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Tasting the Silk Road : Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand ... A first look at the cuisone of Uzbekistan, the former Soviet republic that is the culinary capital of Central Asia.

June 25, 1992|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

People in striped robes sit under aspen trees, drinking tea dosed with black pepper and eating shish kebab sprinkled with curry-type spices. But they don't eat curries; they tend to flavor stew in the Persian fashion, with fruit instead of spices. They also eat steamed dumplings, lamb with noodles and other spicy dishes from western China--those remote western provinces that Chinese regional cookbooks ignore. They like quinces and pomegranates, dill and basil, red pepper, puff pastry, horse-meat sausage and yogurt.

Above all, they honor pilaf. One of their cookbooks gives no fewer than 60 traditional pilaf recipes.And they're famous for their pizza-shaped breads, which they tend to cover with intricate geometric patterns of crimping and punch marks. For that matter, they often carve melons in geometric shapes.

This is the cuisine of Uzbekistan, which has long been popular among the sophisticates of Moscow. Now that Uzbekistan is an independent republic, developing its own contacts with the outside world, we may get a chance to taste its cuisine ourselves.

Uzbekistan is the wealthiest, most populous republic in Central Asia. It contains the area's longest river, the Amu Darya, and is a major producer of cotton. There are about 14 million Uzbeks, and Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union. For this reason, and because of the ancient wealth and cosmopolitanism of the great medieval caravan cities of Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand, Uzbekistan has the richest culinary heritage in the region. It also happens to be the best-documented cuisine.

To get an idea of what's going on in Uzbek cuisine, it may help to imagine Central Asia--the vast plain to the north of Iran and Afghanistan, extending from the Ukraine to the borders of China--as the shared back yard of the major Eurasian civilizations. It's not part of China, India, Europe or even the Near East, but a great expanse of deserts and grasslands--broken here and there by rivers supporting tracts of irrigated farmland--that separates them.

Those surrounding civilizations have often spilled over into Uzbekistan. Samarkand was once known as Alexandria Maracanda, after Alexander the Great, who did some conquering around there. In the early centuries of our era, Christian missionaries from the Near East competed with Hindu and Buddhist missionaries from India; Bukhara gets its name from a Buddhist monastery ( vihara ) once located there. China dominated the area in the early 7th Century until it was defeated by Muslim armies from Arabia.

Most invaders, however, have been nomads from the steppes. Until the 9th Century, everybody in what is now Uzbekistan--not only the farmers and Silk Road merchants but even the nomads--spoke languages related to Persian and had cultural contacts with Iran, though the area didn't fully come into the Iranian cultural orbit until after it had become converted to Islam.

Ironically, though, at the same time that the Muslim farmers and city people were starting to speak proper Persian, their cousins, the Iranian nomads of the steppe, were being replaced by Turkish nomads from western Mongolia. Turks started moving there in appreciable numbers during the 9th Century, first offering their services as soldiers to the local rulers and then setting up kingdoms of their own. Eventually some of them reached and conquered what is now Turkey.

Most of the Turkish tribes, however, remained nomads. In the 13th Century they formed the local troops of the Mongolian Empire, and after its fall, competing Turkish nomad chieftains such as Tamerlane--all claiming descent from Genghis Khan--continued to rule the steppes. Around 1500, Muhammad Shaibani rallied a confederacy called the Uzbeks and went on to conquer most of Central Asia (defeating a rival of his named Babur so soundly that Babur gave up on Central Asia and went off to conquer India, founding the Moghul dynasty there). Shaibani made Bukhara his capital, as Tamerlane's had been Samarkand.

During the 17th Century, the Uzbeks abandoned the wandering life and became farmers and city dwellers. By the time the area was conquered by the Russians in the 19th Century, most people in Uzbekistan spoke Uzbek rather than Persian.

But by then, the Uzbeks had almost totally adopted the culture of the original Iranian inhabitants, who are known as the Tajiks (most present-day Tajiks live in the neighboring republic of Tajikistan, however). Uzbeks and Tajiks dress in the same colorful ikat fabrics, with their distinctive stripes of random length. Their languages have even come to resemble each other.

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