"Plov. Or pilaf, pilau, osh," recites Eleanor Ford. "Plov is called all sorts of things and lots of countries lay claim to it. It's made and eaten everywhere you go in Central Asia and the Caucases. It's said there are as many different types of plov as there are people who make it."
Plov. I thought it was a ubiquitous-but-awful Soviet dish of pure stodge, made with rice. But as Ford prepares a plate for me to try, it very quickly becomes clear that while plov is indeed found across Central Asia, everything else I thought I knew about it is completely wrong.
"Words like 'plov' and 'dumplings' sound heavy," says Ford. "But if you hear plov called 'pilaf' or dumplings called 'ravioli,' then suddenly you've got a very different picture in your mind."
As a food writer and recipe developer, Ford, together with travel writer Caroline Eden, hopes to change our ideas about Central Asian food. Like so many formerly Soviet countries, the culinary culture of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has long been written off as dull.
"I'd spent years exploring this region eating food in people's homes that was dismissed by the guidebooks as little more than survival fare," says Eden, who worked in Central Asia for many years. "I've eaten pumpkin dumplings, noodle soup, slow-cooked plov with quince and raisins, as well as some of the best fruit I've tasted."
Eden used the stories she'd kept in "notebooks from shopping in markets, stopping at roadside pickle shops, meeting foragers in the High Pamirs [a mountain range in Central Asia]," and Ford visited kitchens around the region to uncover the recipes. Their efforts culminated in Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus, a book focused on the city of the same name in Uzbekistan.
"A wealth of food culture has passed through Samarkand over the centuries," Eden explains. "Bags of rice and carrots from the Himalayas, cuts of sugar cane, bundles of lemons, plaits of garlic, and sacks of soybeans from eastern Asia. We wanted to write a book that explored the wider region through food, bringing together the cuisines of the seven ethnic groups who have left their mark on the city over the centuries—the Tajiks, Russians, Turks, Jews, Koreans, Caucasians, and Uzbeks."
Plov was an ideal starting point.
"A lot of people lay claim to having invented it first," says Ford. "But this is the heart of the Silk Road, where everyone was crossing, so ideas were coming from east to west and west to east and it's hard to find the root for a lot of things."
It's a simple dish, made in layers (slow-cooked meat at the bottom, vegetables in the middle, and rice on the top) but you'll never eat the same version twice.
"We found variations of plov all across the Caucases," says Ford. "Plov made with fish, vegetarian plovs, a wonderful one from Azerbaijan that's wrapped in bread so it has a crust. As you cut it into pieces, shards of the bread fall open making the plov look like a shah's crown."
Eden agrees: "It's the quintessential Uzbek dish eaten from one plate by many diners. The idea of the dastarkhan which literally means tablecloth—a coloured piece of fabric spread on the floor or on a slightly raised dais with everyone sat around it—encourages communal dining. My favourite is Uzbek plov with quince, cooked outside in the traditional way in a giant kazan or cauldron."
Traditionally though, plov could only be made by men.
"They were the only ones deemed skilled enough to cook plov," says Ford. "A kazan is a particularly large pan which they use to cook plov over a large outdoor fire. I was told you need a lot of intuition to get it right. You don't ever stir it because you want to keep the layers intact, so it is a challenge in such a large pot to make sure everything is cooked properly. The sound the rice makes goes from a 'cheep cheep' to a 'tap tap.' I have to admit, I've never heard it."
Turns out, plov is a masculine dish in other ways too.
"In Tashkent, the men flood to the canteens for plov on Mondays and Thursdays because that's when it makes you more virile. Though in Samarkand, it's different days," says Ford. "It's also said that Alexander the Great designed it as a campaign meal for soldiers, because it can be cooked on a large scale."
We're eating plov in decidedly less testosterone-fuelled circumstances, but still in true Central Asian style, scooping forkfuls of the flavoursome fatty rice, meat, and carrots into our mouths from one shared plate.
RECIPE: Uzbek Plov
It's delicious. Ford used minimal spice as she prepared it, but something about the way the plov cooks makes the spices she has used—cumin, paprika, and a little cayenne pepper—really sing.
I'm curious to understand how plov, and food from this part of the world in general, has ended up with such a bad rep.
"In terms of cuisine, outside of Queens or Rego Park [in New York], the Central Asian diaspora hasn't opened many restaurants so that's contributed to the cuisine being ignored," explains Eden. "And it's not as easy to travel in this region as it is in other parts of Asia. The infrastructure is still quite primitive in many areas: basic homestays in villages, overpriced hotels in the less-touristy cities, long distances, bad roads, the language barrier …"
Ford adds: "The guidebooks rave about the architecture and the history and then fall strangely silent about the food. It's not really a restaurant culture, so the best place to try the food is in people's homes. Fortunately, everyone is fabulously hospitable. They say that eating from the same plate forms bonds of love with those you share it with."
I can't say that I've fallen for my dining partners, lovely as they are, but I find myself unable to resist the plov on the plate. Just one forkful more? Oh, go on then.