Wedding Plov comes with slices of kazy (horse sausage) at the Plov Center in Tashkent.
Each day around lunchtime, Tashkent’s plov cognoscenti start gathering in the shadow of the city's landmark TV tower. Theirs is an open secret: the best plov money can buy.
Follow the groups of men, or your nose, to the appropriately named Plov Center for a fix of Uzbekistan's beloved rice-based dish.
In Uzbekistan plov rules supreme – the country practically runs on this hearty staple, which is based on rice simmered for hours in a broth of seared meat chunks, carrots, onions, garbanzos, garlic, dried fruit and spices. The Plov Center does not disappoint. In an outdoor kitchen, five cauldrons bubble away over wood fires, permeating the air with the scent of cooked meat, rice and spices.
Forget about fancy surroundings or over-attentive service: At the Plov Center the food is the draw. The Center's cavernous hall, which can hold about 500 people, is no-frills. Clusters of men, interspersed with a few families, peck at shared platters of plov with forks, though fingers – the traditional utensil – are acceptable.
The Plov Center specializes in variations of Wedding Plov, a rich blend, which, as the name suggests, is usually served on special occasions. You can have Wedding Plov with the meat of your choice – lamb or beef. Slices of kazy, smoked horsemeat sausage, are optional, though no true celebration is complete without a serving of Central Asia’s favorite ungulate.
The platter of plov is accompanied by small roundels of nan bread and a choice of two salads – diced tomatoes and onions or pickled vegetables. Pots of green tea help with digestion.
With prices ranging between 4,500 sums and 8,900 sums ($2.25 - $4.50 at the official exchange rate) for a generous serving, at the Plov Center your belt may need loosening but your finances will not take much of a hit.
Walking into Tashkent's Affresco Restaurant recently, I could have been entering an upscale Italian establishment just about anywhere. The inviting dining area, equipped with comfortable leather chairs and polished wooden tables, is decorated with copies of famous frescoes. On the serving counter stands a vintage copper and brass espresso machine; bottles of Italian wine adorn the bar.
In the basement, however, a whole other world awaits very important clientele. The restaurant sent local artist Bobur Ismoilov on an inspiration-seeking trip to Italy. Upon his return, he let his imagination run wild, decorating a series of VIP rooms according to a hodgepodge of Italian themes and clichés.
The walls of one room, for example, are adorned with black and white photos of singers and actors from yesteryear – stars like Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and, of course, Frank Sinatra – wolfing down plates of spaghetti. Another room features a mural showing a traditional Sicilian street scene.
Things start to get strange, however, when you enter the “Mafia Room,” which is decked with mug shots of infamous Mafioso figures and posters from Hollywood gangster classics such The Godfather and Donnie Brasco.
But the pièce de résistance is the clammy VIP chamber that recreates Al Capone's Alcatraz cell. It’s the full prison experience: The room’s metal door is made of bars, from which dangle a pair of handcuffs. There’s also a red velvet couch.
Affresco's menu tends toward standard Italian fare, but cooked with more accomplishment than is usually achieved in Central Asia's Italian eateries. The prices are higher than average for Tashkent, but the food -- homemade pastas, hearty risottos and crisp pizzas -- is quality.
Climate change, a rapidly growing population, poor irrigation practices. For Uzbekistan, all these add up to a worrying future scenario on the food security front, according to a new study by Tashkent’s Centre for Economic Research. From a report on the study, commissioned with support from the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, on the UzNews.net website:
“Water resources are being depleted not only by global warming, but also by the inefficient irrigation systems being used by Uzbekistan’s agricultural producers,” said Ildus Kamilov, senior research coordinator on the project.
Kamilov claims that around half the water that could be used for irrigation is lost, and that channels and pumping stations need to be repaired to reduce those losses.
“A significant proportion of cultivated land in Uzbekistan is irrigated,” Kamilov said. But research has shown that 70% of Uzbekistan’s land is not suitable for agricultural production, either because the land is desert, steppe, or mountainous or soil salinity is too high.”
Soil salinity has degraded the fertility of the land in many regions, particularly Karakalpakstan, Jizak, Navoi, Khorzm, Bukhara, Surkhandarya and Kashkadarya, scientists noted.
“50.2% of all irrigated land is vulnerable to salinity – and 7.3% has been found to be heavily salinized,” Kamilov confirmed.
Scientists who have been taking part in the project stress that these undesirable physical developments are happening against a backdrop of rapid population growth in Uzbekistan, which is outstripping the growth in land area being irrigated. This has a significant impact on the country’s agricultural production and, consequently, on the welfare of its citizens, they say.
[UPDATE: Just noticed that Eurasianet's Justin Vela has a brand new story on the same subject that this post deals with.]
I missed this when it first appeared, but RFE/RL has a very interesting blog post up about the Kyrgyz city of Osh's struggles to regain its status of a gastronomic capitol in the wake of last year's ethnic clashes, which pitted the city's Uzbeks and Kyrgyz against each other. From the blog post:
Osh was once a city of restaurants and cafes -- spacious, welcoming eateries whose owners and cuisine, more often than not, were Uzbek. (In a city of many divisions, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, even now, are nearly unanimous in agreeing that Uzbeks are far better cooks.)
A year after ethnic clashes left southern Kyrgyzstan in tatters, Osh is laboring to restore its gastronomic reputation.
Throughout the city, and most noticeably along the city's main Kyrgyzstan Street, dozens of the burned-out hulls of businesses destroyed in the 2010 clashes have been rebuilt and reopened.
But there's a difference: this time around, the owners are Kyrgyz. And local Uzbeks blame criminal groups close to the mayor for squeezing them out of their businesses.
One case in point is Nostalzhi, a sleek cafe-hotel complex in a central district of the city, not far from its main bazaar and mosque. The cafe, opened by an Uzbek family in 1997, was soon followed by a sister cafe, Nostalzhi-Plus in the city's Aravan district.
The family took evident pride in its slowly growing empire. "We really put a lot of thought into our designs," says one family member, "Aibek," who refused to give his real name, be photographed, or even have his voice recorded, out of fear for his safety.
"We chose beautiful marble, lovely gates. We even got a patent on the names. We were always very careful with the law."/
In Tashkent and finding yourself looking for plov in all the wrong places? Fortunately, The Australian has an article up that takes a look Plov Centre, reputed to be one of the best places in town to get the Uzbek national dish. Article here.
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