Flavors of Samarkand and beyond

'Samarkand is a city that has been at the crossroads of food culture for centuries.'

 Roasted cauliflower, fish and saffron pilaf and chicken hotpot (photo credit: LAURA EDWARDS)
Roasted cauliflower, fish and saffron pilaf and chicken hotpot
(photo credit: LAURA EDWARDS)
Tasting Uzbek specialties at a food festival in Baku, Azerbaijan, made us curious about the cuisine of Uzbekistan.
At the festival, Shahida Mehdieva from the Embassy of Uzbekistan told us that the rice entrée called plov is the best-known dish of her country. She said it’s made of long-grain rice with sautéed onions, carrots, raisins and lamb.
Indeed, according to Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford, the authors of Samarkand: Recipes & Stories from Central Asia & the Caucasus, plov is “the undisputed king of Uzbek cuisine.”
“Plov, a steaming pilaf that is cooked in layers,” they wrote, “is served almost everywhere in Central Asia.... Today there are literally thousands of variations throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, but the Uzbeks are the self-proclaimed masters of plov.” For Uzbeks, plov represents hospitality, community and identity.
In Samarkand, quail eggs are a popular garnish for plov. A Bukharan Jewish plov prepared for Rosh Hashana, wrote Eden and Ford, has barberries, pomegranate seeds and quince, as well as beef or lamb.
Not all plovs have meat. In western Turkmenistan, people make pilaf with fish and saffron. (See recipe.)
Samarkand, which is on the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road, fascinates Eden and Ford. “For centuries, the fabled city Samarkand has been a magnet for merchants, travelers and conquerors,” they wrote. “The journey to Samarkand necessitated a Herculean effort.” It was “hidden behind a barricade of mountain... and sand.”
The city’s draw was trade. “Throughout the centuries, the wealth of Samarkand has been legendary. Merchants sought bags of rice and carrots from the Himalayas, cuts of sugar cane, bundles of lemons, plaits of garlic, and sacks of soy beans from eastern Asia.”
Samarkand’s cuisine has been influenced by seven ethnic groups, wrote Eden and Ford – Tajiks, Russians, Turks, Jews, Koreans, Caucasians and the Uzbeks themselves.
They described Uzbek Jewish cuisine as “a commingling of Persia’s vegetable-stuffed pilafs and Russia’s heavy meat dishes. It is characterized by light spices – a little cumin, coriander, turmeric, pepper and chili – and... herbs, onion and garlic.”
An Uzbek appetizer that we enjoyed tasting at the food festival was samsa, a fried pastry filled with meat and onions. It reminded us of the sambusek we know from Israel. Eden and Ford make an easy version of samsa, using puff pastry, and bake it. (See recipe.)

COOKS IN Central Asia make numerous dishes with dried fruits and nuts, making them good choices for Tu Bishvat.
“A whole book could be written about apricots in this region,” wrote Eden and Ford. “Almost everywhere, apricots are dried out across rooftops.... In Uzbekistan, the pits are cooked in ash, the shells cracked open, and the kernels sold like nuts. In Tajikistan (which has 300 varieties of apricots), mountain-dwelling folk make... a simple sunny orange soup comprised of little more than mashed apricots, water and flour.”
Cooks simmer dried apricots in lentil soup (½ cup dried apricots for ²⁄3 cup lentils), along with the customary sautéed onions, carrots and tomatoes.
“Fruits paired with meat are a staple of Central Asia, lending both sweetness and tang,” wrote Eden and Ford. The region’s chicken, potato and prune hot pot reminds us of Ashkenazi tzimmes (meat stew with prunes and potatoes), but the Central Asian entrée also has apple chunks and dried apricots and is finished with pistachios and tarragon. (See recipe.)
In Central Asia and the Caucasus, nuts – especially walnuts, pistachios and hazelnuts – not only are snacks but are “ground into rich sauces, folded into rice, or scattered over pastry dough,” wrote Eden and Ford.
A pistachio and herb paste, for example, lends a lively finishing touch to Tajik lentil and rice soup. (See recipe). Roasted cauliflower with Uzbek flavors has a lovely garnish of pistachios and pomegranate seeds. (See recipe.)
The name Samarkand “resonates like those of only a handful of other ancient cities, perhaps Babylon, Rome or Jerusalem,” wrote Eden and Ford. “This is a city that has been at the crossroads of food culture for centuries.”
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
FISH AND SAFFRON PILAF
For this plov, or pilaf, from Turkmenistan, wrote Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford, sturgeon from the Caspian Sea is the usual choice, but any firm white fish such as halibut works well.
Serves 4
1½ cups basmati rice
4 onions (1 halved and 3 thinly sliced)
1 Tbsp. black peppercorns, crushed
1 bay leaf
A small bunch of parsley
Sea salt
400 gr. halibut fillets
¼ cup sesame oil or vegetable oil
3 carrots, sliced into matchsticks
A small handful of dill fronds
1 tsp. dill seeds
1 tsp. ground black pepper
A large pinch of saffron strands, soaked in 3 Tbsp. warm water
½ cup sour cream
Juice of 1 lemon
Put the rice in a large bowl to soak while you poach the fish.
Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a large pan and add the halved onion, along with peppercorns, bay leaf, and stems from parsley. Season well with salt and lower in fish fillets. Cook at a very gentle simmer until fish is just opaque through to the middle, up to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness. Remove fish with a slotted spoon and set aside. Strain and reserve broth. You’ll use the pan again later.
In a second large cooking pot, in which you’ll cook the rice, heat the oil until almost smoking, then add the sliced onions and carrots. Stir-fry until vegetables start to soften. Pour in drained rice and smooth down with back of a spoon. Pour in enough of the fish broth to cover top of rice by about 1.25 cm. and salt generously. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat until broth has boiled off. Use the spoon handle to poke a few holes in the rice to help release the steam.
Cover with a lid or tight-fitting layer of aluminum foil and remove from heat. Let steam for 20 minutes for rice to cook through.
Chop the parsley leaves and dill fronds and add to the empty fish pan. Add the dill seeds, black pepper, saffron and its soaking liquid, and season with salt. Stir in sour cream and warm through over low heat. Carefully add fish fillets to warm through in the saffron cream before serving.
Turn rice onto a large platter and squeeze lemon juice over it. Spoon fish and its creamy sauce on top.


SAMSA – MEAT PASTRIES
 
These meaty Uzbek pastries share an etymological and culinary heritage with Indian samosas, wrote Eden and Ford. Cooked on the walls of portable tandoor ovens in bustling market squares, you can buy them to eat hot, holding them with your fingers.

Makes 12
1 small onion, roughly chopped
200 gr. ground lamb
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. sea salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
300 gr. puff pastry
1 medium egg, beaten
1 tsp. black sesame seeds
In a food processor, pulse onion until very finely chopped. Add ground lamb, cumin, salt and pepper, and pulse again to bring mixture together.
Roll out the pasty to a rectangle 25 x 30 cm. and use a 7.5-cm. cutter to stamp out 12 rounds. Drop a spoonful of meat mixture onto each round, then bring up three sides and pinch together well to make a triangle. Repeat with remaining dough.
Put the triangles seam-side down on a baking sheet. Brush dough with beaten egg and sprinkle with black sesame seeds. Chill until ready to cook.
Preheat oven to 220°. Bake for 20 minutes until the dough is golden and the filling cooked through.
CHICKEN, POTATO, AND PRUNE HOT POT
This one-pot dish is inspired by the flavors of the region, wrote Eden and Ford.
Serves 4
4 chicken legs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbsp. olive oil
450 gr. waxy potatoes, unpeeled and cut into 2-cm chunks
2 sweet apples, unpeeled, cored and cut into 2-cmchunks
½ tsp. allspice
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
½ cup prunes, pitted and halved
¹⁄3 cup dried apricots, quartered
2¾ hot cups chicken stock
Leaves from a small bunch of tarragon
3 Tbsp. pistachios, chopped
Season chicken legs with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a saucepan large enough to accommodate the chicken in a single, uncrowded layer; add chicken legs. Brown well on both sides, then remove from pan.
Add potatoes and apples, and cook for 8 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Stir in allspice, tomato paste and dried fruits. Return chicken legs to the pan, tucking them in among potato and fruits.
Pour in chicken stock and bring to a boil. Cover with a lid, turn down the heat, and simmer for 45 to 60 minutes, until chicken is tender. Remove lid for the final 10 minutes so sauce reduces a little. Serve sprinkled with tarragon and pistachios.
TAJIK GREEN LENTIL AND RICE SOUP
This hearty vegetarian soup, wrote Eden and Ford, is thick with rice and lentils, both of which are native to Central Asia. Peppery greens are added at the end, and the soup is finished with a green swirl of herb paste and crumbled sharp cheese. Alternatively, you could add a dollop of herbed yogurt cheese or simply stir in some chopped greens for the final 5 minutes of cooking.
Serves 4
2 to 3 Tbsp. olive oil, or to taste
1 onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
4 tomatoes, chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. ground allspice
1 cup green or brown lentils, washed
¾ cup brown rice, washed
2 bay leaves
4 cups hot vegetable stock
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup crumbly goat cheese
Herb paste:
6 Tbsp. olive oil
A good handful of parsley
A good handful of cilantro
A handful of sorrel or mint leaves
A handful of pistachios
Squeeze of lemon juice
Heat a large saucepan over medium heat and add olive oil. Add onion, celery, carrot, and tomato, and cook until softened. Add garlic, cumin seeds and allspice. Cook for another minute, then stir in lentils, rice and bay leaves.
Pour in vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and cover pan. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until rice and lentils are tender.
Meanwhile, make herb paste: Put all the ingredients in a small blender with a good pinch of salt and pepper. Blend to a thick purée.
Thin the soup with a little hot water and taste for seasoning. Ladle into serving bowls. Spoon over the herb paste and crumble in the cheese.
ROASTED CAULIFLOWER WITH PISTACHIOS AND TARRAGON
Cauliflower wouldn’t normally be served roasted in Uzbekistan, where oven cooking is done in commercial tandoors. However, the flavors of this dish give it an authentically Uzbek feel, and roasting helps intensify the flavors. You can substitute dried cranberries for the pomegranate seeds.

Serves 4
1 large cauliflower, broken into small florets
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. cumin seeds
¹⁄3 cup pistachios, toasted and lightly crushed
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. sliced mint leaves
1 Tbsp. torn tarragon leaves
Seeds of ½ pomegranate
Sea salt
Preheat oven to 205°. Toss cauliflower with olive oil and cumin seeds. Spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast in oven for 20 minutes, or until cooked through and golden brown.
Let cool slightly, before tossing with remaining ingredients and a good pinch of salt.