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Experience The Rich Culture Of Babur's Homeland

An Uzbeki spread with manti dumplings, shurpa, somsa, rice plov, and pickled vegetables: Getty Images
10 Min Read

A market full of juicy treats and beautifully patterned breads are sure to send you on a delicious Uzbeki food trail.

Brinda Suri

Pistachios are beginning to ripen in Samarkand. An autumn harvest is not far off. At Siyob Dehqon Bozori, the central farmers’ market, peaches, figs, persimmons, quinces, grapes and pomegranates paint a luscious picture. Tubs heaped with golden raisins, sultanas, diced apricots and walnut-stuffed dates squeal for equal attention, as do the little rainbow hills of spices, blocks of halva and balls of gozinaki (caramelised nuts). The pavilion-style bazaar is a seductive slice of Uzbek life with trading and greeting over cups of choi (tea) with kurut (dried yogurt balls) or parvarda (candy), and all in the swirl of khalats (flowing robes) and classically bold ikats.

A ripe melon for sale in Tashkent

In this happy abundance, we’re searching for the melons Emperor Babur had pined for. In Baburnama, hadn’t the first Mughal—who hails from Andijan, Fergana Valley, and is almost revered in Uzbekistan—bemoaned Hindustan being a country of few charms with “no good horses, no meat, grapes, melons or other fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or food in the bazaars”. We spot musk melons. They seem straight out of an Oriental fable: oval and huge, each weighing a few kilos, with a gnarled pale-yellow coat. We pay 20,000 som (INR 175) and get one sliced. The over-a-foot-long wedge is exceptionally sweet, fragrant and dripping with juice. This is simply delicious. We are beginning to realise why Babur was a disenchanted man. “The Persians christened Samarkand. Samar is fruit and kand means sweet. It’s always been the land of sweet fruit,” smiles our guide Deyla. Etymology makes the world your neighbour. Khand is what we call sugar in Punjab.

Seeing us deliriously enjoying fruits, a grape-seller walking past dips into his bucket and offers a handful of bunches. We chorus rahmat and shell out a few soms. He refuses. When we insist he bows and says, “Hind. Mehmaan.” It’s heart-warming hospitality and a fondness for Hindustan that makes Uzbekistan so engaging.

This trip is with family and friends, all women, some over 80 years of age. We’ve opted for the fairly familiar circuit of Tashkent–Samarkand–Bukhara– Khiva. The plan is to trace the much-romanticised paths once tinkling with caravans on the erstwhile Silk Route and gaze at stunning turquoise domes and mosaic tiles which dress some of the finest Islamic architecture in thenworld. The diversity of cuisine comes as a revelation.

A young man carries a tray of fresh baked bread past a minaret

With Uzbekistan being on the crossroads of Central Asian and European trade, multi-ethnic culinary influences crept in over the centuries and left an indelible stamp. Its primarily Turkic platter has distinct bits from Armenia, China, Russia and the Balkans, blending with Persian and Jewish flavours. The Korean inclusions come as a surprise, and their lineage and impact feels almost similar to Calcutta Chinese.

At every meal the Uzbek dastarkhon is a profusion of colour. The non (naan) and kuk choi (green tea) are constants, and so are thickly sliced tomato, cucumber, onion and sprigs of herbs, especially basil, parsley and dill. Regional variations aside, mornings typically bring porridge, shurpa (rich consomme), cold cuts, along with an assortment of fresh cheese and yogurt—katyk, tvorog, smetana, kaymak or suzma—to the table. The national dish, plov, usually by itself or with kabab/shashlik is a lunch standard, whereas dinner means a hearty multi-course. The anytime choices are manti (steamed dumplings), somsa (savoury flaky pastry), dimlama (stew) and lagman/norin (noodle/pasta in broth). Mutton, beef and horsemeat make it to the ingredient list but chicken is scorned at. The servings are large-hearted and preparations—in sunflower or cottonseed oil—have rustic robustness: not complex, mildly seasoned, served fresh and immensely flavoursome.

Having spent the first day admiring Tashkent’s lush, open layout and learning to distinguish between ornate Russian and straitlaced Soviet-era buildings, the next morning we are aboard the exceedingly good Afrosiyob, the fast train to Samarkand. A midway service brings us choi and bowtie-shaped kolache. These delightful East European-origin bites are baked to perfection. My co-passenger takes pride in recounting Uzbekistan’s long-established baking techniques. “Samarkand has the best bakers. I’m on my way to buy non,” he says. The region is known to bake the finest bread in Central Asia. It’s from somewhere here the tandyr (tandoor) and non travelled the high mountains to reach Hindustan. “The Samarkand non has a shelf-life of a year,” he says, adding, “Once moistened and warmed in the tandyr it springs back to life.”

A Bazaar in Samarkand

I recall my conversation at Siyob bazaar on seeing nons being sold from counters, pushcarts and handbags. Every few minutes a heady aroma wafts through as wheelbarrow loads arrive to replenish stocks. Artworks unto themselves, nons have impressive pin-prick patterns stamped with the chekich, a traditional wood–metal bread embossing tool, a hot-selling souvenir now. Besides docking the dough, the pattern is a baker’s signature. There are over a dozen non varieties: patyr, obi, kulcha, chapchak, qatlam, shirmoy, etc. Always round, resembling the rising sun, these may be flat, plump-rimmed, palm-sized, foot-plus in diameter, plain or, akin to breads of Kashmir, sprinkled with poppy, sesame and nigella seeds. We try the lachha parantha-like Kashgar patyr stuffed with onions and glazed with sour cream. It’s flaky and magically umami, and has us buying several more.

The somsa beckons too. Full of textures and very succulent, these hefty flaky pastries are filled with minced beef, lamb or pumpkin. Though somsa is considered a precursor to the subcontinent samosa, their DNA vastly differs now.

A flaky somsa

Siyob bazaar sits adjacent to Bibi Khanum Mosque, whose construction was ordered by Timur following his Hindustan conquest in 1399 CE. It’s seen better days and was once the largest in the Islamic world. A little ahead is Uzbekistan’s jewel in the crown, the 15th-century Registan, a complex of three madrasas: Ulugh Beg, Tilya- Kori and Sher-Dor. The square is truly compelling and colossal. Once the heart of Samarkand, public announcements were made here, caravans halted and wares were bartered. It’s been a tad too aggressively restored, a pattern seen across monuments in Uzbekistan, and the blue mosaic is perfectly in order.

A journey through swaying cotton fields sees us getting to Bukhara’s historic city dating back 2,000 years. Dominated by the towering Kalyan Minor, archetypal taq (domes) and tim (covered markets), this Unesco World Heritage Site is a “well-preserved example of a medieval Central Asian town”. It doesn’t look its age but has a quintessential old-world charm, which attracts backpackers. The crowd-puller is the touristy al fresco choikhana (tea house) at Lyab-i-Hauz, the atmospheric city centre built around a hauz (pond). “Here merchants would swap news, eat and be entertained before retiring to caravan serais,” says young Sokhrob as he serves us half-filled pialas (bowls) of tea, a time-honoured Central Asian custom, “conveying respect to the guest and an invitation to stay on”. We take a rain check and dig into the plov that’s arrived in a pretty hand-painted terracotta dish. It’s a heap of glistening small-grain rice topped with chunks of mutton, matchstick-size carrots, boiled eggs, heads of garlic and cumin. I find it a bit greasy; but to be seated on carpeted wooden charpoys under mulberry trees and eating with locals is the classic Bukhara experience and quite lovely.

The lively square is hemmed in by restaurants, B&Bs, a much-photographed monument of Hodja Nasreddin on his lovable donkey, and shops selling a mix of genuine and faux suzani, carpets, pottery and ikats. An arresting motif on the wares is anor (pomegranate), the Uzbek symbol of fertility and one of the fruits of the fabled garden of paradise.

It’s at the walled city of Khiva that I finally order the popular manti and opt for a potato filling. The dumplings come garnished with browned onions and a blob of sour cream. One bite and they feel as delicate as the Polish pierogi or Korean salad, as ubiquitous on menus as Russian salad back home. It’s a sparkling kimchi but with carrot juliennes, an innovation of the Koryo-Saram community which began migrating from Korea to Russia and onwards in the 19th century. As I devour my unpretentious meal I realise it’s a remarkable blend of cross-cultural flavours born on the Silk Route. Indeed, Uzbekistan is a worthy keeper of those testaments of culinary history.

THE INFORMATION

GETTING THERE

There’s a direct New Delhi– Tashkent flight (about 3hrs). A round-trip in economy class on Uzbekistan Airways costs around `30,000. Within Uzbekistan the best way to get around is by the high-speed train Afrosiyob or domestic flights.

VISAS

All details, including whether you are eligible to apply online, fees, etc. at mfa.uz/en/consular/visa.

WHERE TO STAY

Uzbekistan has a fair mix of stay options. International luxury chains, budget hotels, B&Bs, cosy homestays and, for the adventurous, yurts in the desert. Be sure to register your stay and take the registration cards when you check out. These can be asked for at immigration, so do ensure each person carries their own set clipped in the passport.

In Tashkent, Wyndham (from approx. INR 9,900; wyndhamtashkent. com) is centrally located with all mod cons. It’s got quality service, fine outdoorsy restaurants and a generous breakfast spread.

In Samarkand, Jahon Palace (from approx. INR 6,000; jahon-palace.com) is quiet and comfortable though a short distance away from the historic city centre. Hotel Bibikhanum (from approx. INR 4,000; hotel-bibikhanum.com) is a modest alternative in the shadows of the Bibi Khanum Mosque and walking distance from other azure attractions and the Siyob bazaar. Its surroundings can feel deserted once the tourist rush is over for the day. Bukhara’s old city has a treat of restored serais and merchant homes. The Lyabi House Hotel (from approx. INR4,000; lyabihouse.com) and K. Komil Bukhara (from approx. INR 5,000; komiltravel.com), a B&B, in over-a-century-old buildings are charming. Asia Khiva (from approx. INR 7,000; asiahotels.uz) is a practical choice in Khiva.

WHAT TO BUY

Bazaars offer a smorgasbord of Central Asian food and flavour. To an Indian they will feel the same yet different. Pick stuffed dry fruit, anardana, jeera, wild honey, anjeer murabba and dried cheese. There’s an assortment of confection too: pakhlava, chak-chak, khvorost, navat and pashmak.

Some other irresistible buys include suzani tablecloths and runners, pottery from different regions, adras/atlas ikat scarves or jackets, and Samarkand mulberry silk-paper products.

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