With its trove of Islamic architecture and its nomadic traditions, Uzbekistan is a major tourist destination. History buffs will enjoy retracing the Silk Road from Samarkand to Bukhara. Lovers of the great outdoors will cross the Kyzyl Kum desert and its red sands, try yurting and camelback riding around the Aydar Lake, or lament the ever-dwindling Aral Sea.
But the capital city, Tashkent, is notably absent from this list of attractions.
MAKE IT: Uzbek Plov
Since the country counts several international airports, travelers don't even need to land in Tashkent upon arrival. For those who do, it's mostly just a stopover before catching an express train bound for someplace else. And that's too bad, because what the city lacks in charm, it makes up for in liveliness. Tashkent is the country's administrative center, its largest and most cosmopolitan city. It is three times bigger than Samarkand and eight times bigger than Bukhara. Unlike the other Uzbek cities where visitors and locals rarely mingle in any meaningful way, this is a place where you'll actually see everyday people shopping, hanging out in parks, eating in restaurants, and partying in nightclubs. Tashkent is no Dushanbe, indeed.
Food plays an important role in this picture, from the imposing Chorsu Bazaar to the colorful restaurants with their ultimate versions of the open kitchen—chefs preparing meals in large pots in the middle of the dining areas. Tashkent might even be the most intriguing place to try food in Uzbekistan, if not in all of Central Asia. Not only will you find all the traditional dishes of Uzbek cooking (arguably the most interesting cuisine in the region), but there are many local specialties as well.
Let's start with plov, the most famous of all the Uzbek dishes, cousin to the pilaf, pulao, and other palaw that you find in many parts of the world, from the Caribbean to Southern Asia. I don't speak Uzbek, but according to a rather mnemonic legend, the two words meaning plov in Uzbek, palov-osh, would be an acronym for the ingredients it contains: Piyez (onion), Ayez (carrot), Lakhm (meat), Olio (fat), Vyet (salt), Ob (water), and Shaly (rice). Add a few spices, such as coriander seeds and wild cumin, cook everything in a kazan (a large cooking pot shaped a bit like a wok), and voilà! You get the canonical plov right there. Be sure not to skimp on the fat—the oil at the bottom of the kazan is supposed to be an aphrodisiac.
There are many variations. The classic Fergana plov contains just the above ingredients, spices, and a head of garlic. In a Samarkand plov, the ingredients are pretty much the same but aren't mixed during cooking, and in a Bukhara plov, the rice, meat, and vegetables are all cooked separately, with less fat. Add to this many more seasonal and local variations, such as quince, pumpkin, morels, stuffed peppers, or dolmas. A wedding plov, which is served at weddings and upon whose quality is reputed to depend the entire fate of a marriage, ideally contains the following: raisins for a sweet life, chickpeas for abundance, pomegranate for lots of children, and barberries for health.
The Central Asian Plov Centre is the place to go for plov in Tashkent. Don't expect anything fancy; the very large room with mostly bare white walls looks like a cross between a New Jersey wedding venue and a giant, low-end pizza parlor. It serves only one dish, a wedding plov, Tashkent style, which means small chunks of meat with yellow carrots, chickpeas, and raisins. The plov is prepared in huge, wood-fired kazans in the courtyard. A menu on the wall lays out a few options: small or large, single or double portion of meat, with or without a chicken or quail egg, with or without a slice of kazy.
Ah yes, kazy, the horse sausage. While it's also found in other Central Asian countries, especially Kazakhstan, its consumption within Uzbekistan is pretty specific to equine-loving Tashkent. This is a rather unusual sausage, too. First, of course, it's made of horse meat—usually the ribs—packed into horse-intestine casings. Second, the meat isn't ground at all. Instead, large chunks are stuffed in with equally large pieces of fat. Kazy is then dried or smoked, and finally boiled before being served. Rustic, but not bad.
Tashkent's fondness for horses also appears in another local specialty: naryn, a kind of horse meat pasta salad. To experience the dish in all its glory, head for the spartanly named and decorated National Food Restaurant. This place serves other dishes as well: lagman (a noodle soup) and dolma shurpa (a soup with stuffed vegetables) are prepared in large kazans next to the entrance, while assorted kebabs are grilling on a mangal outside. But none of them takes such pride of place as the naryn. In the middle of the dining room, over 20 cooks gather around a huge table ceaselessly slicing heaps of pasta sheets and boiled horse meat into a fine julienne. On a smaller table nearby, another cook tosses the pasta and the meat with some seasoning and a liberal dose of oil, more or less to order. The result is quite pleasant, and the faint of heart will barely notice that they're eating an unfamiliar red meat.
Given the complicated status of horse meat in the United States, you probably won't make kazy or naryn at home any time soon, unless you choose to use beef or venison. Plov, on the other hand, isn't so hard to make, and tastes delicious. No need for a giant cauldron over an open fire—a wok on a stovetop works quite well. Just don't blame me if the future of your marriage is sealed by a bowl of greasy rice.