Poking Around in Central Asia: October 2014

Trip 2 - Part 2 - Plov

Isfara, Tajikistan

by Craig Mains

Poking Around in Central Asia: October 23rd 2014
Trip 2 - Part 2

Isfara, Tajikistan
by Craig Mains


Plov

Photo by Craig Mains

Thursday, October 23, 2014
Isfara, Tajikistan
Rather than continuing to eat breakfast at the restaurant, Rustam started hosting us for breakfast at the office of the Water Users Association. It was more casual since it was just Sandra, Tais, Sasha, Sergei, and me. There was usually some yogurt, salami-like preserved meat of some sort, cheese, a variety of dried and fresh fruit, some sweets such as sugared almonds and cookies, nan, and tea. The orange chunks on the plate towards the right are some kind of flavored crystallized sugar. You could eat them as candy or break off a piece to sweeten your tea. They were too sweet for me.

Rustam only occasionally sat down to eat with us. He is in the background on the porch of the office building talking to someone on the phone, which was not unusual.


Photo by Craig Mains

The third day of meeting was our second day of presentations. Today was all Sandra so I had very little to do. Her presentation covered basic drinking water and wastewater management for rural areas. These are topics that I know a lot more about than I do about irrigation. Since the irrigation presentations required so much upfront work on my part, we had agreed to let her develop the water and wastewater presentations for which we had a lot of materials already developed from which to start.

Sandra did a good job. I answered a couple of questions but she fielded most of them on her own. I did notice that the attendees seemed to pay less attention than they did yesterday. There were some side conversations going on that I hadn't noticed yesterday. I got the feeling that they didn't feel like they were obligated to pay as much attention to what a woman was saying. It may also have had something to do with this being the third day of sitting through meetings--people were getting tired. Sandra noticed it too and felt like it had something to do with her presentations but I don't think it did.


Photo by Craig Mains

The presentations went straight through again like they did yesterday, meaning we had a mid-afternoon lunch at the same restaurant. Afterwards we were off to the bazaar once again. Sergei had requested that Makmoud teach him how to make Tajik-style plov. So we needed to get some ingredients, both for Makmoud to cook with and for Sergei to take back home with him.

Sandra, who I think was relieved to have the first round of presentations over, suggested that we buy some vodka for some toasting later in the evening. So, we asked Makmoud to take us to the liquor store, which was in the bazaar. We ended up buying three bottles of their better vodka.


Photo by Craig Mains

Makmoud told us that plov required a special type of rice. Above is the rice vendor at the market. He sells many different types of rice, most of which are grown locally, for different types of dishes.

Sergei bought some "plov rice" in bulk so when he got back to North America he could make proper plov with the proper rice. He must have bought at least 10 kilos. The vendor packed it in a plastic bag inside a heavy box wrapped with packing tape. He even fashioned a surprisingly sturdy handle for the box using packing tape.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

One of the vendors at the bazaar. In Tajikistan having a single eyebrow that spans the forehead is considered desirable. Sometimes a woman who was unfortunate enough to have a gap in the middle would compensate with makeup.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

This was one of our drivers while we were in Isfara. I think he worked for Rustam at the Water Users Association.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

After visiting the market, Makmoud took us by one of the other outposts of the Water Users Association. This facility splits the water from the main canal that is diverted from the river by the upstream flow control gates. Makmoud is pretending to explain to Tais how much of the water goes where. We weren't really there for educational purposes though.


Photo by Craig Mains

This shows one of the smaller canals that is split from the main canal.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

I was momentarily under the impression that Makmoud brought us by the facility to show Sandra and me some of the downstream components of the irrigation infrastructure. But, I quickly learned that the real reason we came by was because the person who staffs the facility grows a garden nearby in his spare time and Makmoud needed some of these root vegetables for the plov he would make that evening.

I'm not exactly sure what these vegetables are. They looked like turnips but did not look exactly like the varieties of turnips or rutabagas that I am familar with. They had a distinctly yellow flesh. I thought the gardener looked like he could be Sasha's father.


Photo by Craig Mains

He also had a rose garden and insisted on presenting Tais and Sandra with bouquets. I don't think he got too many visistors and seemed thrilled to have unexpected guests.


Photo by Craig Mains

One of the nice things about swinging by the canal diversion facility was that we got to see some different local scenery. We had been taking mainly the same route from the guesthouse to the meeting building and back each day.

This rice field near the facility was divided into sections separated by earthen berms. They could flood individual cells with irrigation water as needed.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

We also got to see some of the backstreets of Isfara.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Another view of the backstreets of Isfara. Throughout Central Asia it seemed like I rarely saw any empty streets--there always seemed to be people out and about on foot. This happened to be around the time that kids were coming home from school but even at other times it seemed like someone was always out. American streets seem comparatively lonely.

Shortly after, we were back at the guesthouse. Sergei filled me in on the approximate time we would be eating dinner and said I could either come by for the plov cooking lessons or relax at the guesthouse. I decided to take a short nap but I must have been more tired than I realized because I slept longer than I had intended.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

A view of the entrance to the Water Users Association building. It was starting to feel like a home away from home since were now having both breakfast and dinner here.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Makmoud and one of his co-workers beginning the preparation of the plov ingredients. I wasn't around for these early steps since I was catching up on my sleep. This is the same porch where Jerry and I had plov during the first trip.

That is one of the local white melons in the middle of the picture, which they also picked up from the market. I like how the vendor twisted some dry leaves together and tied them into a rope handle to make carrying the melon easier.

(All of the plov-making photos are Sandra's. I was recharging batteries.)


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

The meat was mainly lamb.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Makmoud was the master chef with some help from his co-workers and Sergei.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

The meat went in first, followed by the root vegetables, which were cut into julienne-type strips. This was about the time I showed up.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

The cast iron cooking pan is called a kazan or qazan. It is shaped like a wok with a rounded bottom, but unlike a wok it does not have any real handles. Instead, it has four tabs so that it sits into a support. The heat was regulated by adding more sticks or pulling sticks out from under the support if it got too hot.

Makmoud told us that there is a legend that plov was invented by Alexander the Great when his troops were on the move. He wanted a dish that was hearty enough that his troops would only have to stop once a day to eat. This is why the dish has traditionally been cooked outside by men according to Makmoud.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Meanwhile, they were getting the rice ready. I think he is sorting out any small pieces of non-rice items.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Makmoud and Sergei add the rice, which had been presoaked for a bit. They let it toast for a little before they added water. They had removed the root vegetables and set them aside. They would be reunited later.

I asked if plov, both the dish and the name, was a variation on pilaf. Sergei conferred with Makmoud and told me they are not even remotely in the same culinary category. Sergei seemed a little indignant that I would even suggest it. However, from what I've since read, most food experts consider both the name and the dish to be related. Pilaf seems to be more vegetable-based and is often more of a side dish, while Central Asia plov has more meat and is almost a complete meal on its own.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Sandra had brought the vodka by earlier and the cooking crew had already emptied one bottle and started on the second by the time I got there. The drinking part was a little tricky for me. It appeared to me that a certain amount of drinking and toasting was culturally expected. It seemed OK for Sandra, Tais, and Anna to drink sparingly or not at all, but it seemed like it would have been considered rude for me to do the same. So, even though I rarely drank hard liquor any more, I considered it my duty to help out with the vodka. Fortunately for me, by the time I arrived on the scene after my nap, the plov cooking crew had already finished off one bottle and had made a dent in the second. That was that much less that I had to drink.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Final steps. Makmoud had returned the root vegetables and added some sweet red peppers, lemons, and three or four full heads of garlic.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

I don't know about the two guys on the end, but Makmoud and Sasha were pretty lit up. Despite all three countries we visited being Islamic countries, Tajikistan even more so than they other two, everyone seemed to like vodka. Rustam, who I think was pretty devout, offered some toasts. I never saw him appear to approach being inebriated though.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

The final spread, laid out inside the office building...


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

...garnished with some pomegranate. Rustam put one of the heads of roasted garlic on my plate. Man, was that tasty. It had absorbed all the flavors from everything else in the plov. Besides the plov there was also some fresh fruit and vegetables, nan, tea, and whatever vodka was still left.

While we were eating it started to rain. It was a very pleasant rain, not heavy but steady. It made a relaxing sound on the roof of the office and on the trees outside. It was the first rain they had had in more than five months and it rained for most of the night. By first rain, I don't mean the first significant rainfall--according to Rustam and Makmoud they had not had even a drop of rain during that time.

Although the guesthouse was a five-minute walk away, Makmoud rode us to the guesthouse since it was raining. Sandra had packed an umbrella (just in case) that came in handy getting from the office to the car.

Tomorrow was scheduled to be a free day. Rustam informed us that he was going to take us into the mountains to show us the source of the Isfara River.


Next: The "Source" of the Isfara River

 

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