Asia, Central (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
ASIA, CENTRAL. The mention of Central Asian foodways usually conjures up competing images of nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. In one, the roving sheep-herder astride a brawny steed, between base camp and mountain pasture, clutches a leather pouch of fermented milk. The other vision includes the long-beard in his colorful robe and headdress, enjoying perfumed pilaf in a tranquil teahouse. While scholars quibble over cultural and physical boundaries of Central Asia, culinary cultures of the region represent an intriguing mix of steppe and settlement, highlands and lowlands, Turkic and Iranian.
Culinary Culture and Geographic Setting
Generally speaking, hospitality is the defining feature of this underpublicized cuisine. For all the ethnic and geographic variations in Central Asia, the food of the region exhibits more homogeneity than disparity. Basic methods of preparation, main ingredients, common dishes, and predominant cultural traditions of Islam all reflect the enriching exchange along the heart of the storied Silk Road. The regional larder consists of mutton, rice, cumin, coriander, cilantro, dill, nuts, tea, dried fruits, and yogurt, distinguishing it from Chinese and European fare. Meal preparation is often conducted outside over fire, with cast-iron cauldrons (kazan) for frying, simmering, and steaming; open-flame braziers for grilling; and tandir ovens for roasting meats and baking breads. Customary dishes throughout the region include soups and stews, pilafs, noodles, steamed dumplings, grilled meats on skewers, flatbread, savory pastries, and halvah.
The geographical limits of Central Asia, once called Turkistan, include the Soviet successor states (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan), and Xinjiang in northwest China. Others do not hesitate to add other Turkic-language areas, like the Caucasus, Turkey, and parts of Siberia, while some embrace Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, northern India, Pakistan, and even Tibet in the Central Asian cultural orbit.
The thriving culture of Iran was the primary influence on Central Asian society, with later Arabic and Mongol contributions. One hundred and fifty years of Russian power and fifty years of intensive Chinese subjugation of the region have considerably altered the foodways. Well-documented Soviet problems of collectivization and distribution homogenized local diets. The turbulent history of Xinjiang continues, with Chinese migrants and laborers, particularly from Sichuan, flooding the region after the 1960s, dropping the Turkic Uighur population from roughly 75 percent to less than 50 percent. In China proper, Uighur cuisine is segregated and disparagingly referred to as Muslim food.
Diet and Foodstuffs
Greek humoral theory, as propagated by ibn Sina of the eleventh century, still affects the diet of millions in the region. Combined with traditional Chinese thought, Central Asians consider food to have either "hot" or "cold" (Farsi, sardi or garmi) qualities, serving both medicinal and nutritive functions. Three meals a day are standard, each including tea and flatbread (nan or naan). The largest meal is usually taken in the evening.
The spirited bazaars of Central Asiaart marketplace, part carnival, and part town squareapture the Silk Road mystique. Aromatic spices take center stage, though only cumin, red and black pepper, and coriander seeds are used in abundance. Herbs of distinction include cilantro, dill, parsley, and celeriac leaves. Seasoning is generally mild, but sauces, relishes, and even whole peppers are added for punch. Other flavor enhancers are white grape vinegar and fermented milk products. Rendered sheep fat is the general cooking oil, though vegetable oil and cottonseed oil are widely used. Olive oil and butter are not traditional cooking fats.
The Asian sun sweetens market produce. Delicious tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers, and eggplants comprise the basic vegetables. The area also offers unique varieties of pungent green radishes (turup), yellow carrots (actually turnips), and a prodigious selection of pumpkin and squash. Dolma, meaning "stuffed" in Turkish, may be created from any vegetableabbage, grape leaves, peppers, tomatoes, and so forthy hollowing it out or wrapping it around a filling. Spring fruits traditionally include grapes, apricots, strawberries, cherries, figs, and peaches. The tree harvest in autumn brings apples, quinces, persimmons, and pears. Winter delivers lemons, mandarins, pomegranates, and smooth-skinned melons. Melon slices are also sun-dried and braided into long ropes to take their place alongside dried apricots, figs, dates, and raisins.
Meat and rice. Lamb and mutton, mainly fatty-tailed sheep, are the favorite protein of Central Asians. The fat, which imparts a sweet and rich quality to a dish, is valued more than the meat itself. Beef and chicken are consumed in substantial quantities, and horse, camel, and goat are not uncommon. Fish, though not eschewed, is rarely available, and Islamic dietary law forbids pork. Shashlyk (shish kebab), the standard street food, is prepared with beef, mutton, or minced meat and served with flatbread and lightly pickled onions. A kebab of fresh sheep liver and tail fat is a true luxury. While Westerners forget their charcuterie traditions, no part of an animal in Central Asia is ever wasted. There are still dishes made of lungs, intestines, and sheep's head and trotters.
Pilaf (palov) epitomizes Central Asian cuisine. A ceremonial dish for guests and family days, pilaf is so ubiquitous that there is sometimes a mistaken impression that it is their only dish. Meat, onions, and carrots are sautéed, then simmered to a broth, and covered with rice. Raisins, barberries, chickpeas, or dried fruit may be added for variety. Cumin is often the sole spice, while turmeric is added on special occasions for its golden color. Similar to an American barbecue, pilaf preparation is considered a manly challenge. Working with only a woklike kazan and spatula (kapkir), an oshpaz, master pilaf chef, can serve up to a thousand people from a single cauldron, making him much in demand for festivals and weddings.
Bread and noodles. Flatbread is baked daily at home or in communal ovens. Bread is considered holy and accompanies each meal. Most baked goods are made with wheat flour, though mung bean and corn flour are used also. Some flatbreads are topped with onions, pieces of sheep's fat, or even meat. Others are glazed with kalonji, anise, poppy, or sesame seeds. In Xinjiang the round plump breads astoundingly resemble New York City bagels. Katlama, related to the Indian paratha, is flaky unleavened bread cooked on a skillet.
The steppe nomads have added flour and dough to their soups for centuries. A dish of square flat noodles topped with boiled meat is called beshbarmak in Kazak-Kyrgyz areas. From farther east come steamed dumplings, manty (Korean mandoo), vying with pilaf for the national dish in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Chinese Turkistan. Uighurs have mastered hand-pulled noodles, common in Korea and China proper. Made with only soft wheat, water, and salt, the transformation of a ball of dough into noodle threads in a matter of minutes is both compelling performance art and a dying culinary method.
A casing of dough with a typical filling of fatty mutton and onions becomes a number of other dishes simply by varying the cooking technique. If the dough is fried, the dish is called belyashi (Kazan Tartar) or chebureki (Crimean Tartar). The Turkish borek, also a fried savory pastry, may be related to the Slavic pirog, piroshki, and pierogi. Baked in a tandir, the dish is called samsa (Uzbek) or sambusa (Tajik), like Indian samosa. Steamed manty or hoshan (Kazak) are usually topped with a sauce of tomatoes, potatoes, and diced mutton. Smaller boiled versions of manty are chuchvara, pelmeni (Siberian), tushbera (Tajik), and joshpara (Farsi).
Hospitality and Traditions
Meals and customs. Central Asian cookery often requires great sacrifices on the part of the host. The Uzbek adage "Mehmon otanda ulugh" (the guest is greater than the father) remains accurate for most of the Muslim East. Generally, guests remove their shoes before entering the house and are seated at a low table (takhta) or on the floor with a kurpacha, or cushion. Diners gather around a dastarkhan (literally, tablecloth), which is an enormous assortment of food offered to the honored guest. On some occasions, men and women are separated. Special meals are eaten commensally by hand and can last for several hours with multiple courses and endless cups (piala) of tea. Though most of the region embraces Islam, alcohol is widely accepted in the successor states.
In addition to the ever-present pilaf, some distinct dishes are served during Islamic holidays. Navrus, the Muslim New Year, corresponds to the spring equinox. Halim, wheat porridge, is prepared from boiled meat and wheat grains, seasoned with black pepper and cinnamon. A children's favorite, nishalda, popular during Ramadan, is made with whipped egg whites, sugar, and licorice flavoring. Sumalak, symbolic of friendship and tolerance, is among the most traditional dishes. Prepared only by women, overnight, wheat sprouts are blended with oil, flour, and sugar and cooked on low heat. Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan with three days of feasting.
Tea and dessert. Freshly made green tea, the drink of hospitality, complements every meal. Teatime, which may occur at the slightest cause, often includes flatbread, sweets, fruits, and pastries. Dried fruit with nutsalnuts, pistachios, and almondss also a perfect accompaniment. Black tea is common in the Russian regions. Both teas are served with sugar, milk, salt, butter, or even fruit preserves. Uzbeks have a custom called shapirish, whereby the hostess returns the first two cups back into the teapot to stir the infusion. Thus the tea is described as going from mud (loy) to tea (choy) to wine (moy).
As sugar cane originated in India, sweets are a gift from the south, via Iran. This tradition produces tea sweets such chakchak, fried dough with honey; urama, fried spiraled strips of dough with powdered sugar; sugar-coated almonds; and novvot, crystallized sugar. More familiar halvah and paklava are also common desserts. Sharbat is fruit juice that migrated to Europe as frozen sherbet.
Food available outside the home includes street food and that from cafés, modern restaurants, and the traditional chai-khana (tearoom). Ideally near a poplar-lined stream or in a cool courtyard orchard, it is a gathering place for fraternity and socializing. The chai-khana in many ways functions like a community center and helps preserve certain aspects of Central Asian identity obscured by colonial powers.
Regional Variations and Specialties
The cuisines of Central Asia may be divided into three overlapping groups: Tajiks, Turks, and nomadic Turko-Mongol tribes. However simplistic, this categorization provides a more coherent approach to understanding the culinary cultures of Central Asia than organization along the arbitrary national boundaries. Numerous subcuisines from other ethnic minorities, such as Koreans, Tartars, Dungans (Chinese Muslims), Slavs, and Germans add to the culinary diversity of the area.
Sedentary cuisine. The Iranian-Tajik influence extends from Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan to Iran and Afghanistan and beyond to northern Pakistan and Jammu-Kashmir in India. These cuisines employ more vegetables and legumes, resort to complex seasonings, and boast elaborate sweets. Years of civil strife in Tajikistan and Afghanistan have devastated food supplies and interrupted traditional foodways. Generally, the farther away from the nomadic steppe, the more complex the spice blends and seasoning of the dishes. In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, an unusual dish is tuhum barak, an egg-filled ravioli flavored with sesame-seed oil. Tamerlane and his entourage of craftspeople from Samarkand, cooks included, brought the meat-eating tradition to India along with many fruits, particularly the melon and grape. The descendants of these cookshe Wazasre the master chefs of Kashmir.
The Turkic group of languages claims roughly 125 million speakers and stretches from Siberia to the Balkans. Uzbeks and Uighurs, as settled Turks, favor pilafs, noodles, and stews. Since the oasis civilization is a middle ground, literally and figuratively, between the Iranian courtly cuisine and the pastoral nomads, their food has become most representative of Central Asian cuisine. In Uzbekistan, moshkichiri and moshhurda are common meat and mung bean gruels. Dimlama is braised meat and vegetables cooked in a pot sealed with dough. Its origins may be tied to dumpukht in Farsi, signifying food cooked in its own steam, shortened also in India to dum, as in dum-aloo. Apricot seeds are specially treated and roasted in ash to produce an exceptional snack. Because of linguistic ties, Azerbaijan and Turkey are often included in Central Asian culinary culture, as these countries share roots, not to mention cooking methods and many dishes, with the Eurasian nomads.
Nomadic cuisine. Of all the Central Asian peoples, none has experienced such dramatic cultural upheaval due to colonization, industrialization, and urbanization as have the nomads. The traditional meal of steppe and highlands was meat on occasion, milk products, and the stray onion. As Turkmenistan is mostly desert, vegetable and grain cultivation is challenging. Chorek (flatbread), gruel, and tea remain typical for most meals.
In Soviet times the Turkmen, Kazaks, and Kyrgyz were forcefully settled into dreary apartment blocks. Separated from the land and their herds, the nomads adopted many Russian or Uzbek foods and customs. Kazaks and Kyrgyz claim as national dishes beshbarmak and kumys, fermented mare's milk. Horsemeat sausage (kazy), when served with cold noodles, is called naryn. Barley, wheat, and millet are quite common; from them comes dzarma, fermented barley flour. Boso, or fermented millet, and boorsak, a ritual dish made from small pieces of deep-fat-fried dough, are also found in Tibet by the same name. When the Uighurs and Dungans fled China in the late nineteenth century, they brought laghman, other noodle dishes, and spicy peppers that were quickly embraced by the Kazaks and Kyrgyz.
The diminished state of traditional foodways in Central Asia is often decried, particularly when judging the cuisine through the distorting prism of Western restaurant culture. These Eurasian civilizations were completely transformed during the colonial experience. However, the trend of globalization triggers entrenchment of cultural heritage and local foodways. As borders open, outside interest is countered with a pronounced revival and demonstration of ethnic identity. If domestic traditions and hospitality persevere, the Central Asian culinary arts and its foodways are bound to flourish.
See also China; Iran; Islam; Middle East; Noodles of Asia; Rice; Russia; Tea.
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Glenn R. Mack