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By Neeman Sobhan

Part 2-A Central Asian Food Diary: GOOD FOOD MOMENTS

Last time, I hinted that one does not go to Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan for the cuisine; nor are these places ideally suited to vegetarians. For myself, having grasped the situation at the outset, and having briefed our tourist guide accordingly, I ate quite well for the rest of our wonderful trip. Here are some of the food I especially liked.

1- PLOV- The most ubiquitous and popular dish of this region, similar to our Biryani, it is Uzbekistan's national dish, and consists of a mixture of rice, mutton and vegetables.

On our first day in Samarkand, after a mesmerising morning traipsing around the ancient citadel of Temur, only the squeaking machinery of an empty stomach dragged our focus from the historical to the gastronomical. So, our guide took us to an unnamed establishment that he claimed served the best Plov in town, made of beef.

The place was big and clean, and so busy we had to wait for a table on the bright and airy verandah. When the waiter brought us the typical blue and white glazed ceramic platter piled with Plov fragrant as our Biryani, I prayed I would not be disappointed. My nose never lengthens, unlike Pinocchio's. This turned out to be truly the best Plov of our trip. My mouth waters even as I write this: the meat was fat-free yet so tender it fell apart at the touch of the fork; the rice was flaky and non-greasy; the generous heap of soft carrot strips on the top tasted like strands of semi-caramelised onions; the raw cucumber, onions and tomato salad was a refreshing accompaniment.

I was told how it was prepared. The meat, onions, and carrots are sautéed, cooked in a broth, then covered with rice with the optional addition of raisins, chickpeas, or dried fruit. Cumin, and sometimes, turmeric are the only spices used. The cooking of Plov is considered a man's job, and for special occasions, like weddings or other festivals, a professional chef, an oshpaz, similar to our Kachchi Biryani Baburchi, mans a huge cauldron, called a Kazan similar to our Deg, and with an oar-like spatula, a Kapkir, stirs up a feast for a thousand people from a single pot. I feel the tug of common cultural roots.

One special Plov related memory of this trip was on our 8-hour train trip from Bokhara back to Tashkent. We were sitting in the isolated, old-fashioned luxury of an Orient express type of first-class cabin with only one other passenger: a jolly, big-bellied Father Christmas kind of Russian origin Bokhara Muslim, smiling, friendly and constantly on the cell phone. He was probably an important politician or businessman from the way the railway staff were treating him. We communicated with gestures and mutual show-and-tell through photos on our cell phones. I showed him photos of our sublime Samarkand Plov experience with a thumbs-up implying the best so far. He listened gravely, then made a call and I heard him say 'Plov' once. Soon we approached Samarkand station, where the train stopped briefly. He left the cabin, and a few minutes after the train was thrumming along again, he returned followed by a uniformed staff who placed before us a huge platter of Plov. Beaming and with a flourish, our jolly co-passenger indicated to us to now enjoy what in his opinion would replace the best Plov of our trip, delivered to the station from the restaurant of his choice. He served us and watched us eat. I swooned for him as we ate exaggeratedly to please him. The Plov was great but not the best; but we did not tell him so, because what was both great and the best was our spontaneous host himself. Hands down, he was the warmest, most memorable character of our trip.

2-SOUPS AND SALADS- The Shurpa, or simple meat and vegetable soup I found in Uzbekistan was lighter than the ones in Kyrgystan and became a favourite of mine.

The nomads of the steppe used to add balls of dough to their soups to make the food substantial. A dish of square flat noodles topped with boiled meat is called beshbarmak in Kazak-Kyrgyz areas. I avoided this because of the fatty meats used. The Laghman is a thick noodle soup with thinly sliced fried meat, vegetables and chopped dill. This was a better option in both countries.

In Uzbekistan, at least, there's a range of interesting salads served in small dishes at the start of a meal and as accompaniments. Both raw and boiled vegetables are used. The famous Russian salad, elsewhere smothered in mayonnaise is here covered in yoghurt.

One of the best meals of our Uzbekistan trip was in a private home, arranged by our tourist agency. It was in a gorgeous room, a century old, intricately tiled and painted with fading murals and inscriptions, and decorative alcoves filled with dusty objets d'art that could have been part of a palace. It was, in fact, a room in a dilapidated mansion in the old part of the city, of a family that had been forced to move elsewhere; and lacking the resources to preserve it, they had resorted to opening it for tourism-dining.

I adored the crumbling elegance and poetic decrepitude of the room, as we entered it through a verandah with the last sunlight washing through the gauze curtains billowing at the many doors with multi-coloured ventilators on top. The table was set for us with a traditional 'dastarkhon' with bowls of salads and bread in this long gallery-like room humming with the past.

I felt we were in the presence of an old woman, once a great beauty. My instincts were proven right. The young man while welcoming us formally to his home, narrated how his grandmother was from the spiritually illustrious family of Bahauddin Naqshbandi, of the Sufi order. Her father-in-law, the young man's great-grandfather, had bequeathed this house to his honoured daughter-in-law! The people of the neighbourhood respected this house too much to let the family demolish it. The reasonable cost of our dinner was part of the effort towards preserving this bit of history.

I was enchanted not just with the ambience and story but also the meal. The delicate broth-like shurpa soup and the stew of beef with squash, cabbage and chickpeas that followed was exquisite. I suggest that tourists should opt for dinners at private homes, where, as in Bangladesh, one tastes the local cuisine better than in restaurants.

NEXT: Part 3-Central Asian Food Diary: Of Choikhanas, Samsas, and Shashlyks

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 on Fridays.


dress your BED!

By Neeman Sobhan

There is nothing that makes me happier than when I return home after a long day out and find my bed perfectly made with the pillows all puffed up, the comforter folded at the foot of the bed and the stuffed animals arranged properly beside the pillows. I am sure this stands true for a lot of people, who feel an indescribable joy upon returning home to a neatly-made bed. But not all perfectly-made beds can rouse that feeling of 'I want to leap right into bed' in me; I for one cannot stand to sleep on bed sheets that have embroidery, kantha stitch or appliqué on them, I just like them plain! For those of you like me who have their own quirks and particulars about how your beddings have to be, here are a few spots in Dhaka where you can choose from a range of bed linen.

Gulshan Market, a haven for many a thing -- imported food items, cosmetics, furniture; the list goes on. This is a place which has a number of shops on the second floor which are dedicated to selling every type of cover that your bed and the pillows on your bed may need. They have bed sheets, bed covers, pillow and cushion covers from both home and abroad; mostly China and Thailand. Bed sheets/covers here flaunt various prints such as floral, patterns, solid colours, etc. For children you will easily find ones with cartoon characters, while for teenagers there are ones with footballs or ones sporting trendy prints. Most of the covers available here are cotton or semi-cotton and can be bought separately or in sets along with pillow covers and comforters or whatever combination you fancy. Prices for bed covers start at around Tk.600 and range upwards. You may also drop by at Polwel Market, the wholesale market, at Paltan which has whole-sellers devoted, again, to beddings. You will find bed-spreads from abroad at affordable prices and it is a place worth a look.

Hometex nestled on the Tejgaon-Gulshan link road, a few stores away from Aarong, specialises in home décor. Hometex carries very trendy and catchy designs in its collections in an assortment of sizes for single, semi-double, double and king-sized beds mainly in cottons with a few satins. Also you will find a number of them with embroidery and lace if you want something a little dressy for your bed.

Aarong, the lifestyle store of the country, with each of its products carrying a touch of Bangladesh's heritage, has bed covers to offer with that very touch. The bed sheets at Aarong are adorned with kantha stitch; some displaying patterns while others displaying stories in mostly white, red, black, green and blue. These are great choices for adding an essence of our rich heritage to your interiors and are tasteful and elegant. Although a little steep in price, these also make fail-proof gifts especially for newlyweds.

Pride, popular for its saris and kameezes, also launched its home décor section not too long ago and houses a range of comforters, pillow cases and bed covers. You will find both printed and embroidered bed covers at prices starting from around Tk.1500.

Otobi, the furniture store, which now has a range of other home products also carries numerous bed spreads and pillow covers including regular ones and ones compatible with the tastes of the younger family members although these come at a little higher price due to the brand name of Otobi.

Finally, if you are not in the mood for ready-made ones and want unique ones of your one, you can go ahead and create your own designs! Decide on what sort of print you want and whether you want embellishments such as lace or velvet borders and head on out to, where else but Gawsia Market? Gawsia has stores lined with fabrics of different prints. Grab a few yards of the ones that you like best then hop into a lace and trimming shop at Gawsia or neighbouring Chandni Chawk and pick out trimmings to go with your fabric. This is the most economical and creative option where you will end up having the most unique pieces. However, this does have the drawback of requiring a little more time than it would require to buy ready-made ones obviously. But if you are a little tight on the budget yet want nice bed covers, fear not as you only to need to either cross the road to New Market or just walk down the road to Doja Market. Make your way into the farther corridors of Doja Market and you will find bed covers straight from the garments factories. Same goes for New Market where many sellers sell bed covers, comforters and blankets under the open sky or at small shops. These are wonderful steals with prices which can be haggled down to as low as Tk.300!

So, go bed cover shopping and jump into bed on your favourite one. Don't let the bed bugs bite!

By Karishma Ameen
Photo: Star Lifestyle archive


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