Fightin’ Words!

by Nathan Hamm on 1/30/2006 · 37 comments

The Observer has a story on food in East Turkestan.

I know that when it comes to non, I have my partisan sympathies for bread of certain locales. Tashkent’s was good fresh, but I seem to remember it not having much of a shelf-life. Samarkand’s was a pretty good substitute for bagels, and it has a pretty good claim to being best in at least Uzbekistan. Gijdvuon has that great bread that looks like a pizza crust (but doesn’t make a good one…) and has probably a whole sheep’s tail worth of fat in it. I grew partial to Navoi’s non which I though was a good balance between the weight of Samarkand’s and the flavor of Tashkent’s.

So, with all that in mind, I had to raise an eyebrow at the following.

With no fewer than 47 ethnic groups thronging the local markets, it’s not surprising that China’s vast Xinjiang province is the place for rare and unusual delicacies – and the best naan in the world.

The best? I think the next time the SCO gets together, there should be a bake-off on the side to settle this once and for all.

And while I’m glad to have seen the story and thank Nick Walmsley for sending it my way, I often cringe when I read the language and descriptions journalists writing these stories come up with.

This is China, but it doesn’t feel like China. The men wear Muslim skullcaps or fur hats; the women mix workaday clothes with peacock finery. Some shimmer through the crowds in ankle-length skirts spangled with sequins and glitter, their jewelled slippers kicking up dust as they walk. Most cover their hair with coarse cotton veils or gilded headscarves which flash in the sun. High-cheekboned Kazakhs mingle with Turkic Uyghurs and fair-haired people with blue-green eyes.

If I did not already know what the described scene looks like, I have no idea what I’d actually picture. “Sequins and glitter?” “Jewelled slippers?” “Peacock finery?” What is this, a student art film set in a Muslim Oz?

Somehow even when the dust and sand manages a mention, it sounds romantic. One rarely hears about the burning garbage, pushy cops, or bees and flies covering raw meat in the bazaar in these kinds of reports from Central Asia. Everything has its place I suppose.

Grapevines curl over wooden frames in the villages: their fruits, dried, are one of Xinjiang’s most celebrated products.

They’re called raisins. I mention this for two reasons. The first is that some of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers did not know raisins were dried grapes until they went to Uzbekistan. The second is that this is exactly the kind of language that too often detracts from these stories. I can just picture Fuschia Dunlop grinning in self-satisfaction while writing this.

All descriptions like that of jam as “sugary preserves” aside, this is a good look at food culture in Kashgar and among the Uyghurs of East Turkestan. I even learned something new. The Han aren’t too big on cumin, the greatest of all spices.

P.S. — Don’t count this as me not being kind of on hiatus. Again, if you’re interested in making sure this site doesn’t end up being a big collection of link lists until I’m feeling back up to full speed, please do contact me.


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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 37 comments }

Alexander Morrison January 30, 2006 at 5:19 am

That’s an outrageous claim: the Punjabis and Pathans also might have a word or two to say about Chinese Turkestan laying claim to the best naan in the world. Of course, the subcontinental naan isn’t really the same thing as Central Asian Non or Persian Nun (has to be straight out of the tandoor, apart from anything else): they just share the same name. It’s a bit like saying that French pain is better than, say, Portugues pao. Very different styles. Still, the cook-off is a good idea, but why stick to just bread? Surely it is time for a competition between Uzbek plov, Persian polo and Indian pulao? To see which out of Central Asian shashlyk, Persian kabab and Indian mutton bara has the highest quotient of sheep’s tail fat (or dombeh, as I believe it’s called)? Somehow I think I know which would win in the latter category. In fact, if greasiness is made the criterion then Turkestan ought to defeat all comers, whatever the food being compared.

Peter January 30, 2006 at 7:39 am

Well, as any fule knos, Armenians make the best shashlyk, so there’s little scope for argument there. Though the Uzbeks season it better, it must be said, as well as cutting the chunks into finer pieces.

Alexander Morrison January 30, 2006 at 9:32 am

Hmm, this thread is getting very controversial. I must admit I’ve not tried Armenian Shashlyk, only Georgian (and that in Russia as well). Do the Armenians use pork? If so we might need to set up a separate category…..

Nathan January 30, 2006 at 10:20 am

The Uzbeks use pork if you know where to look. And it’s awesome.

Nathan January 30, 2006 at 1:01 pm

I’ll elaborate a bit. One can find pork in Samarqand at a place we called Katta Shashlik on whatever street it is that has a a full block of shashlik places. I also heard from the volunteers out west that those fire-worshipping Karakalpaks (we always joked they were really Zoroastrians) are down with swine. I think it’s very likely that the reason I remember pork shashlik being the best pork I’ve ever had is because of how hard it was to find pork.

And I think Peter’s only saying nice things about Armenian shashlik to suck up πŸ˜‰

Ian January 30, 2006 at 2:09 pm

You can get pork shashlik at Tri Bochki, the brewery next to the Turkiston Theater in Tashkent. It even comes with a really tasty salsa-esque sauce on the side.

elizabeth January 30, 2006 at 5:32 pm

The naan bake-off could resemble “Iron Chef”, but with just SCO representative nations and ethnic groups and please can T-bashi replace the “Chairman” for this episode? πŸ˜‰

Nathan January 30, 2006 at 5:35 pm

That would be awesome.

Matt W January 30, 2006 at 9:03 pm

Highest fat quotient in dumba would likely go to Uzbeks. They keep their sheep in thin, sheep-sized stalls their entire lives so they cannot move and even leave the light on at night to trick them into eating when they should sleep, often giving them bread and corn.

Alexander Morrison January 30, 2006 at 9:34 pm

Yes – I shall never forget the dombeh Shashlyk I once had in Samarkand: nothing but the purest fat, without any bits of liver or meat in between to spoil the experience……which is one I probably won’t repeat. Personally my favourite is Jigar Shashlyk, but that really does have to be spanking fresh.

uzari January 30, 2006 at 9:36 pm

It is true – Uzbekistan is a country of wildly nonsensical contrasts. Yes, it’s a Muslim country. But yes, it also has among the best pork one could ever taste. Matt W will tell you about a place near Parkentsky where you can feast on Armenian shashlik that has no equal. Go figure.

Juniper January 30, 2006 at 10:24 pm

Ian – I have to agree with you that the Pork shashlik (Chalagach) at Three Botchka in Tashkent is one of the best in Uzbekistan. I have spent many a summer night drinking thier home brew and dancing on the patio overlooking the river.

There is also a place in Bukhara that serves a great fish Shashlik. Cant remember the name, but its kind of a cave like atmosphere on the inside with big lizards everywhere.

You guys are making me hungry .. thanks !!

Amira January 30, 2006 at 10:42 pm

Can we include Afghanistan too? I am rather partial to their naan and kebabs.

I note no one has mentioned any delicious food from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Doesn’t anyone like piles of fat and meat, possibly flavored with onions?

Jonathan P January 31, 2006 at 8:51 am

I’ll volunteer this culinary tidbit about Kyrgyzstan: Possibly the worst shashlyk I ever had in my life was some I ate (to some extent) at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek. (Yes, I realize I was probably asking for it by eating there.)

Sara January 31, 2006 at 1:02 pm

See, I always found that Tashkent non had a much better shelf life than Samarkand. Maybe it was just that the guys near the Farxodski Bazar had a good way of preparing it, but I felt that after three days the only thing you should do with Samarkand non was play frisbee with it…

Which, of course I never would have done because it’s disrespectful.

The think I like about Indian naan is that they put more flavors in it. Garlic naan and onion naan and cheesy naan and the like. Never found that in Uzbekistan.

Nathan January 31, 2006 at 1:09 pm

You never found piyozli non? I didn’t have too much troubly finding it.

Brejen January 31, 2006 at 1:47 pm

There is also a place in Bukhara that serves a great fish Shashlik. Cant remember the name, but its kind of a cave like atmosphere on the inside with big lizards everywhere.
______________________________________

The place is called Sezam on the way from the airport to Lyabi Hauz.
**********
The thing I like about Indian naan is that they put more flavors in it. Garlic naan and onion naan and cheesy naan and the like. Never found that in Uzbekistan.
_________________________________
sara go to Khorezm and you will get a chance to try gushtli and piyozli non, that is bread with meat and onions

uzari January 31, 2006 at 3:21 pm

About Bishkek, it does have the best samsas in Central Asia. Uzbek ones are full of chunks of fat. Bishkek samsa-makers have become creative lately, and make interesting combinations, like chicken & cheese; mushroom & cheese. You can buy them along Chuy Prospekt. They’re really good.

Most other food in Bishkek, however, is unappetizing, to say the least.

Matt W January 31, 2006 at 8:46 pm

U Iliny is the pork place next to Parkentskii Rynok, on the same road as the main entrance. It’s Armenian and that’s all they serve (besides salads like haravats that go with the shashlik– though “real” Armenian Armenians tell me it’s not real haravats. Sevan (also Armenian) by the Orzu Hotel was not bad pork shashlik either– still better than Bochki in my humble opinion.

But I guess if you need to eat pork at an Uzbek place for bragging rights — for a thrill akin to getting a bacon cheeseburger at that kosher deli — then Bochki will do.

Consequently, Richmen Cafe in Osh has good pork shashlik as well, but are out of it like 75% of the time. Bishkek cheesy samsas seem to be either dying out or stabilizing at a very low availablility level. No more chicken-mushroom-cheese 3 in 1 combos πŸ™

Alexander Morrison January 31, 2006 at 10:30 pm

I have three quibbles about Uzbek Shashlyk as opposed to its Indian and Iranian kebab counterparts: firstly, they don’t normally marinate the meat beforehand – In India & Pakistan they normally use yoghurt, cumin etc. (for mutton bara, the best kebab in the world in my view, try it at Karim’s near the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi) in Iran it’s usually minced onion; secondly the chunks are always very small and off the bone, which means they’re less juicy (one exception was a fabulous place in Khodjend, where the Shashlyk had large pieces of mutton studded with whole cumin and coriander seeds); thirdly the onions are always covered with synthetic vinegar rather than lemon juice. Anyone want to spring to Turkestan’s defence?

Alexander Morrison January 31, 2006 at 10:33 pm

And my big gripe with Plov is that in chaikhanas it’s usually made with cotton-seed oil rather than dombeh, and I’m not sure the former is really fit for human consumption (some people might argue the latter isn’t either).

Matt W February 1, 2006 at 3:49 am

Sasha, while I would never claim that Central Asian food could ever hold a candle to Indian or Iranian, there are places that marinate their kebab meat– o’romo, for instance, made correctly, involves pounding the lamb strips into spices and rolling them with fat– unfortunately, almost no one does this (by “spices” I, of course mean cumin, salt and pepper– admittedly not too exciting compared to Indian and Iranian alternatives). Many other places in CA marinate the meat (yoghurt, mayo, wine, etc.), you just have to find the right joints. As for the size of shashlik pieces, pretty easy– if you want big chunks, order “kavkazskii”. (sometimes on the bone, sometimes not).

All in all, though, I agree, while Central Asians are very proud of their food, rare is the cafe/ restaurant that takes pride in making it. I like to blame the influence of unexciting Russian cuisine, but in actuality, I have no idea why CA food is so much less tasty than that of its neighbors to the South.

For the food tourist, you can get much more variety during Ramadan and Navruz at the bazaars. You’ll see things that people just don’t make during the remainder of the year.

davesgonechina February 1, 2006 at 7:14 pm

During my time in Xinjiang, most nan had a shelf life of about 3 hours before you could use it in a circular saw to cut sheet metal. And Ms. Dunlop, presumably for her readers sake, omits from her recipe that there is only one way to make a Uyghur kebab: alternate pieces of meat and fat. She mentions it earlier but doesn’t recommend it. My periodic suggestion to numerous chefs that they offer a fat free kebab was met with head shaking, while the idea of perhaps adding onion or pepper to a kebab brought uncontrollable fits of giggling. Even when my Uyghur girlfriend of the time, a medical professional, pointed out that heart disease was a leading killer amongst Uyghurs, everyone still thought leaving out chunks of greasy mutton fat was equivalent to selling your own children.

Brejen February 1, 2006 at 7:56 pm

I have no idea why CA food is so much less tasty than that of its neighbors to the South.
___________________________________________
Excuse me, did you say that CA food is not as tasty as Indian or Iranian? You might be right, but listen to my side. What do you know about CA food at all? The fact that you have had samsas and plov in Bishkek or Tashkent does not mean you know everything about dining in CA. Have you ever tried Oshi Sufi in Bukhara? Plov with raisins, nuts and garlic taste way more exciting than the indian rice with a whole bunch of spices in it. I have once tried the Indian food in Jackson, Mississipi and I’ll tell you-NO more indian food for me. I think they overdo with the spices. Of course, you cannot argue over somebody’s culinary preferences. Some like this the others like that. But if you had ever tried Bara Kabob or Tandyr Kabob (juniper tree flavored smoked mutton) you would not be that sceptic about the CA food. For more information and pictures of Uzbekistan food go to http://stalic.livejournal.com

Holla at your boy! LOL

Brejen February 1, 2006 at 8:00 pm
Brejen February 1, 2006 at 9:39 pm

Nathan, thanx for that! πŸ˜€

Nathan February 1, 2006 at 9:46 pm

No problem. It’s best if you just throw in either the address or the link to the picture. If it’s inserted, it has to be readjusted so it doesn’t overrun the margins.

Alexander Morrison February 1, 2006 at 11:09 pm

xcuse me, did you say that CA food is not as tasty as Indian or Iranian? You might be right, but listen to my side. What do you know about CA food at all? The fact that you have had samsas and plov in Bishkek or Tashkent does not mean you know everything about dining in CA. Have you ever tried Oshi Sufi in Bukhara? Plov with raisins, nuts and garlic taste way more exciting than the indian rice with a whole bunch of spices in it. I have once tried the Indian food in Jackson, Mississipi and I’ll tell you-NO more indian food for me. I think they overdo with the spices.

——————————-

I suppose I should claim responsibility for the claim that Indian and Iranian food is better than Central Asian. I freely admit that I may not have eaten around widely enough in Uzbekistan (although God knows I’ve tried) but I’d venture to suggest that having at least been there several times I’m in a better position to pass judgment on Central Asian food than you are on Indian, having sampled it in that well-known centre for Hindustani khana, Jackson, Mississipi (unless this is a wind-up, of course, in which case I take it all back). Indian food isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I’m talking specifically about the styles of cooking which came into the subcontinent from Iran and Central Asia, and were then adapted: pulao, biryani, kabab, which normally use much less chilli than other Indian dishes. I’m afraid I can’t take your remarks about Indian rice lying down: Basmati has claims to be the best rice in the world, with a delicate aroma and flavour entirely lacking from the stodgy, short-grain varieties grown in Khorezm. As for the methods of cooking: I think the Indian use of garlic, onion and aromatics (cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, cloves etc.), going easy on the fat, is more imaginative than the Central Asian approach of cooking the rice in as much cotton-seed oil (or, if you’re lucky, dombeh) as possible. As a matter of fact, I think the plov/pulao boundary probably lies somewhere along the Indus, as I went to Peshawar in December and had something closely resembling Central Asian Plov, carrots, raisins, chickpeas and all (although the rice was long-grain). Perhaps I’ve just not looked hard enough for imaginative food in Uzbekistan. Where in Bukhara can you get Oshi Sufi? I’d love to try this delicacy for myself.

Nathan February 1, 2006 at 11:29 pm

First, I think plov is much better with long-grain rice, especially basmati. But, I am really picky when it comes to rice and about all I can stand of the whites is basmati.

I think Matt’s right about the lack of pride in preparing food. But, I’m not sure that’s exactly the way to put it. As he mentioned, there are “fancy” versions of all these dishes and there’s a good deal of variety in ingredients and preparation that one rarely sees. I get the impression though that what’s being offered at the cafes is the “home-cookin'” versions of recipes. On top of that, I never noticed a particularly strong interest in culinary innovation amongst the oshpaz class. I think it’s kind of like greasy spoons or the “street meat” carts here in the States. I know I can get a fancy, Kobe beef cheeseburger with sweet potato french fries with a spicy cheese-mayo dip at my favorite microbrewery, but sometimes the old-fashioned way is best. In Uzbekistan, the old-fashioned way is pretty much the only game in town. (And that’s so very much the case that a student here who spent a year in Uzbekistan swears there are only two kinds of plov, wedding and regular.)

It certainly is a matter of tastes though. Indian food, especially Mughal cuisine, is superb. But cumin addict that I am, I quite like a lot of Uzbek standars and their relative simplicity.

I should mention too that oil use seems to decrease the further west one goes. I heard wondrous tales of “white plov” in Urgench and Nukus, but they could have been rumors for all I know. I do know that Navoi and Bukhara plov went much lighter on the oil than Namangan’s, for example.

Brejen February 1, 2006 at 11:59 pm

Oshi Sufi, is a specialty in Bukhara and pobably Samarkand too. They cook it in a brass pot (deg). The interesting thing is that they install the pot in a special pit. All the ingredients lay one upon another and are not to be mixed unlike the Tashkent and Fergana plov. I do not know a place in Bukhara where you could get Oshi Sufi, but if you have local friends they could arrange a visit to an early morning Osh ceremony which is given on the day of a wedding or a Sunnat Tuy (circumcision).

Matt W February 2, 2006 at 2:22 am

“What do you know about CA food at all? The fact that you have had samsas and plov in Bishkek or Tashkent does not mean you know everything about dining in CA.”

—————————————

Brejen– Alright, I’ve been living in Central Asia for more than 4 years and still going strong. I’ve seen more of Uzbekistan than the vast majority of Uzbeks and a fair amount of Southern Kyrgyzstan. I try to eat the best food wherever I go and there is some very good food in Central Asia, as I indicated in my posts above.

I’m tired of native Central Asians pulling out the “you weren’t born here, so you must be ignorant about our culture/history/food/etc.” As if this is knowledge one must be born with and which cannot be learned. It must be the same part of the brain that makes people continue to talk to Uzbek-speaking PCVs in Russian, though the latter repeatedly explain, in Uzbek, that they understand NO Russian, whatsoever. You’re not the first person to do this, Brejen, so I’m sorry if I’m overreacting to your comment in particular, but I would never tell someone who knows enough about the US to make an informed comment on food, history, culture, etc. that they know nothing simply because they have a Central Asian name. You can disagree and conclude I know nothing based on the quality of my comments, but next time get to the point and don’t make the common mistake of assuming that anyone with an Anglo name doesn’t know anything and has experienced life only in the insipid cafes of the capital cities.

Morrison– The best real Bukharan plov I’ve ever had was ironically, at the outdoor cafe next to Labi Hauz in the historic center of Bukhara (“ironic” because tourist places so often suck). That’s year-old information, though.

Alexander Morrison February 2, 2006 at 6:42 am

Brejen – I’ve had wedding plov a few times in Tashkent, and once in Dushanbe. The former were distinguished by having extra lumps of dombeh on top, plus slices of Kozeh (Horse sausage – is that how you spell it)? That in Dushanbe was better, I thought, but the meat was still cooked separately from the rice and then mixed in, and there was a lot of fat involved. I shall look out for Oshi Sufi as described when I go back to Uzbekistan in April.
Matt – thanks very much for the tip. I first went to the Labi Hauz about five years ago for breakfast, after getting off the overnight train from Tashkent, and ended up sharing a bottle of vodka at 7.30am with a gentleman from Navoi who was visiting the city with his wives. This put me off the place slightly, but I shall approach it with an open mind when I return. On the whole I’ve found the best solution to the Central Asian food ‘problem’ (if that’s a fair way to describe it) is to take advantage of the fantastic array of fruit and veg on offer in the bazars and cook for myself. At least tomatoes in Uzbekistan taste of something, unlike in the U.K.

davesgonechina February 2, 2006 at 2:33 pm

Brejen said: “The fact that you have had samsas and plov in Bishkek or Tashkent does not mean you know everything about dining in CA … I have once tried the Indian food in Jackson, Mississipi and I’ll tell you-NO more indian food for me. I think they overdo with the spices.”

Brejen, you did NOT just put those two statements together. Having samsa in Bishkek doesn’t entitle someone to an opinion, but you don’t hesitate to outright reject ALL Indian food after your experience in… Jackson, Mississippi?

Dude, at least some of these guys actually went to Uzbekistan. And in the same breath you judge Indian food based on one meal in the Dirty South? Don’t be that guy.

That said, your website looks awesome, but when I click on a dish I get a 404 error. I’ll brush up on russian for a good recipe, but you gotta fix those links!

Brejen February 2, 2006 at 6:09 pm

wow! if I was an Uzbek official I would probably say that the “bloody westerners” have started an information war against me!
Guys do not take it personal i did not mean to offend nobody. It’s just that I do not agree with you stating that the Uzbek food is primitive and does not compare to the Indian and Iranian. I still think that the Central Asian food is the most exciting because it has iranian, indian, and russian influence. Jamaican style patties is out of competition!

lucas February 2, 2006 at 11:00 pm

having lived in both uzbekistan and kashgar, i would say the best nan is in bukhara, the stuff with kaymak in around ramadan, and the best shashlyk are in kashgar, in the back streets. and you can get them without the dumba. uyghur vs. uzbek plov is debatable, however. oh, and real uyghur laghman wins any food contest in CA.

brejen February 2, 2006 at 11:22 pm

WoRD!!?

Raj February 5, 2006 at 1:49 pm

Ok. My Indian roots are deeply rattled. Now that the Chinese are trying to leave us behind in everything else, they even want to claim that they have the best naan??? NEVER!!!!

πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€

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