a bit of a strong word. The food here is often delicious but, as I may have mentioned once or twice before, the base elements of the local food constitute mutton and, well, mutton fat. Sheep are prized for the size of their booty (the specimen on the right sports a particularly fine example) and fatty meat is much more expensive to buy than lean. The results can politely be described as “hearty”, and you quickly become closely acquainted with the very special sensation of congealed mutton fat coating the roof of your mouth. And while home-cooked food is almost inevitably great, restaurants haven’t really got the hang of variety, so you can easily find yourself carefully rotating the same four or five meals over and over again in order to avoid eating plov for two straight meals in a row and thus losing the ability to move for the next forty eight hours.
Flavouring is bizarrely hit-or-miss. The most commonly-used herb is dill, in what seems to me to be unecessarily large quantities; garlic makes an occasional appearance and while there might be a hot and spicy sauce on the table if you are lucky, the food in general errs on the side of blandness. Everything is served with bread, round, cooked in a clay oven and spectacularly moreish when fresh, less so when stale or made with mutton fat (no, seriously. In everything.). Vegetables are rather an afterthought although salads can get quite creative (too often drowned in mayonnaise though); fruit on the other hand is so good in season that I don’t think I’ll be able to bear going back to stuff we get at home.
To summarise: artery-clogging is actively encouraged, and vegetarians need not apply (I’ve met one or two dedicated souls attempting to cross Central Asia without eating any meat – they were to a woman rather wild-eyed). Below is a selection of the Central Asian (well, mainly Uzbek, but there’s not a whole lot of difference) greatest hits. Breathe deeply, wash everything down with plenty of green tea and think about how well your stomach is being lined for the forthcoming vodka toasts.
Where better to start than with the king Central Asian cuisine, that exquisite mixture of rice, mutton fat, carrot, muttonfat and a tiny bit of mutton, plov. This almost approaches a religion in Uzbekistan particularly, where among other things it is invoked as an aphrodisiac (personally, I can’t imagine how you could possibly be up for anything after a plate of plov, but then again, I’m not Uzbek, and the birthrate here is undeniably high). A good home-made plov is delicious, studded with entire bulbs of garlic and heaps of mutton and carrots; unfortunately the restaurant variety can often end up swimming in half an inch or more of oil. I am going to unpatriotically admit that I prefer the Afghan variety, which isn’t cooked in oil.
This is my favourite of the local standards: thick Chinese-style handmade noodles, served either in a soup or dry with on top. At its best, laghman is spicy and garlicky and full of aubergine and peppers and tomatoes and limited mutton fat. At its lukewarm, flavourless worst it is still approximately 47% less likely to leave you prodding the roof of your mouth with your tongue and wondering if drinking nail polish remover would dissolve the fat coating than every other dish listed here.
These are huge meat dumplings, usually steamed but sometimes fried. Often delicious but very easy to overdose on, especially when an enthusiastic hostess is urging you on, so much so that I can barely look them in the eye any more. The pumpkin versions (autumn only) are spectacular, only somewhat less so once you are aware that they, too, have been enlivened with handfuls of mutton fat.
Nothing can be quite as good, or quite as bad, as meat on a stick. From Iran to Kazahstan, the street corners of an evening are alive with miniature barbecues with an attendant vigrously fanning the smoke, and the smell of roasting meat is everwhere. Usually alternating cubes of mutton and (you guessed it) mutton fat; I personally prefer the whole lot minced up together which is a) tastier and b) you can pretend that what you are eating isn’t 50% fat.Served with lots of raw onion and (naturally) bread.
Meat and potato soup, often with bonus lumps of fat floating in it. I tend to associate it with dismal roadside cafes during long-distance bus journeys where it is often the onlything served and can thus take it or leave it. Usually rather tasteless, but can be absolutely superb when homemade. I think that this particular one wasn’t half bad, actually.
A sort of meat porridge. Um. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds (although admittedly this isn’t hard)?. It’s more unexpected than anything else.
Still to come (when I assemble the photos): drinks, snacks, desserts (such as there are. Likely to be a love letter to the fruit here). In the meantime I am off to take full advantage of the fact that I’m in a capital city and shamelessly stuff my face with pizza which may be of questionable authenticity, but is 100% guaranteed not to contain any mutton fat at all. Score.