Culture & cuisine in Uzbekistan

Supping a green tea at a chaikhana (teahouse) in Bukhara or sampling the spices, dried fruits and nuts at the Siyob bazaar in Samarkand may be the first authentic taste of Uzbekistan culture for intrepid travellers. The Silk Road setting, along with Islamic, Mongolian and Russian influences, have all helped to create the cultural concoction that's on offer today. Regional variations will let you taste your way around Uzbekistan with numerous cultural customs and time honoured traditions opening up a whole host of fascinating folklore fables. From how to break bread and respectfully enter an Uzbek family home, to the nation's number one dish, plov, take a seat at the dastarkhān (low table or eating area) and discover Uzbekistan's culinary secrets.

Welcome to Uzbekistan

Being hospitable to visitors is very important in Uzbek culture and nothing says ‘welcome’ better than food and drink. Even an invitation to come in for tea may end up turning into a full on meal.

When you arrive at an Uzbek home, you’ll need to leave your footwear outside – there will usually be a stack of shoes, slippers and flip-flops adorning entrances. Shaking hands and kissing a greeting on the doorstep are considered bad luck; follow your host's lead when it comes to saying hello.

In more traditional Uzbek households, men and women sit in different rooms, as members of the same sex feel more comfortable in each other's company in traditional communities. An exception can often be made for foreign women, however, so that they have the chance to mingle with all members of a household. The practice of sitting in separate rooms is becoming less frequent in urban areas, although women may still be seated at a separate dastarkhān, alongside children. When households are more segregated, male travellers should follow the Uzbek men.
It is fine for male travellers to communicate with Uzebk women, just err on the side of a respectful nod or hand on heart gesture rather than diving into a conversation. It’s best to let the women lead the interaction.

Women are usually the main chefs, except when it comes to the national dish of plov, also known as pilaf. In the family kitchen, traditional cooking pots or cauldrons (kazans) seem to be permanently simmering in readiness for upcoming meals or unexpected guests. Slow and steady is the mantra for most Uzbek soups and meat dishes. Rural households may also still use clay ovens, called tandyr. Baking is an important part of Uzbek cuisine and there's nothing better than bread baked the old fashioned way; it's not just tradition, it also tastes great!

The national dish

Large flat platters or dishes (lyagan) are used to serve up the number one Uzbekistan favourite, plov, with spoons sometimes provided if you’re not comfortable eating with your hands. Forks are a rarity in rural areas. A basic plov contains chopped carrots, onions and rice, plus mutton, lamb or beef, all slow cooked and covered in a kazan. Far from losing favour with modern Uzbeks, plov remains hugely popular. Epic banquets for hundreds of guests, home cooked family meals and seasonal celebrations all place plov in the centre of proceedings. Different cities and regions will have their own variations on the dish. For instance, Samarkand plov is layered and tends to be steamed, whilst in Tashkent the ingredients are roasted before being slow cooked.

Plov is one of the few Uzbek dishes that are traditionally cooked by men. This is especially the case for large family gatherings or festive occasions – it’s a bit like carving the Christmas turkey or the traditional male preserve of barbecuing.

Breaking bread

Uzbek bread (non) is traditionally baked in a clay oven. It is round in shape with a thick outer crust and decorated centre. Bread is very highly regarded in Uzbekistan and features in numerous cultural customs and seasonal celebrations. For example, it's customary, when leaving a house, for a guest to be invited to bite off a piece of bread which will then be kept for them to finish upon their return. At meal times it's respectful to tear and share the bread around the dastarkhān rather than cutting it. Finally, you should never place a piece of bread flat side up so the decoration is on the bottom – it's not respectful to the bread nor the baker.

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Steaming shurpa

Thick and spicy shurpa (soups) are a consequence of cold winters with kazans bubbling away on a low heat filled with a variety of meat, rice, beans, onions and potatoes, often to be served as a starter. The rejuvenating powers of a steaming bowl of shurpa cannot be overestimated and there's no better way to revive yourself after a day of overland travelling on horseback or by train. Each region has its own variation, with boiled (kaynatma) shurpa served more frequently in the north and fried (kovurma) shurpa generally served further south. Meat is cooked on the bone for extra flavour, and separated before serving. It’s served, of course, with Uzbek bread.

Mighty meat

Meat is ubiquitous in Uzbekistan – cooked as a kebab, in a pie or dumpling, or served with rice, vegetables, salad or Uzbek noodles. Lamb and mutton are very popular; you’ll see sheep dotted all over the Uzbek countryside. Shashliks – kebabs – always feature six skewered pieces of seasoned meat or liver, usually lamb. Chicken is common, too, and occasionally beef or goat; pork is very rare in this Muslim country, though.

Sour milk, cottage cheese & kurt

Sour cow or sheep milk is very popular in Uzbekistan and used within many dishes including shurpa and plov. Shop for yoghurt, cheese, butter and a type of curdled cottage cheese in open air bazaars and shops, alongside kurt which is a dried, salty, sour milk cheese moulded into balls or cubes. Tastes better than it sounds. Kurt is thought to have around the same amount of protein as meat but it lasts a lot longer as it contains its own natural preservative. Sour, salted milk drinks, such as ayran, are thought to be great for the immune system and maybe diluted with mineral enriched spring water and flavoured with herbs.

Everything stops for tea

Everything stops for tea in Uzbekistan with black and green varieties making it the drink of choice for the majority of Uzbeks. Chaikhanas (tea houses) are everywhere and are usually only frequented by men. This is where business is done and discussions are conducted at length – a bit like the local pub, but without the aid of alcohol. Foreign women may be admitted, but do check with your guide first. Tea is usually served in a bowl or a glass, very rarely a cup. You can add milk and sugar, but most Uzbeks won’t. Sometimes homemade jam and honey will be served as a sweetener. In chaikhana tea ceremonies, a waiter pours the tea from a pot into customer’s glass or bowl three times. On the fourth round, the tea is poured to about half way. Uzbek culture dictates that the more times you request the tea to be served, the better it reflects on the host. In an Uzbek home you're likely to be served tea before and after a meal.

Alcoholic drinks, such as vodka, brandy and a fair few varieties of local wine are available in a few places, but they certainly aren't consumed with quite the same enthusiasm as a good old glass of green tea.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dudarev Mikhail] [Intro: tjabeljan] [Welcome to Uzbekistan: Kalpak Travel] [The national dish: Aleksandr Zykov] [Sour milk, cottage cheese & kurt: Syrinje]
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