Plov – Uzbek Rice Pilaf with Lamb and Carrot

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My version of Uzbek plov.

I first ate plov (плов) in a small canteen in Turpan, an oasis city in the deserts northeast of the Tarim Basin. Uyghurs call it “polo”, and restaurants in Xinjiang make it in gigantic kazans outside, dishing it out as ordered and topping it with a hunk of fatty lamb meat. It was one of my first tastes of Central Asian cuisine, and incidentally the first dish I started cooking with. I’ve learned a lot about making plov since my first post on it over a year ago; this is a complete re-do of the old recipe with new photos.

Cooking plov in Turpan, Xinjiang
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Plov preparation step by step.

Plov could be considered a pan-Asian dish; whether Uzbek plov, Uyghur polo, Indian pulao, Afghan palaw, Iranian polow, or Turkish pilaf, the basic idea is the same: rice and oil. The recipe I present here is for Uzbek plov (specifically, Fergana style), which tastes very similar to Uyghur polo, and is the most common type of plov in restaurants outside of Central Asia. Uzbekistan is the spiritual “homeland” of plov with many different regional varieties.

Plov in Bukhara

How should plov taste?
In the ideal Uzbek plov, the rice grains should be separate, maintain their form, and not stick together. The rice should be tender, yet firm: a good plov is not mushy and sticky like porridge, nor is it creamy like a risotto. The closest equivalent in European cuisine is probably paella.

Plov should be rather oily, and after eating there should be a layer of oil left on the plate. The meat for plov should be tender lamb meat. The carrots should be in big chunks, soft and sweet, having been caramelized during the cooking. Overall, the plov should have a nice balance of tastes between savory/lamb meat, salty, oily, cumin, and sweet (onion & carrot).

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Plov served in a chaikhana in Bukhara.

Cooking utensils
It is best to make plov in a kazan. In the past, I made plov in a cast iron wok (and you can see this in many of the photos), but your plov will turn out much better in a kazan. It’s very easy to mess up plov, especially if you use the wrong cooking vessel. Read this post to learn what kazans are and where you can buy one.

My kazan.
My kazan

Making plov is a journey that will probably require many, many tries and many soggy, mushy, burnt, or not-cooked-enough plovs. I have been making it for over two years and every time I make it, I still find some way to hone my technique.

There are many plov video recipes on the net, but the most simple, straightforward one I have found is this one (in Russian).

Ingredients:
IMPORTANT! Unlike most of my other recipes, the proportions (critically, that of water to rice) are extremely important in plov. Incorrect proportions can ruin the dish. This recipe serves 3-4 people.

0.5 kg rice: The choice of rice has a huge effect on the finished product, as much so as your cooking. I recommend paella rice, specifically Spanish calasparra rice as it is the most similar in size, shape, and texture to the rice used in Uzbekistan. Risotto rice can also work, but tends to be too sticky. Basmati will work, but it isn’t at all like Uzbek rice. East Asian rice will not work because it is too sticky.

In plov, it’s very important that the cooked rice grains stay separate and not a sticky mush. The Russian term for this desired consistency is “рассыпчатый.” For this reason, it’s basically impossible to obtain a good result with East Asian rice, which by design is supposed to stick together.

Basmati is often used to make plov outside Central Asia, but in texture and shape it is really quite different from the rice in Uzbek plov. On the plus side, it tends not to stick together, making it a good choice for a beginning cook.

As a last resort, I have heard of people using parboiled (Uncle Ben’s) rice. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard it’s a foolproof way of ensuring the rice doesn’t get mushy.

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Plov in Samarkand. Notice the rice is medium grain and plump, not at all like basmati.

Rice to water ratio: This is really important in making plov with the correct texture, and for whatever reason seems to be completely overlooked in almost all recipes. I am all for eyeballing things but this is the one time you need to be crazy precise in measuring, unless you want a pot full of soggy mush. The correct ratio is different depending on what rice you use and if you soak it or not. I do not soak rice as it introduces too much uncertainty (how much water did the rice soak up) potentially leading to mushy rice, and does not noticeably improve the final outcome. On Stalic’s website, he has an article where he takes different amounts of rice, then soaks them, then cooks them. To get the correct ratio, take the weight of the fully cooked rice, subtract the weight of the uncooked rice, then divide that number by the weight of the uncooked rice.
Paella rice (calasparra and bomba): 1.4:1
Basmati rice: 1.65:1
Risotto rice (arborio): 1.1:1

0.5kg lamb meat – I have used lamb shoulder chops and lamb leg, all work fine for plov.
700 mL of boiling water – For calasparra rice, you need 1.4x water (in weight) to rice, otherwise follow the ratios listed above. THIS RATIO IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!
2 medium onions
3 large carrots
Cumin seed – You need the whole seeds – cumin powder is a poor substitute. Grind a few good spoonfuls of cumin seed with a mortar and pestle – it doesn’t need to be a powder, just lightly ground is fine.
2 garlic heads
Dried chilies or fresh chili peppers 
– not that many, maybe 5-6 small ones or 1-3 big ones. Can be omitted.
Salt
Vegetable oil and/or lamb tail fat
Barberries or raisins (optional) –
barberries can add some nice acidity to the dish. I typically don’t like raisins in plov (too sweet), but some do.
Ingredients

Directions (takes about 3 hours start to finish)

1. Cut the onions into slices (half moons).

2. Cut the carrots into big sticks. You want fairly big pieces, maybe ~2 inches long and 1/4 inch thick. While it may seem like a lot of carrots, keep in mind they will shrink dramatically during cooking. Generally err on the side of too much carrot. I don’t think I’ve ever had a plov with too much carrot, but I’ve certainly noticed when there is too little.
Carrots

3. Debone and cut up the lamb meat. Cut out the fat and bones, and keep aside. Chop the lamb meat into medium sized pieces.

4. Heat up the kazan and heat the oil. Put the kazan on high heat. Once the kazan is hot, add vegetable oil to cover the bottom in a fairly deep layer, and wait a bit until the oil heats up.

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You should have at least this much oil in your kazan, maybe even more!

If you are lucky enough to have lamb tail fat (курдючный жир, kurdyuchniy zhir) then instead of oil, you can cut the fat into slices and melt them into oil. The resulting fat crisps make a tasty snack. Remove the crisps. Lamb tail fat is a luxurious rarity for me here in NYC, so I usually melt the fat pieces into oil, then add vegetable oil. I buy it at the Fortuna grocery in Brooklyn.

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Lamb tail fat starting to cook.

5. Prepare the oil. If you are using vegetable oil, take a small onion, remove the skin, and fry it in the oil, letting it cook on all sides until the whole thing is brown, then remove the onion and discard it. While vegetable oil in small amounts lacks any discernible taste, the amount we are using means you are going to notice its flavor. Vegetable oil has a weird taste to it, and putting the onion in helps absorb the weird flavors and replace them with onion-y flavors. If you really can’t bear to use up the extra onion, you can skip this step, but your plov might taste off.

6. Fry the fat and bones and meaty bone pieces. Fry these pieces until they get to a nice golden-brown and you smell the aroma of lamb fat. Then remove them and keep the meat and bones aside (you can discard the fat pieces). This will help to further flavor our oil.

7. Fry the meat. Fry until it develops a nice golden brown around the edges, then remove it and set aside so it doesn’t overcook during the next steps.

8. Fry the onions until they are a light brown color. They don’t need to be fully caramelized, just a little brown around the edges is fine.

 

9. Put in the carrots and add about 3/4 of the prepared cumin seed. Fry for 15 minutes until the carrots are soft. Cook them as long as you need to until you can easily pierce them with a fork. Then add the meat back in and fry everything together for a minute or so.
cook_carrots

10. Make the broth. Take the boiling water (700mL to 0.5kg of rice, or 1.4x the weight of the rice) and pour it over everything. Put the bones back in. Put in the garlic heads and the chilies. Add raisins and/or barberries if you are using them. When the water boils, turn it to low heat, and let it simmer for at least 40 minutes to 1 hour, uncovered. This broth is called “zirvak.”

zirvak

11. Remove the bones, garlic, and chilies, and salt the broth. If any of your bone pieces have a good amount of meat on them, save them for later. Keep the garlic and chilies aside. Salt the broth and taste – it should be very salty. Remember, you are going to add rice in, which will absorb the broth.

12. Wash the rice and add it in. First, wash the rice, mixing it around with your fingers then pouring out the cloudy water. Do this a few times until you get the water fairly clear. Then carefully add the rice in a layer on top of the other ingredients. DO NOT MIX THE RICE IN WITH THE OTHER INGREDIENTS – IT NEEDS TO BE IN A LAYER ON TOP. Carefully smooth out the rice into an even layer.

All of the water we see in the pot needs to be absorbed by the rice (some will evaporate, but the majority will go into the rice). This is why the measurement in the last stage is so critical. If we added too much water, the rice will be forced to absorb too much, and become soggy and mushy.

This is the stage at which most plov recipes incorrectly tell you to add water and is the culprit of so many soggy and overly cooked plov. If you measured the water correctly in the previous step you do not need to add any additional water. In fact, if you watch videos of professional plov makers, they never add any additional water, and the rice sits “dry” on top of everything.

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This is what it looks like after I put in the rice. I don’t add any additional water.

13. Cook the rice. Turn the heat as high as possible. There should be big bubbles bursting all over the top of the rice. Rake the rice back and forth so that the top layer can get cooked too. Rake the rice from areas which are not bubbling to areas which are bubbling. If you don’t do this, you will find the rice on top is not done when the bottom is already cooked. Try not to disturb the layer of carrots and meat underneath as you rake the rice.
cook_rice2

14. Let the water boil off. As the water boils, it should drop below the top of the rice. We want the water to be completely gone.

At this point, the rice should have absorbed the water, but not be “done.” In other words, the rice should have grown to its full size (only experience will tell you what the full size of any type of rice will be), but it should still be crunchy and undercooked when you bite into it. However, it should not be so hard that you cannot chew through it. If the rice is too hard to chew through, add a tiny bit more water as necessary. Otherwise, turn the heat down to medium and let the rest of the water boil off.

As the water drops, make holes in the rice to help the water escape more quickly. Check the holes and the sides of the kazan for any water remaining – keep in mind oil will always be at the bottom, don’t overcook your rice thinking it’s water and trying to boil it off. When the water is gone, turn the heat back down to minimum.

cook_rice3

15. Steam the rice. Make a small “hill” of rice, and top with the rest of the cumin and a sprinkling of salt. Push the garlics and chilies and any hunks of meat on the bone into the top of the rice layer. Make some holes in the mountain to help the steam circulate. Cover the kazan, and let this cook on low heat for 25-30 minutes. Make sure that the cover is tight and no steam at all escapes – wrap the lid with towels for a tighter seal and weigh it down with something (I use a bowl). After a minute or so, the cover should be hot to the touch. This final steaming stage is what makes the plov fluffy with individual, separate grains.

steam_rice

16. Finished! Take off the lid, and remove the garlic and chilies and bone pieces. If the rice is still undercooked, then you can steam it for longer (re-cover it, heat up to medium until the pot is hot again, then turn down to low heat again).

rice_mountain

Scoop up the rice and gently shake it back into the pot, to help the rice grains separate from each other.

Carefully mix the meat and carrots on bottom with the rice, being careful not to mush the rice together.

Plate the finished plov and garnish with the garlic and chilies and meaty bone pieces.

Serving: Plov is often served with a salad of sliced tomatoes and onions called “achik chuchuk.” Just mix sliced tomatoes and onions with salt and a dash of pepper. Sliced cucumber and hot pepper is often added as well, and I like putting in a splash of white vinegar. You can add some greens like mint or cilantro or dill if you like. Traditionally, people drink hot green tea with plov (and in general any greasy dish).

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Common mistakes:

Rice became a sticky mush / overcooked – This happens if you use too much water and unfortunately by the time you realize it, the rice is pretty much ruined. It’s critical to err on using too little water, and add as needed.

The 1.4:1 water to rice ratio is for Calasparra rice, but the ratio for other variants of rice is different, as mentioned above.

Rice unevenly cooked after steaming / rice on top too hard, rice on bottom too soft
This happens if the cover is not tight (steam escaped), or you are using a wok or regular pot instead of a kazan (because the thin-walled wok is poor at retaining heat and keeping the top warm where the rice is). In this case, you can flip the rice on top onto the bottom, mix everything up, then steam it for a bit longer.

Tasteless/not salty enough – Besides the obvious culprit of not salting the broth enough, this can happen if you don’t brown the onions enough.

Rice burns at bottom – this happens if you aren’t careful about keeping the rice in a layer at the top.

Meat burns at bottom – Usually happens if you cook the rice for too long during the final steps when all the water is gone. It is also very easy for the food on the bottom to burn if you use a wok or a flat-bottomed pan to cook plov instead of a kazan.

Enjoy!

Soman: Uyghur chopped lagman noodles

Soman_8
My version of Uyghur soman (дын-дын цомян, 丁丁炒面)

Soman is my absolute favorite Uyghur food. I have never been able to find it outside of China, and today I made it for the first time. It’s been nine years since I’ve eaten it!

Soman goes by a few names – sometimes just “soman”, sometimes “din din soman”, in Central Asia “дын-дын цомян”, and in Chinese 丁丁炒面(ding ding chao mian – literally “stir fried noodle cubes”). It’s essentially the same dish as lagman (recipe here), but the noodles are chopped up into little cubes before cooking. You get lots and lots of little noodle pieces that you can pick up and eat with a spoon – the closest analogue in Western cuisine is the German spaetzle. Despite being similar to lagman, it’s really a completely different eating experience!

Uyghur_Soman
Soman, as served in a small cafe in Niya/Minfeng on the edge of the Taklamakan desert.

As with lagman, the dish can be served in a stew, or stir fried with the toppings. This recipe is for the stew version, but the stir fried one is simple – just put less water in your sauce, then add the soman noodles after cooking and stir fry everything for a bit.

How to make the soman

The general process I follow is: 1) make the dough and rest it 2) do all the prep for the lagman 3) coil the dough into noodles 4) cook the lagman sauce and let simmer 5) chop up the noodles and cook them 6) serve.

noodle_coil
The magic noodle coil…those who don’t coil their noodles, will not make a good lagman.

The first few steps are exactly the same as in the laghman recipe. My only extra tip is to make sure your dough is not too dry, and that you don’t leave it out for too long. Soman is usually a bit thicker than lagman, and if it dries out, it’s possible for the center to not cook through.

1) After coiling the noodles, brush them well with oil and put them in the fridge for a bit. When you are ready to chop the noodles, start uncoiling the dough pieces and stretch each one out into a basic noodle shape. With soman, you don’t have to be as careful about making your noodles uniformly round & thin like lagman. Using a knife, start chopping the dough into little cubes. Pile the cubes up on an oiled plate.

noodle_chop

Chopping the noodles can take much longer than it seems. Try not to pile too many noodle cubes onto one plate, and put the plates into the fridge when full. Otherwise, the noodle pieces can end up sticking and melting together if you leave them for too long.

noodles_chopped

2) Boil a pot of water and pour all your noodle pieces in! You may find that the noodle pieces have ended up sticking together and to the plate in one big mass of dough. Don’t fret – if you oiled them enough in the coiling stage, they should come apart in the boiling water. Use chopsticks to poke around in the noodles and make sure they separate and don’t stick to the bottom.

cooking_noodles

3) After the water returns to a rolling boil for a few minutes, try the noodles. They should be al dente. Quickly remove all the noodles, place in a sieve, and briefly rinse in cold water and toss.

How to make the stew

The stew is the same as in the lagman recipe, but make sure you chop every ingredient (meat, vegetables) into a cube shape. The whole idea behind this dish is that everything is chopped up so you can eat it with a spoon.

cooking_sauce

When the stew is done, plate the soman noodles and generously ladle the stew over it, making sure each plate has a good amount of sauce. Mix everything together in the plate a bit. Enjoy!

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Uzbek nan bread

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My version of Uzbek nan bread.
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Another pattern.

This recipe is for the Uzbek bread, obi non, or in Russian “lepyoshka“, but you will see various breads that look very similar to this all over Central Asia – round, and pressed down in the middle, almost like a giant bagel or pizza crust. In Central Asia, bread is such a basic staple food that you get it with literally every meal, without asking for it. If you visit someone’s house, they will bring you bread and tea.

samarkand_nan
Beautiful bread bought at the Siyob bazaar in Samarkand.

This is a versatile bread and tastes great just eaten by itself, fresh out of the oven. It’s also great to eat with soups and stews, or with jam. It’s most similar to a baguette in taste and texture. This bread is pretty similar to the Uyghur version I wrote about earlier. The difference is that it is much thicker and the pressed down part in the middle is smaller. If the Uyghur nan bread is like a big pizza crust without any sauce on it, the Uzbek nan bread is like a giant inflated bagel.

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Bread served at a restaurant in Bukhara.

Making bread is truly an art – don’t be surprised if it doesn’t turn out right the first few times you make it. I had to make this bread 20+ times before it turned out the way I like it, and I’m still trying to perfect my technique.

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Bread, tea, and salad at a Khiva restaurant.

In Central Asia this bread is made in an oven called “tandyr”(similar concept to a tandoor oven), slapping the dough directly onto the oven walls, as you can see in the video below. I obviously can’t replicate that at home, but I’ve gotten good results with a pizza stone. Failing that, it would probably turn out OK on a baking pan.

I use some bread stamps I bought in Uzbekistan to make the patterns on the bread. They are called “chekich”; you can see the bakers in that video stamping the dough with them in the beginning. You can buy them from this store on Etsy, or if you know someone traveling to Central Asia, ask them to buy a couple for you – they only cost a few dollars and should be sold in almost any bazaar. In New York, you can buy bread stamps at Fortuna grocery in Brooklyn – they sell small wooden ones behind the checkout counter, along with plates and teapots. If you don’t have a chekich, you can just use a fork.

uzbek_bread_stamp

Ingredients
Flour
Dry yeast
Salt
Sugar
Milk – optional, use instead of water to make the bread more soft. I like using a mix of milk and warm water.
Egg (optional) – to glaze the bread
Toppings for the bread – sesame seeds, nigella seeds, finely minced onion, garlic

Directions
Make a pile of flour with an indentation in the middle. Don’t worry about how much or how little flour to put; you will either end up with a bigger or smaller bread and after a few tries you will know roughly how much flour makes how big a bread. In the middle, pour some warm water. Put in half a packet of dry yeast, a teaspoon of sugar, a teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of flour. Then stir up the middle and wait for a few minutes until it bubbles up and turns into a foam.
IMG_3070

Begin mixing the water into the flour. Mix until everything is dry and slowly add more water until you have a semi-solid dough, scraping the excess flour off the walls of the bowl. Don’t worry about exactly how much water to put; if you put too much water then put in more flour until it’s solid. I generally err on the side of too little water, because the dough will end up getting very sticky once you start kneading it. You can always add more water.

When it is solid enough to work with your hands, flour a clean surface and start kneading the dough, adding more flour as required if it gets sticky. Knead this for 10 minutes until it no longer sticks to your hands and is relatively firm and pliable.
kneading

Put this in a bowl and let it rest for 40 minutes in a warm place, covered with a clean cloth.
raised dough

After the 40 minutes are up, the dough should have risen (but don’t worry if it appears not to have risen that much). Take out the dough and knead it again for a few minutes, then shape it into a fat disc and let it rest for another 15 minutes, covered. Why do we rest the dough so much? So that we can form it into a big doughnut later. If we don’t rest it enough, we’ll find the dough is resistant to shaping.
IMG_3071

After the 15 minutes are up, take the dough and roll it out into a big circle, not too thin. Then use your fingers to press down the middle of the dough, pushing the air outwards. Don’t make the middle too thin. Use your fingertips to press a circular ring into the middle of the dough. You really want to define a nice circular edge, it’s not so important to press the middle down. Let this rest for another 5 minutes.
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IMG_3052_2

Press all the way around your circular indent again. Now use a bread stamp to press down the middle and make nice patterns. The patterns aren’t just to be pretty, the holes help prevent the middle from rising, giving us that nice giant doughnut shape we want. If you don’t have a stamp, you can just use a fork to make holes all around the center. Whether you use a stamp or fork, make sure to press down hard so the holes go all the way through the dough.

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Use a brush to cover the bread with a mixture of beaten egg and milk. This will give the bread a nice shiny golden brown crust when it’s done, and also make it sticky so our toppings won’t fall off. If you don’t have egg, you can use just milk to glaze the bread, or failing that, water. The point is to wet the bread – the choice of egg or milk or water just has different effects on the finished appearance. Whatever you do, just glazing the top and sides is fine – don’t glaze the very bottom because it can end up getting stuck to the peel. Then add your toppings – I usually just put sesame seed, but nigella seed works nicely too, as does finely minced onion or garlic. Imagine it’s a giant bagel, just add whatever you would like on a bagel.
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Rub flour into your baking peel to create a rough surface. Now you need to be fast so the dough does not stick to the peel. Put your dough onto the baking peel. Then quickly slide the dough onto the baking stone in an oven preheated to 400F. You just put the tip of the peel on the far end of the stone and wiggle it back and forth until your dough slides off – that’s why it’s crucial to flour the peel first, otherwise the dough might stick. If your dough ends up sticking to the peel and won’t come off, it’s no big deal, just take the dough with your hands and put it onto the stone (be careful not to burn yourself).
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Bake this for about 15 minutes until the bread has a nice golden brown crust. Enjoy!

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Central Asia food report!

I’ve returned from a 2-week trip to Central Asia! I spent a week in Uzbekistan and a week in Kyrgyzstan, eating some of the foods I write about on this blog. Prior to this trip, it had been 8 years since I was last in Central Asia (in Xinjiang) so it was good to eat some old favorites and try some new foods.

Plov
Uzbekistan is the motherland of plov and it did not disappoint in this regard! I ate plov in every city I visited – Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara. Each region has its own plov variety, which I found really interesting as there is basically only one variant of plov(or “polo”) in Xinjiang. The Uzbek plov was generally oilier than mine, and their rice grain is different. I had been using basmati, but in Uzbekistan they use a thicker, rounder grain of rice, almost like risotto or Japanese sushi rice. Here’s my plov recipe.

bukhara_plov2
bukhara_plov1
Plov in Bukhara.

samarkand_plov
Plov in Samarkand. Note the chickpeas and how all the elements (rice, carrots, meat) are separate.

khiva_plov
Plov in Khiva. Note how the rice is all white.

Laghman
Finally, to eat laghman made by someone other than myself! While Indian biryani or even Turkish pilaf has some resemblance to plov, there’s basically nothing like laghman to be found in the West. I keep cooking and cooking laghman at home, and after 8 years away from Central Asia, sometimes began to wonder if anyone else on earth eats this dish. Here is my Uyghur lagman recipe.

bukhara_laghman
Uyghur-style laghman at Chinar restaurant in Bukhara

kovurma_lagman
Kovurma laghman at Besh Chinor restaurant in Samarkand

The traditional Uzbek lagman is more like a noodle soup with all sorts of vegetables and potatoes in it. It’s often flavored with dill. However, they do have other varieties of lagman like “kovurma lagman”, which resembles the Uyghur version (noodles with a sauce on top), and many restaurants sell Uyghur-style laghman as well. I personally much prefer my laghman with a sauce topping rather than in a soup.

osh_laghman
Guiru laghman at an Uyghur restaurant in Osh.

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Guiru laghman in Bishkek.

I was pleasantly surprised by the food in Kyrgyzstan, at least in the cities. While the traditional Kyrgyz food might not be that exciting, due to their location in between Uzbekistan and China they have some great restaurants serving Uzbek, Uyghur, and Dungan cuisine. The laghman was great, and actually surprisingly similar to the one I cook at home. Of course, since my own recipe comes from an Uyghur chef from Bishkek, perhaps it’s not so surprising.

Manti
A staple of our travels! This is one dish I rarely make at home because it’s just so time consuming; plus it’s easy to just buy frozen dumplings from the Chinese grocery even if they aren’t the same thing. But Central Asian manti are really quite special, especially with some yogurt sauce. Chuchvara soup is even more time consuming; I admit I’ve only done it myself once because it takes so long to fold all those tiny dumplings. Here is my manti recipe.

khiva_manti

samarkand_manti

Meat
In Kyrgyzstan I ate a dish called “kuurdak” which is very similar to “kazan kebab”(I haven’t posted the recipe yet). Basically roasted meat with potatoes. It’s rather oily, but very tasty.

kuurdak
Kuurdak at an Uyghur restaurant in Osh.

I also ate plenty of shashlik/kebabs in Uzbekistan. Here’s a meal from a rest stop in the middle of the Kyzyl Kum desert on the road from Khiva to Bukhara. For being in the middle of a desert, they had surprisingly good food.

shashlik_lunchShashlik lunch at a rest stop in the Kyzyl Kum desert

shashlik_samarkand
Shashlik at Besh Chinor restaurant in Samarkand

national_food
On the left, “hasip”, a type of Uzbek sausage; on the right, “naryn”, cold noodles with horse meat. At “Miliy taomlar”(National foods) in Tashkent.

Bread
In Uzbekistan they generally make a big, puffy, round sort of bread as opposed to the flat disc-shaped bread you see in Xinjiang. I bought myself some Uzbek bread stamps in Samarkand – a cooking tool almost impossible to find in the West, though you can order one at quite some cost from China – details in my nan bread recipe. I found them in the Siyob bazaar in Samarkand, sold for 10,000 som each (around $2.50 USD). Not really a common tourist souvenir so may be hard to find outside of a bazaar, although I remember seeing them being sold in Khiva as well.

samarkand_nan
Beautiful bread bought from Samarkand’s Siyob bazaar.

boor_sok
In Kyrgyzstan, they served a type of bread called “boor sok.” It’s little pockets of frybread, not unlike sopapillas. Very tasty. I’ll have to try making them at home.

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Uzbek bread stamps.

gosh_nan
G
osh nan or Uyghur meat pie. Here’s my recipe.

Cold dishes/appetizers
At every meal, some type of salad was served, usually with the bread. Typically a simple salad from tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, and a pinch of salt, but sometimes flavored with some fresh herbs too. You can see the little salad in most of the pictures above.

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Ashlyanfu at Arzu restaurant in Bishkek

I also got to try “Ashlyanfu”, which comes from Dungans (Chinese Central Asians). It’s a cold noodle soup with wheat noodles and mung bean jelly noodles. Sounds strange, but very good. I’ve yet to try making this one at home, maybe because it seems rather labor intensive (making the jelly noodles). In mainland China, they eat something similar called “liang pi”; I eat it sometimes at the Chinese places near my home.

Tea
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Naturally, green tea was served at every meal. Unlike in Xinjiang where people “wash” the tea bowls with some hot tea and then throw it out, in Uzbekistan they pour some tea into a bowl and then pour it back into the pot, sometimes multiple times. I picked up my own Uzbek teapot and tea bowls. They were selling all sorts of fancy elaborate porcelain in the tourist shops, but I really just wanted the same exact blue and white teapot that appears in almost every restaurant in Uzbekistan (it makes an appearance in a few of the pictures above). Luckily I found them in Siyob bazaar in Samarkand for cheap – a teapot and four bowls was around 25,000 som or $6 USD.

Hope you enjoyed the photos – I’ll try to get back to posting recipes soon.

Da Pan Ji: “Big Plate Chicken”, a Chinese/Uyghur Fusion Dish

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My version of dapanji, with nan bread.

Da pan ji (大盘鸡 “big plate chicken”) is one of the few foods that is equally popular among Chinese and Uyghurs. It originates from Xinjiang, but is claimed by neither group: Uyghurs regard it as a Chinese dish, and Chinese regard it as a Xinjiang specialty. Regardless of who originally came up with it, it’s become quite popular in the rest of China and can even be found in Chinese restaurants abroad.

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Dapanji served in an Urumqi restaurant.

Just like the name, it’s a big plate of chicken stewed in a rich, spicy sauce with potatoes, green bell peppers, and chilies. The star anise makes it amazingly fragrant when complete. There are plenty of variations in the sauce and how it is served: some places serve it with noodles, other with bread, others just by itself. I personally love eating it with Uyghur nan bread to soak up the sauce.

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Dapanji served in a Kashgar restaurant.
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Nan bread is great with dapanji, recipe here.

This recipe is adopted from JadeCw’s recipe on Xiachufang as well as Abdulaziz Salavat’s version.

Ingredients:
Chicken (1-1.5lb, I use dark meat that won’t get tough during the cooking)
Potatoes (3-4 medium sized ones)
Green bell peppers (1-2)
Onions
Chinese fermented black bean sauce (豆瓣酱 doubanjiang)
Chili garlic sauce
Tomato paste
Soy sauce
Dried chilies
Star anise (八角 bajiao, 5-6 pieces)
Sichuanese peppers (optional, a small handful)
Can of beer or Shaoxing cooking wine (optional)
Sugar
ingredients

Directions:
Prep: Chop the potatoes into medium pieces – not too big or they won’t cook through, not too small or they’ll get overcooked and make the sauce starchy. Chop the chicken into small to medium-sized pieces. Chop the green bell peppers into medium-sized square pieces.
1. Heat the wok on high heat and add oil. When the oil has heated, add a small amount of sugar (1-2 teaspoons) and mix well.

2. When the sugar has melted into the oil, put in the chicken and stir fry this until it is browned. The melted sugar will give the chicken a nice golden color.
cook_chicken

3. Put in the onions and cook these until soft and light brown.
cook_onions

4. Add the black bean sauce, chili garlic sauce, and tomato paste. Add a good dollop of each – maybe 2-3 tablespoons worth. Mix everything well.

5. Salt, and add the dried chilies and Sichuanese peppers, mixing everything well.
cook_chicken3

6. Add soy sauce, add the beer or wine (if you are using it), and add enough water so the broth almost covers everything.

7. Put in the star anise. Once the water boils, turn the heat down to medium. Mix everything well, cover the wok, and let this cook for at least 25 minutes.
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8. Taste the sauce and reduce if too watery. The sauce should be spicy, aromatic, and savory. Finally, add the bell peppers and let them cook briefly. Dapanji is one of those dishes that tastes better the next day after it has been sitting in the fridge; the flavors thicken and become more complex with time. Ideally, let it simmer over minimum heat for a while before serving. Serve in a big serving plate; you can put noodles or bread on the bottom to soak up the sauce, or serve them separately. Enjoy!
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Dapanji served over noodles.

Samsa: Baked Meat Buns

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My version of samsa.

Samsa (самса, 烤包子) are baked buns that are eaten all over Central Asia. The filling is usually meat (beef or lamb), onions, and plenty of fat. As you might guess from the name, they are distantly related to Indian samosas. In Xinjiang, they sell these on the street in every city.

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Samsa being sold in Turpan.

Samsa are usually fairly greasy and, like most Central Asian food, best washed down with hot green tea. I often bought samsas to eat on long-distance buses in Xinjiang; one time a man next to me saw my water bottle and cautioned me against drinking it with the samsas. The traditional belief (not only in Xinjiang, but across Eastern Europe and Asia) is that drinking cold things is bad for your digestion, especially after eating greasy food.

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These are traditionally baked in a tandyr oven like nan bread – sticking them straight to the wall and prying them off with tongs. I used a pizza stone and got good results – unlike nan, you can get pretty close to the real thing at home.

The recipe here is for the standard meat samsa. You can also fill them with pumpkin and onion. Although not traditional, I imagine yam or sweet potato would work well too, maybe even taro! You can wrap a chicken drumstick with onion and samsa dough and make amazing baked chicken samsas that turn out wonderfully juicy and tender inside.

Natalia Kim has a nice video demonstrating the process.

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Chicken drumstick samsa.

Ingredients
Flour
Water
Egg
Salt
Black pepper
Meat (beef or lamb) – use a somewhat fatty cut
Onion
Butter

Directions
1. Make a dough of flour, water, egg, and salt. Knead this until it is fairly firm and let rest for an hour, in the fridge.

2. Take some dough and roll it out until it is very thin and takes up almost all of your rolling space. Lightly brush this with melted butter.
rolldough

3. Roll up the dough sheet into a tube. Coil up the resulting dough twist and keep in the fridge. Do this for all of the dough.
tube dough

4. Chop up the meat into fairly small pieces, making sure to leave the fatty bits in. Mix this with finely diced onion, salt, and black pepper.

5. Portion the dough twist into small pieces. Holding a piece upright (so the spiral faces the ceiling), press down on it with your other hand. What you are doing is squashing the spiral out and creating the layered dough.
dough_pieces

6. Roll this dough out until it is thin. Spoon a good amount of filling in, then fold it up.
fill_piece

If you want to make circular samsa, just bunch up the edges and press it together in the middle (a bit of water may help it stick), but make sure the edges are fairly thin or you will end up with too much dough in the center of your samsa.
wrap_piece

If you want to make triangles, simply fold up two sides then fold the bottom. You can fold into a packet shape (two sides, then two ends) as well.
triangle_samsa

Whatever you do, make sure your samsa are sealed well so the juices don’t leak out during baking.

7. Brush the samsas with beaten egg and top with sesame and nigella seeds.
coat_samsas

8. Have the oven preheated to 420 degrees. Place the samsa directly onto the baking stone. Alternately, you can put them on a baking sheet lined with oiled foil.

9. Bake for about 25 minutes at 420 degrees. When they are done, you should see golden brown spots appearing on them. Enjoy!
baking_samsas

Samsa

Manti: Central Asian Steamed Dumplings

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Manti in most Turkic languages refers to dumplings, but the basic concept of dough stuffed with meat has spread from Central Asia to the cultures surrounding it: Afghan mantu, Nepalese momo, Russian pelmeni, Georgian khinkali, Chinese mantou, and Korean mandu. Dumplings, in various forms, are eaten across a huge expanse of the Eurasian continent stretching from Eastern Europe in the west to the Korean peninsula in the east. Some historians even think Turkic horsemen in ancient times carried frozen dumplings as a convenience food on expeditions, helping to spread these all over the world.

WorldOfManti
Manti and its relatives around the world. Clockwise from top left: Central Asian manti, Nepalese momo, Georgian khinkali, Korean mandu, Chinese jiaozi, Afghan mantu. Source: Wikimedia

When we look at Central Asian cuisine, we find dishes that could be ancestors to manti: after all, beshbarmak is almost like an open faced dumpling, and goosh nan is basically a dumpling in pie form. And then there are more obvious relatives, like chuchvara, the miniature dumplings Uyghurs eat in soup.

The manti recipe presented here is the type you can find all over Central Asia – steamed dough wrappers filled with chopped meat, folded, and steamed. The miniature “manti” eaten in Turkey are more similar to chuchvara, which I’ll cover in another post. Making manti is rather simple, and as this video demonstrates, you can fold them all sorts of different ways. You can buy dumpling wrappers from Asian groceries to save time.

Ingredients
Dough:
Flour
Salt
Egg
Round dumpling wrappers (optional if you don’t want to make dough)

Filling:
Beef or Lamb
Onion
Butter (maybe 2 TBsp per 1lb of meat, vary to your preference)
Black pepper
Cumin powder and coriander powder (optional)

Sauce:
Sour cream
Kefir or yogurt
Dill
Garlic
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions
1. Make a dough out of flour, water, salt, and egg. Knead this for 10 minutes and rest for an hour.
2. Finely chop up the meat into small pieces. It’s important to chop the meat yourself rather than using ground meat – the dumplings will be much tastier and juicier with whole meat pieces rather than ground meat. Finely chop the onions, making sure there is a ~1:1 ratio of meat and onion volume. Finely chop the butter into small pieces, then mix everything together. Add salt, black pepper, cumin and coriander powder to taste.
3. Shape the dough into a cylinder, then cut it into discs and roll each disc out to make a wrapper. Alternately, just use round dumpling wrappers from the grocery – the taste is not too different, although you need to use a bit of water around the edges to get them to fold properly.
4. Fold the manti – there are many folding methods you can try, though in the end it all tastes about the same – simply pressing the edges together is fine.
dumplings1
5. Make the sauce: finely mince or press the garlic, finely chop the dill, then mix with sour cream and yogurt, and add salt & pepper to taste. The exact proportions are up to your personal preference (some like more or less garlic, dill, sour cream, more or less liquid, etc)
6. Steam the manti for 40 minutes. Serve with the sauce. Enjoy!
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