Chasing the plov in Uzbekistan
How a doctor healing a broken heart came to be regarded as the father of the modern pilaf
The Silk Route, with its evocative associations of slow-moving caravans loaded with exotic cloth, oriental goods and aromatic spices, has fascinated me for longer than I can remember. So, when the Uzbekistan Airways plane descended into Tashkent, I had to pinch myself to believe I was almost there. There had been many anxious moments before we finally got our visas—our visit coincided with Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s death finally being made public—with our super-efficient guide and tour operator Akmal figuratively holding our hands from Bukhara. And now, finally, Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand and Fergana, the cornucopia of grapes, melons, apples, persimmons and so much more, was upon us!
The Silk Route or Silk Road—a term coined by German geologist Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen as recently as the late 19th century—refers to a network of ancient trade routes connecting Asia, Europe and Africa. Stretching across 6,500km, and used to transport Chinese silk and other precious merchandise to Europe through Central Asia from 2nd century BC, it was also a highway of knowledge, cultures, ideas and beliefs that went on to shape the world.
Notwithstanding decades of Soviet occupation, Uzbekistan has nurtured its history as the civilizational cradle of Central Asia, evident in the soaring mosques and madrassas and, yes, in its bazaars—silks, ikats, suzani embroidery, carpets, ceramics—and, of course, cuisines. My four vegetarian companions were full of trepidation about the food choices that would be available to them—though they were well-provisioned with bags of Gujarati snacks including chevdo, roasted soya sticks, poha, khakhara and more—but they needn’t have worried: It is entirely possible to live on the wonderful all-veg salads, certain soups and rice dishes.
For myself, though, I had sent ahead to Akmal a list of foods I definitely wanted to eat. Topping the list was plov, or pilaf—especially tuy plov.
One can safely say that plov is the national food of the country: Each city adds its own twist to it, making it a dish with a few variations—only about 200! Depending on how you make it, plov can be everyday fare, a special dish or an all-out celebration-on-a-plate.
The Uzbek plov differs from other regional versions of the pilaf in that the rice is simmered in a broth of meat and vegetables called zirvak until the liquid evaporates. The most common variants are the plov with lamb or mutton, while the chicken plov is most popular in and around Bukhara. In Tashkent, yellow carrots replace orange carrots. The addition of barberries—called berberis in Arabic and zereshk in Persian—makes this dish distinctive, while the optional addition of chickpeas provides another dimension of richness.
The first known modern documentation of the pilaf is credited to a 10th century Persian scholar by the name of Abu Ali Ibn Senna (Avicenna), who used to include recipes in his medical books. Uzbeks and Tajiks consider him the father of the modern pilaf but that’s not the only legend associated with the dish. The story goes that a prince fell in love with a beautiful, poor girl. Forbidden from marrying her, he gave up on food and started fading away. The king, his father, invited Abu Ali Ibn Senna to cure the prince. The great doctor suggested that the prince feed couples in love a rich rice dish—such as the Palov Osh—in order to heal. From then on, the Palov Osh is a must at every Uzbek wedding. It is made of seven ingredients—P(iyoz)/onion, A(yoz)/carrots, L(ahm)/meat, O(lyio)/fat, V(eet)/salt, O(b)/water, Sh(oli)/rice—which also give the dish its name!
Tuy Palovi, my favourite, is the delicious wedding pilaf. Akmal arranged for us to have a traditional dinner at a local home where we saw the lady of the house prepare this juicy rice delicacy from scratch, cooking it finally on a wood stove. First, she soaked the Basmati rice. Then she sautéed the lamb pieces in oil and kept aside while she added the onions to the pan and cooked them till they were soft and golden, before adding the shredded carrots. Then she returned the lamb to the pan, following it up with cumin, coriander, black pepper corns and barberries. Then in went large whole garlic heads, a couple with the tops cut. Then she washed the Basmati in hot water, drained it and poured it over the lamb mixture in an even layer before slowly pouring in a broth, till it rose about half an inch over the rice. No stirring is required at all. Then her son took over, seasoning the rice and lamb with salt, reducing the heat to medium-low and covering the vessel to cook till the rice was tender and the broth absorbed.
Mixed and served on a platter, topped by the well-cooked shredded carrots from the bottom and garnished with the garlic heads and quail eggs, this plov was a divine way to end another day in Samarkand.
Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.