Monday, July 19, 2010
Markets and food
Since my adventures in previous days are somewhat modest -restricted to watching such cinematic masterpieces as Kick Ass, and the often underestimated Hot tub time machine- it might be a good moment to talk about food.
Last Sunday we visited the main market here in Urgench, where I was impressed with the sheer variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Not all of those I ever recognized on my plate, but the food is nevertheless varied, though hearty on average. Influences from Russia and Ukraine can be discerned in soups, potatoes, cabbage, pancakes and certain noodles, but combinations of pasta and potatoes are variously ascribed to Kazakh, Karakalpakstani [just to the north], and Uygur cuisine. Groups of Uygurs moved from western China to these areas for reasons unknown to me. Koreans arriving after the war in the fifties, left their mark, so our Russian cook at the office effortlessly makes an excellent noodle soup, and soy sauce has its place on many tables. Tatars brought here under Stalin [under the motto 'this is where you came from'] imported, among other things, the cheburek, a deep- fried delicacy, a pastry filled with meat, onions and spices. I heard about Greek, Jewish, Armenian dishes, due to diaspora's old and recent, but I didn't discover those yet. And of course, there is the omnipresent shaslik, skewered ground meat grilled over charcoal, a Georgian specialty. Turkish kebap seems to be a recent arrival.
With all the allure of multi- ethnic post- Soviet cuisine, we should not forget about the more traditional regional foods. Walnuts and apples probably came from here, spread east and west along the Silk Roads. Rice arrived from China, and became the main ingredient for plov, widely acknowledged as the national dish. Rice, carrots, meat, generously sprinkled with cumin, sometimes also coriander and parsley, blend exquisitely. Eggplant appears in many dishes, as do tomatoes, onions, beans in all sizes, colors and tastes -see the market picture on top. Samsa is another pastry, filled with meat and onions, baked in a small clay oven -tandir- that also serves to bake flatbreads. Most homes have their own clay oven, in the garden, as shown in this picture, taken in Ashirmat. Manti, pasta pockets filled with meat, boiled quickly, can be found across Central Asia, in many variations.