Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tajik Food

Mmm's actually good. Nice and simple, but fresh and healthy. And good.

Let me start with an over view. The most common agricultural product in Tajikistan is cotton, so correspondingly, cotton oil is use in almost everything. The most common grain is rice, the most common vegetables are carrots, onions and potatoes and the most common fruits are pomegranates, grapes, apples, watermelons and persimmons.

The Tajik food staple is lepioshka (non in Tajik) which is a round bread, very flat and almost inedible in the middle and about two inches thick on the outside. I ate it at every meal from the day I arrived--with eggs or sausages in the morning, with salads at midday and with soups in the evening. Frankly, it's some of the best bread I've tasted especially when warm-- it's almost creamy and perfect for soaking up soup, oil or tea. I have no idea how it is made, since my hostfamilies always bought theirs, but in many Tajk families lepioshka is homemade in a stone oven. (Left photo shows the back side of a lepioshka.)

One thing I found hard to adjust to was the fact that the Tajiks rarely drink water, probably because the tap water is definitely not sanitary enough to drink and bottled water is an additional cost ($.50 for 1 liter). So instead, they drink hot black or green tea with every meal. My host families mostly preferred green, and I liked it plain or with sugar and a slice of lemon. We drank out of small v-shaped, handle-less cups which are meant to allows the heat to dissipate quickly but are in reality are just emptied of contents quickly. By tradition, a new pot of tea has to be poured into a cup and then returned to the tea pot three times before it it fit to drink. No one could tell me the origin of this, though Canyon did mention something about one cup being for Allah, the second for Muhammad and the third for...who knows but no Tajik could confirm this for me. Another tradition that goes along with tea drinking is that the host pours half cups for the guest, until he wants the guest to leave; then he pours a full cup. Apparently, tradition varies in this matter, for in Dushanbe they pour full cups from the get go.

Tajiks celebrate everything-- from birthdays to weddings to the welcoming of a guests--by eating plov, (or oshenpalo in Tajiki). It is made from rice and garbanzo beans in cotton oil and is garnished with chunks of lamb. Served in a large bowl, Tajiks traditionally eat it with their hands and a communal napkin, but many have started using utensils and I was certainly always given a fork or spoon. Plov is served with a salad of nothing more than tomato chunks and onions. Simples, but it was one of the tastiest salads I'd ever had! (See the feast before plov at a birthday in the photo right)

Soups are huge in Tajikistan and vary only slightly, most having water, potatoes, meat (beef or lamb only since it's a Muslim country) and salt , decorated on top with parsley. Sometimes there are meat-filled ravioli (like pot stickers) in the soup and this is called montou.

Another specialty is sombosas, which are hot pastries filled with meat, pumpkin or spinach. These were some of my favorite foods to go out and eat with friends (there was a perfect little place near the Waldorf School) and we would smother them with sour red sauce. (See my host-sister, left, eating a sombosa)

The last, and very cultural summer food, is shashlik. This is just chunks of meat on a stick, cooked over a grill and topped with raw white onion. It is sometimes accompanied with ba carrot salad and some kefir (which is basically yogurt, though as I understand it, is made from the fungus of milk instead of the bacteria) and is very cheap at $1 a stick.

A couple of times, Canyon and I made an "event" of it and went out of town with our friends to eat Kurutob. This is a cheesy dish of noodles and can be served with chunks of tomatoes. It was the closest thing to Mexican food we could find, so we cherished it to be sure!

We also went out for ice cream early in our stay (it's really creamy--like soft serve in the States), but since my host family concluded that it was the source of a sore throat I got the next day, I did not have it more than once.

Lastly, I did encounter some "Southern Fried Chicken" at a fast-food joint in Dushanbe. It was less thrilling than I expected my first western meal to be after two months of simple Tajik food, but it satisfied me nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

OMG, that's nice explanation of tajik food. Now I'm homesick =( I was in every places that U mentioned above.

travelpunki said...

Wonderful entry ;) Say, how Lepioshka is made? Which flower and other ingredients do they use?

Aisling said...

Thank you for your comment! I'm not actually sure how lepioshka is made in terms of ingredients, I'd imagine that they use what flower is available, but I do know that only women who have a special clay oven actually bother baking the bread, as it's not really supposed to be baked in a real oven!