Let’s face it – you don’t come to Central Asia for the food. Most fruits and vegetables aren’t grown here, and importing anything is made difficult by a distorted exchange rate and capital controls. The country’s culinary scene seems to suffer from an extended Soviet-era hangover, with plenty of bland, oily dishes flavoured with salt and dill. Hunks of fatty red meat (beef, horse, or lamb) feature in almost every dish. At fancier restaurants, ketchup is often drizzled artfully on the plate as a garnish. It’s hard to complain, though, given the prices; a full meal can cost as little as 15,000 som, equivalent (in April 2015 anyway) to about $4 USD. And some of the dishes are undeniably tasty.
Tea and bread
The Uzbek’s love their non (bread), and it’s eaten with every meal. It usually comes as a dense circular loaf, and is baked fresh throughout the day. The dough is rolled thin, brushed with oil, and then baked stuck to the inside wall of a clay tandoori oven fired with sticks (in smaller establishments) or gas (in larger market bakeries). Each region has its own style, such as the dense and browned bagel-like bread of Bukara, or the thinner variety stamped with dimples popular in Khiva. Sometimes fancier varieties are available that are flavoured with salt, garlic, or spinach.
The bread is typically served whole, and then it is ripped into pieces to be shared with the table. I find it to be somewhat tough and dry, which is surprising for bread baked only an hour previously. It is sometimes eaten with yogurt or jam, but more often is just eaten alone.
Tea is served alongside bread at every meal. Green tea is the standard, although black is also available everywhere. There is an interesting ceremony for serving it that involves dumping the first three cups back into the pot to clear the water from the spout and distribute the flavor. If you want milk in your tea, expect to pay at least triple the price. Coffee is hard to find, but most hotels and restaurants do offer packets of instant 3-in-1.
National dishes and specialties
Uzbekistan has several national dishes that are present on virtually every menu. Most are made of some combination of red meat, potato, onion, and carrot. Dimlama consists of meat, potatoes, onions, and vegetables braised in a bit of fat. Laghman is a regional staple, and is basically wheat noodles in sauce. The quality of laghman varies from quite good (soft homemade noodles in a meaty sauce) to downright bad (essentially canned spaghetti). Dumplings are popular and can be ordered with a variety of fillings, most of which end up being an oily mixture of ground meat and onions. The pumpkin-filled variety is delightful, however. For all dishes, a description that says “with vegetables” usually means a pile of sliced onions (often raw).
The highest position in Uzbek cuisine is held by plov (pronounced PEA-lav), a sort of rice pilaf made with strips of meat and vegetables that is served on special occasions, to honoured guests, and (I’m told) at home on Thursdays. On fancy occasions, plov is enhanced with raisins and spices, making is taste like a distant (very distant) cousin of Moroccan couscous. Plov is rumored to be an aphrodisiac, which is why many children are said to be conceived on Thursday nights.
Uzbek soups and salads
A fresh Uzbek salad can be a nice escape from the meat- and dough-heavy main dishes. The salads usually contain some combination of shredded carrot, cucumber, onion, tomato, beetroot, and meat in a heavily salted mayonnaise-like dressing. The shredded carrot salad is my favourite. It is mercifully free of mayonnaise and has a nice spiced oil and vinegar dressing. I also enjoy a sort of salad/soup mash-up consisting of diced cucumber and tomato in a thin salted yogurt broth. Once I ordered a “Greek” salad; it came with chunks of processed Gouda cheese instead of feta.
The traditional Uzbek soup is an oily broth with chunks of meat, potato, and carrot. On lucky days, the meat is tender and delicious, but more often than not it’s tough and gristly. One variant features large wobbling hunks of fat that I swallow whole, lest I insult the chef by leaving them in my bowl. That’s the last time I order soup.
Street food and snacks
If you grow tired of the dreary restaurant food of Uzbekistan, there are plenty of street food options available at ridiculously low prices. Somsa is a pastry stuffed with oily ground meat, fried onions, and potato—like an Indian samosa, except worse. Skewers of barbequed meat can be bought almost everywhere. Bread is always a safe option, and a whole non can be had for about a thousand som ($0.25). Hot dogs have inexplicably become popular, and the Uzbeks have actually improved upon the American classic by smothering it in shredded carrot and mayonnaise.
Small dishes of snacks are sometimes laid out before fancier meals. Walnuts and candied peanuts are ubiquitous. The raisins and dried apricots are plump and delicious, and the dried mulberries and roasted apricot seeds offer a rare taste of something unique. Kurut are salty balls of dried yogurt that are eaten as a snack with beer.