Plov is the king of Uzbek cuisine, served during a wedding feast, to celebrate the arrival of guests, at the crowded major celebrations as well as within the family circle. Neither a friendly dinner nor funeral repast can do without plov. Dishes made of rice are known in almost in every country of the region, but the Uzbek plov, the recipe for which was created in ancient times, is claimed by locals to be a masterpiece of culinary art. There are many folk parables and legends about the healing and nourishing qualities of plov. Uzbek people believe that the very name for plov – “osh-polov” contain the first letters of the names of the dish basic ingredients: onion, carrot, meat, oil, salt, water and rice. – By Rustam Miszaev
Plov has always been the favourite dish in Uzbekistan. A few centuries ago plov was cooked within rich families almost every day. Well-to-do people ate it once a week – every Friday eve. For the poor people plov was an infrequent dish which was served only during big holidays.
In the Uzbek family, day to day food is cooked by woman, but it is the male who is reputed to possess the skills of making real festive plov.
There are more than fifty varieties of plov in Uzbek cuisine: with meat or chicken, peas or potato; cooked in steam or sheep fat being the basic. There are variants, for example th Khorezmian or Samarkand version has quince or garlic. The ancient recipes for plov, with quails and raisins, or plov made of rice of ‘waxy ripeness’, have been preserved unchanged since the 10th – 12th centuries, whereas some techniques of making “classical plov” are one thousand-years old.
The process of cooking festive plov looks like a sacred process. To make good plov it is necessary to use a cast iron bowl with a round base, a set of sharp knives and a special metal skimmer – kaftgirs.
Usually a team of cook’s mates peel and chop onion and shred carrot. The best sort of carrot for plov should be of a light yellow colour, not the usual orange-red one. Rice is to be washed thoroughly and sometimes it is steeped in water. In the well heated bowl (heated until white smoke appears) sheep fat or vegetable oil is heated up. Then the process of preparing zirvak, the basis of plov, starts. After onion is fried in the boiling oil, the pieces of meat should be added. Depending on the recipe, mutton, goat’s meat, beef or even horse meat in the form of a special sausage (kazi) is used for making plov. Meat is fried until a tender reddish crust appears. After that the carrot should be added and slightly fried. The next step is to pour water into the bowl and stew it on small fire. The prepared zirvak, seasoned with salt, ground paprika or capsicum, cumin seeds and dried barberry, should be transparent and present the whole taste bouquet of fried mixture of onion, meat and carrot.
And then comes the crucial moment of plov cooking process – adding the rice. It should be mentioned that rice as the basic product of irrigated agriculture has been cultivated in Central Asia since ancient times. The American researcher (specialising in the Great Silk Road) Rafael Pampelly, discovered near the capital of Turkmenistan (Ashgabat) the ancient culture of Anau dating back to the 4th – 3rd millennium B.C. Here he found fragments of ancient table wear ornamented with grains of wheat, rice and barley. It has been shown by archaeologists that rice was successfully cultivated in the Fergana valley, the lower reaches of the Zeravshan, Amu Darya and Sir darya rivers. In his work “Geography”, the ancient Greek historian and geographer ‘Strabon’ indicated that the ‘Saka and Massagete tribes, inhabiting lands to the east of the Caspian Sea, “sow pearly grain”.
The best variety of rice for plov is devzira – a local variety created by selection over many centuries. It is known, from historical chronicles, that in the 10th -11th centuries, the epoch of the Samanids states that plov made of devzira rice was served at the court feasts
This variety of rice is cultivated in the Fergana valley mainly on farmers individual land plots because it is considered to be of low yield capacity and is not grown on large production farms. But the devzira rice is compensated by an excellent quality of plov. The oblong ribbed grains, of pinkish colour, have high water absorption properties, contain less starch, and exceed other rice varieties in vitamin B2 and choline content.
Another local variety of rice appropriate for making plov is ‘Bugdaygurunch’. Its big white grains with nacreous shade must be soaked in warm salty water for one to two hours before being cooked.
A layer of rice is placed on top of the meat and carrot, flattened and then covered with water. The right quantity of water is defined in a simple way: water should cover the rice at the height of the first joint of the cook’s forefinger. When the water in the bowl evaporates, using a special wooden stick, the cook punctures the rice mass in some spots and adds water through these apertures.
Plov is considered to be good if rice is crumbly and its grains are soft but don’t stick to one another. To bring plov to readiness the rice in the bowl is gathered in the centre in the shape of a hill, then covered with a special ceramic lid (damtavok), or with a big deep plate and the fire is put to minimum. The experienced cook identifies the readiness of plov by slightly striking the wall of the bowl with the skimmer. If the moisture has not evaporated completely, some hissing can be heard, if the dish is ready the bowl gives a clunk.
Plov is served to the table on big ceramic or faience dishes. Rice is put in the form of an attractive hill, and pieces of meat are put on top of it. All this is sprinkled with finely cut greens. In ancient times, during a wedding feast, plov was served to every guest individually on flat bread – lepeshka.
The recipe of Uzbek plov was handed down, not only from generation to generation, but from merchant to merchant and traveller to traveller, along the Great Silk Road. While undergoing some modification due to local tastes and available ingredients it has become a popular dish among all eastern peoples, from Xinjiang (China) to Azerbaijan.
From time immemorial plov was considered to be a healthy food. Indeed, plov is highly nourishing, and an easily digested food with a balanced ratio of carbohydrates, fats and protein.
Following centuries-old traditions, Uzbekistan plov is served mainly in the evening for dinner. The indispensable additions to plov are salads with fresh or pickled vegetables, fruit and berries, tomatoes, cucumbers, horseradish, radish, onion, pomegranate grains, sour grape, cherry and strawberry, all supplemented with greens, coriander, parsley and dill, garlic, and basil leaves. Such salads not only enrich plov with vitamins but also provide better digestion of this rather fat dish.
And of course there should be tea on the table. Black tea is the preferred variety of tea in Tashkent, whereas in other provinces of Uzbekistan people usually drink green tea (kok choi). The specific tea-making ritual is strictly observed in every Uzbek family. First the hostess would swill the porcelain teapot with boiling water. Then with a special spoon she would place dry tea leaves into the pot. Lastly she would throw some boiling water over the tea in the pot. In a few minutes the teapot and small porcelain tea cups (pialas) are served on the table. Before starting to offer tea to the guest it should be poured into teacups three times, each time being poured back into the tea pot. They say it helps to reveal the taste and aroma of the beverage. A respected guest would be served with tea poured in the teacup at one third of its volume. This amount of tea in the cup is enough only for a few gulps, so the guest would avoid burning his fingers while holding the cup without the handle. With tea the hostess would offer crystallized sugar – navat, some honey and sweets.
If pancakes are to be considered the most characteristic dish of Russian cuisine, Galushkas are typical for Ukrainian cuisine, and onion soup is considered to be the traditional soup of the French. The national character of the Uzbek people can be best perceived through tasting Uzbek plov.