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Notes on Uzbek Cuisine

Kâmil Toygar and Nimet Berkok Toygar

With roots in the food culture of Central Asia, the national cuisine of the Uzbeks, just like that of other Turkic groups, shows a great variety of dishes.

In addition to their own roots, this wealth in variety and numbers of dishes can be explained by the interaction with neighboring cultures and the rich possibilities afforded by nature.

Among the various Turkic food cultures of Central Asia, Uzbek cuisine has a well-deserved fame. The determining factors in the Uzbek’s diet and cuisine are to a large extent the people’s way of life, customs and traditions, the common character of the people, their cooking techniques, regional climatic conditions, and other ecological elements.

Fruit holds an important place in Uzbek meals. In addition to eating large amounts of fresh grapes, apricots, peaches, pears, melon, watermelon, walnuts, plums, cherries, quinces and figs, they also make extensive use of these in the form of dried fruit and preserves/jams. In recent years, lemons, oranges, mandarins and dates have begun to be raised in certain areas.

With an economy largely based on agriculture and animal husbandry, the Uzbeks place a great amount of importance on milk and milk products. The most commonly-used milk animals are sheep and goats; in some areas, horses and camels are also raised. Their milk is made into kumiss and şubat.

Favorite foods made from milk include ekşimik, çökelek (curd cheese), katık, kaymak (clotted cream), and others.

Technological advances have also added vegetable oils such as sunflower and cottonseed oil to the traditionally-used animal fats. Recently these have also come to include apricot kernel and grape seed oils.

As pork is forbidden by Islam, neither its meat nor derivative fats are used in Uzbek cooking. However they are used by the non-Muslims living in the country.

Uzbek foods are very filling and high in calories, and use onions in large quantities. Ground meat to be used in mantı and other dishes is mixed with finely minced onion. If the onions are to be added raw, they are first washed with several changes of water, then drizzled with vinegar.

There is an almost negligible amount of sauces and garnishes in Uzbek cuisine. The main dishes are generally either fried or cooked in their own juices.

Every Uzbek meal begins and ends with tea. Before the meal, they serve traditional sweets. Hard candies, as well as the fruit  preserves encountered in the Balkans and Cyprus, baked sweets etc. are always served as well as melon and watermelon, even during winter. Dried melon, made from a very sweet variety of melon called çöl kavunu (desert melon), which tolerates alkaline soils, is also served as a sweet.

The end of the meal always includes one of the several different varieties of pilaf, or mantı. Pilav holds a very special place in Uzbek cuisine, including tens of varieties, with a different type unique to every region. The Samarkand, Bukhara and Fergana regions all have different methods of cooking pilaf.

The Uzbeks have well-developed cooking techniques as well. Main dishes and baked goods cooked in the tandır, or pit oven, are especially flavorful.

In addition, the large aluminum or stainless steel pots used for steaming foods also contribute both to the food’s flavor as well as its nutritional value.

It is believed that cooking dishes in glazed clay vessels adds to the dish’s flavor.

Tea is stepped in specially made tea pots and served in large ceramic cups with no handles, called piyale.

The onions, carrots and bones used in Uzbek dishes are cooked separately before they are added to the dish. Vegetable oil is used for frying, but generally animal fats are preferred, even in the hot summer months.

Meat is generally cooked with the bone in, and broth made from bones is considered to be healthful. In the Bukhara region, meat is customarily fried in oil and served with onions.

There are very few “pure,” self-contained cuisines in the world. Nearly all cuisines show the signs of cultural exchange and interaction with neighboring cultures. We can attribute the richness of Uzbek cuisine to their imagination in incorporating the positive elements brought by their contacts with various people throughout history both in the form of wars and migrations.

The historical Silk Route, their relations with Iran and in recent years, seventy years as part of the USSR were the main sources of change, development and possibly degeneration as well in Uzbek cuisine. The Uzbeks use more spices in their cooking compared with other Turkic groups in Central Asia. Anise, nigella, saffron, fresh and powdered red peppers, black pepper, parsley, dill, Central Asian mint and kungut seed, and mostly fresh herbs such red basil, are commonly used both in local and commercial cooking. Recent  years have seen the addition of cloves, mustard, cinnamon, coriander and bay leaf as well.

Hot and spicy foods are especially popular with the Uzbeks living in the areas of Fergana and Tashkent. Red and black pepper, nigella and other hot and aromatic spices are an inseparable part of their dishes.

Certain wild plants are used in Uzbek folk medicine both as drugs preventatively as tonics. In addition to the commonly known vegetables and fruits, these herbs and roots are known to be used in cooking as well.

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