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A Central Asian food diary

Part 1: Some Random Thoughts

By Neeman Sobhan

A caveat at the start:
[If in the course of the following article the sentiments of any person or animal (horse, sheep or camel) are injured, I apologise beforehand.

I was in Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan this May, and it was an unforgettable trip from which my husband and I carried back enchanting memories (and far too many photographs) of a culture and history that, among other delights, enriched our understanding of our own sub-continental heritage. I highly recommend a visit, especially to fascinating Samarkand and Bokhara in Uzbekistan. About the food encountered, the article speaks for itself.]

Back in Rome, my Sri Lankan gardener-cum-factotum, who is forgetting his English in his eagerness to embrace Italian, and is a font of malapropism slaps his forehead at some minor setback and sighs: “It was my destination!” I mutter: “Destiny, you mean.” He retorts, “Same thing, no?” No, I explain, destiny is what you cannot control, like luck; and destination is where you aim to go.

After he leaves, I sip a philosophical tea and wonder, is there really a difference? I mean, isn't destiny also where you aim to go (in life), and isn't destination sometimes a place you find yourself in, where you have no control, (at least over what you eat)? I am thinking of that time when visiting China with my husband, my destiny placed me between a rock and a hard place as an honoured dinner guest seated beside the host who offered me a choice between a dish of crisp snake skin and raw lobster flesh.

More relevant to this article, I am thinking also of the recent times in Bishkek (capital of Kyrgystan) or in Samarkand in Uzbekistan when I could not refuse a particularly lamb-odorous Somsa pastry or a platter of Plov rice with lumps of sheep fat specially served to me as a gesture of the generous Central Asian hospitality. Now, I don't like to hurt anyone's feelings, and to that end, if need be, I can swallow my pride--- but NOT meat-fat.

You see, the truth is that I am what I call, a CCVV (Convenient Carnivore Verging on Vegetarianism). That is, I am a person who deludes herself into believing that poultry and meats grow in packages; and who, if she had to actually kill a chicken, slaughter a lamb or gut a fresh fish to survive would throw herself at the first vegetarian-thali that came along.

So the question of character, destiny and destination starts to amalgamate dangerously like the Uzbek shorpa (soup) where meat and congealing fat regularly triumph over the vegetables in the bowl. And, if you can imagine me pretending to eat that, or struggling with the greasy meat kebabs skewered with little or no spices, or sipping the hemlock cup of fermented mare's milk, you will have immediately understood why the food part of my central Asian journey was a bit of a rough trek.

Not that there weren't the good-food moments, especially when we ate at some elegant restaurants in Tashkent and Bokhara, and at a memorable dinner at a private home in Samarkand arranged by our tourist agency, which I shall describe in the next article. But for the rest of the time, if I ate well, it was by choosing more of the vegetable dishes and salads, and negotiating carefully through the language and cultural barriers.

We were lucky to have a guide all to ourselves to steer us through the maze of traditional dietary and eating habits. I had come clean to him and explained my dietary preferences and limitations, when after a few polite attempts to eat lamb and mutton, I finally broke down and sheepishly declined to eat any woolly animal at all. Also, the meat of the noble beast with whom I share my Chinese year. No, not the rat; and the camel is not a Chinese sign, though camel meat is also eaten in parts of Central Asia. Yes, I refused to horse around with my food.

These days, most restaurants are savvy enough to offer wary foreigners like me more acceptable options on the menu, eg. Plov with beef or chicken instead of lamb. And since I was not over keen about the traditional Uzbek custom for eating collectively with fingers from the same platter of Plov, individual platters and cutlery were provided. If one wants to have authenticity of experience one has to be adventurous, open-minded, and unlike a CCVV like me, prepared for the unpredictable on the platter.

This week I have written generally, sketchily and jokingly on Central Asian food. Next week, I promise to describe in more detail the food and the meals that I actually enjoyed on my trip along with the history of a cuisine that in many ways shaped our own.

Neeman Sobhan is a writer and journalist, living in Italy and teaching at the University of Rome. She also writes the fortnightly 'A Roman Column' that appears in the Star Weekend Magazine of Fridays.



By Iffat Nawaz

Back-pains share the same plate with bedsores. Bed sores occur when muscles lie inactive for prolonged periods of time. The human body, which is meant for movement, experiences certain difficulties with too much rest. Similarly, years of sitting slouched on a desk chair for eight hours everyday is bound to end up horribly when a back, meant for movement, is forced to be inactive for extended periods of time.

Experts say that the best pick for back-pain victims is a big wobbly fitness ball. It allows the user to keep an upright position without sentencing him to the discomforts of having the much-loved backrest taken away. However, although most of us do sometimes wish our offices were as chic as that, the truth still stands -- corporate greys just do not fit in with giant psychedelic baubles.

Ignoring the pain is probably also not a good idea -- neglecting the ailment for too long can land you in the same hospital bed as Grandma at half her age. Thus, it might be worthwhile to scout for the perfect ergonomic chair.

“Incorrect sitting postures, especially for those suffering from osteoporosis, or old people, can even lead to microfractures,” says Dr Abdul Awal Rizvi, orthopaedic specialist at Labaid.

Doctors would suggest the formidable looking wooden chair with its hard, flat, uninviting surface. A cushion for the lower back is often thrown into the mix to save the bottom muscles, making the prospect just a shade nicer.

“Patients suffering from pain in the coccyx or the tailbone are however specifically suggested to sit on a soft surface,” says Dr Rizvi.

A better experience might be chairs contoured to fit the curve of the back, with adequate support for the lower back and bottom. Missing out on support for the much abused bottom would result in the dreaded slouched position and a back pain of worse intensity than what is being inflicted on the rear muscles.

Chairs just get a whole lot better (and more expensive) if they are designed to catch every move and adjust accordingly. This means complete lumbar support that prevents any sort of added stress. Since the better part of our office-going population has to spend eight hours of their day in front of a computer, doctors would also suggest adjustable height such that the eye level rests at the centre of the screen.

This is to save the neck from getting encased into a thick sweltering neck support. For those who spend the day staring down at the desk, tilting the surface up will be a moment of revelation, when one discovers that bent heads are not a natural human state.

Armrests are underestimated more than warranted. The only thing that can make the eight-hour ordeal any worse is a chair without armrests. The shoulders will protest sooner or later. Armrests should be slightly tilted such that the elbows are propped and shoulders are offered a little lift to prevent the slouch.

Otobi furniture and Partex furniture has a choice collection of office furniture to choose from, but the trick is to know what to look for. An ailing lower back is not going to benefit much from a straight-backed chair, and one of the curved varieties that fit into the spine might be a better pick. However, for the latest cutting-edge technology in ergonomic chairs, ordering from abroad would be the best bet.

Before you recoil from the thought of slashing your account balance for a chair, it would be good to remember that you had not reacted similarly when shelling out 1500 dollars for that 40-inch LED 3D television set.

Replacing a back will be throat-cutting compared to a costly ergonomic chair, and a stitch today might save nine tomorrow.

Zyma Islam
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed


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