Dogs start barking, grazing sheep scamper away and children come running. The villagers watch dumbfoundedly as I come bumping down the mountain. I get off my bike and am immediately surrounded by about twenty Uzbeks with long quilted robes and beards. After being lost for half a day and having dragged my bike along muddy mountain tracks, I arrive in a remote valley with clay houses. Has any foreigner ever set foot in this village?
One of the men introduces himself as Oybek, the village’s English and German teacher. He speaks about ten words of both languages and makes it clear that we are going to eat. He quickly sends a child to the well to fill my bottles, while the group leads me to a field further down.
Moments later, I am sitting cross-legged on a thick carpet between the village elders. Their long beards and shiny purple, blue and green robes tell me that time moves slowly in this valley. Further on, donkeys and horses stand tethered and woodfires are burning under pots the size of satellite dishes.
I am not just lucky to have found my way out of the wilderness, but also because today is Nowruz. This first day of spring is celebrated throughout the region with music, sweets and plov. This rice dish, made in enormous cast iron pans is the pride of Central Asian cuisine and was already served to Alexander the Great when he marched through this area with his troops. According to Oybek, the secret to a good plov lies in simmering the carrots, garlic and onions for a long time to draw out the sweetness from their hard flavors. This sweet taste symbolizes the hope for a sweet and happy new year during this spring festival.
I am overjoyed to see a huge bowl of colorfully shiny rice on the carpet in front of us. My neighbor, an old Uzbek with a white pointed beard and long green robe with golden embroidery, looks at me smilingly, and next at my hands. Only then I notice: there is no cutlery. But after looking closely at how my neighbors do it, I enthusiastically dip my fingers in the bowl. I’ve always known that eating with your hands was much more fun!
Gratefully I take a look around. The whole village is eating on carpets spread out on the grass. I look at Oybek and put my right hand on my heart in Uzbek style as a tribute, to which he bares his golden teeth in a broad smile. Getting lost had never been so much fun, I think to myself. Springtime has begun.
Get ready for an Uzbek feast. Wash your hands and use your right hand to grab rice from the bowl with your fingers. Use your thumb to push the rice towards your three middle fingers and neatly slide the pile into your mouth.
Ingredients for 4
2 ¾ cups basmati rice|6 tbsp sunflower oil|1.1 lbs lamb shoulder (or beef), cut into 1.5 inch pieces|3 onions, cut in half rings|3 large carrots, cut into strips|½ cup chickpeas (canned or dried and soaked in water for 8 hours)|2 whole bulbs of garlic, rinsed|1 cup raisins|1 tbsp coriander powder|2 tsp cumin seeds|salt|
- Wash the rice until the water runs clear and let it soak in lukewarm water for 30 minutes. Drain in a sieve.
- Heat the oil in a casserole pan and fry the meat over high heat until brown. Then add the onions and carrots and fry for 15 minutes.
- Add the chickpeas, top up with lukewarm water until all the ingredients are just submerged and bring to a boil.
- Turn the heat down as soon as the water boils, add the whole garlic bulbs and cook for 15 minutes.
- Add the raisins and spices while stirring and cook for 5 minutes.
- Remove the garlic from the pan. Then spread the soaked rice evenly inside the pan and place the garlic on top of the rice.
- Fill the pan with lukewarm water until it reaches 1 inch above the rice. Add salt to taste.
- Keep on high heat until the surface water is absorbed by the rice.
- Now stir the top layer of the pan, but make sure that meat and vegetables remain at the bottom.
- Cover the pan tightly and turn the heat very low.
- After 15 minutes, stir the top layer of the pan again, cover again and cook for another 10 minutes.
- Check if the rice is cooked. Then turn off the heat and gently mix the contents of the entire pan.
- Serve in a large bowl with the garlic on top and eat with a fresh salad.
Replace the meat with 2 extra carrots and 3.5 ounce extra chickpeas.