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Uzbek food: more than it seems

Written by on Sunday, 10 March 2013
Culture and History, Uzbekistan
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Our special blogger Alex Ulko went abroad on business, and, apparently, he is very hungry, because he decided to write the culinary post!

There can be only one answer to the question which is the most popular Uzbek meal, i.e. plov, and yet it is traditionally cooked only on Thursdays and Sundays and often more a social ritual than just a meal. This is just one example of the difference between the symbolic significance and the reality, noticed by social anthropologists long time ago.

The traditional Uzbek cuisine is often regarded as centuries-old and meat-based and yet it contains the enigmatically named ‘Fresh’ salad involving tomato and cucumber, both introduced to the region during the Russian colonial rule (ditto potato, an essential part of the staple regional soup, shurpa). The local samsa is a regional variety of samosa, spread across half of Asia, some varieties of shashlyk (kebab) have Caucasian roots, and manty, which can be described as the steamed variety of samosa, is arguably of the Tartar origin and laghman (noodles and vegetables) is an Uighur dish.

Does it mean that Uzbeks have no national cuisine of their own? Of course, not, but one should remember that tastes in food, like everything else, is subject to continuous change that people often fail to recognise. Today Uzbeks happily produce marinated cabbage associated with Armenia, deep fry Tartar chebureks (meat pastry), pickle tomatoes in the Russian style and make their own kimchi, sliced spicy carrot, peculiar to the local Korean cuisine and different to its South Korean predecessor.

Traditionalists all over the world often lament the decline of the ‘authentic’ tradition, diluted and corrupted by the alien, foreign influence. Today many kids in Uzbekistan are taught to deplore the American-style fast food like hamburgers (and rightly so!) but at the same time they happily consume the so-called ‘Korean’ pide between school classes (a loaf of French bread filled with kimchi, other vegetables and copiously dressed with ketchup and mayonnaise) and are convinced that both shashlik and plov are good for you, ‘because they are our traditional dishes’.

So what does this leave us with? In my opinion, the main lesson to be learnt here is not about food but about attitude. For millennia human beings have enjoyed their food and never stopped experimenting with it. The obvious strong feature of the Uzbek cuisine is not in its apparent conservatism, but in its ability to incorporate, adapt, re-invent and develop meals from such diverse countries as Korea and Georgia, Russia and Mongolia.

So let us celebrate the variety of the local food, bon appétit to you all!

All photos by Alex Ulko 

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