It’s not easy to find a nation whose citizens are as proud of (and gluttonous for) their national dish as they are in Uzbekistan. The epitome of a social food, in the heart of central Asia, the eating of plov is practically a religion.
After all, from childhood on, every real Uzbek has attended countless marriages and funerals (crucial events for a country for which family ties are at the base of social organization ) when conversations are exchanged, when papers are signed, when celebrations and mournings are carried out – always over a rich bowl of plov.
It may seem odd that Uzbeks are so attached to their national dish, especially when you consider the plov, in all of its myriad variants, is a dish that’s consumed just about everywhere: from Iran to China, from the Horn of Africa to Russia.
It’s estimated that there are more than 1,200 ways of preparing it and every population calls it by a different name: for Persians, it’s pilaf (a word that has crossed over from the Turkish empire all the way to Western languages where it now denotes a particular of cooking rice), in Urdu it’s pulao and in Hindi, pulav.
Whatever name it goes by, in no other country is this apparently simple dish so socially important as it is in Uzbekistan.
Here it’s called o’sh and at first glance it might appear deceptively basic: long-grain rice, carrots, onions and mutton cooked using sheep fat and vegetable oil in a giant cauldron (a kazan) that is placed for hours over a wooden fire.
Every city boasts its own version, which varies according to the addition of certain ingredients (in the capital of Tashkent the dish is served with chickpeas, raisins and quail eggs), or for the type of rice used (in the remote valley of Fergana, the rice is darker than in other parts of the Country). But the fact that the dish originated in these vast desert steppes is pretty much certain. As is the fact it’s a dish that can be dated back to ancient times.
According to some records, Alexander the Great ate plov after conquering the city of Samarcanda, now known as Marakanda. There’s also a legend (with very little scientific evidence, but nonetheless instructive) that the dish was invented by Alessandro the Great himself.
Thirsty for battles and victories, the commander didn’t want his soldiers to waste too much time eating three meals a day. He ordered his cook to prepare something that could be consumed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And the resulting dish was plov: the first accredited record of the recipe dates back to the 10th Century, when the doctor and philosopher Avicenna, who was from Bukhara, recorded it in his medicine books.
Whether you follow Avicenna’s recipe or your grandmother’s, just about every Uzbek knows how to make this filling dish that accompanied all of life’s crucial turning points. An obligatory dish for any proper ceremony, it used to only be prepared to honour special guests, but today one can find it served from kiosks on the street. As the Uzbek saying goes, «If you’re poor, you eat plov. If you’re rich, you eat only plov.»
But the best time to enjoy the Uzbek specialty of plov is at a wedding. On these occasions, one eats l’oshi nasho – or rather, the morning plov – which doesn’t get served after the wedding ceremony, but on the day of the wedding, before the actual ceremony. Around six in the morning, all of the male guests of the groom are summoned to the groom’s house to eat the ritual dish, whose richness of ingredients and quality of meat reflects the status of the family.
On these occasions, which can involve hundreds of people, a real cook, or a oshpaz, is brought in – not so much to cook as to coordinate all of the operations: from the purchasing of the rice, to cutting the meat once everything is ready after hours and hours of cooking.
A fundamental stepping stone of one’s existence, oshi nano is a social ceremony based around plov and alcohol: despite being a Muslim country, it inherited its love of vodka from the Russians and drinking is not taboo. But nobody touches it once they’ve finished eating: weighed down by the plov that is usually accompanied by a salad of tomatoes and onions and a cold soup called okroshka, guests tend to then sit in the shade and drink green tea to recover from the morning’s excesses and prepare for the real wedding ceremony.
It’s a food that celebrates both life and death, plov is also eaten at funerals. And again, in this case, it’s consumed by only the men who gather together around six in the morning and indulge in a rich plov in honour and in memory of the deceased. Who will most likely be welcomed to Heaven with a bowl of plov.