July, Uzbekistan. The 't' in Chut-Chut is silent. . .
Throughout Uzbekistan we were a group of three. Travelling with Sophie, a solo German cyclist we’d befriended a few days earlier in Tashkent.
On our ride from Samarkand to Bukhara we had been invited to stay the night by Zarbuve and Dilbas. Mothers of two neighbouring families we’d met on a small village road running just to the north of the main road between Kattakurgan and Navoi. It had reached twilight and we were still cycling slowly down the road, looking from side to side in search of a likely camp spot or day bed when we met them. So we were relieved and happy to accept their offer of a place to rest. And they were immediately all smiles and laughter at the curious sight of us. We leant the bikes against a wall and sat to have tea on a slightly raised concrete terrace besides Zarbuve’s house which was at the edge of the small cluster of earth-brick buildings where the two families lived. As the sun set, several more children and family members began to emerge from the various paths that ran between the houses and out to the fields on all sides. It ended up being an amazing evening. We laughed a lot, were clambered all over by piles of awesome kids, and shared a fantastic meal of bread and yoghurt followed by plov, salad and watermelon. By this point Sophie, a cat lover, had fallen head over heels for a small ginger kitten who she’d named ‘Chut-Chut’; Russian for ‘little’, and the pair became inseparable for the duration of our visit.
The cats around the farm are not pets, they live alongside the families fulfilling a pest-control duty up to a point, and being tolerated, up to a point. That is, provided they don't overstep the mark. This was most evident at mealtime when the families ate together outside, seated on blankets at ground level. Over the course of our evening meal poor Chut-Chut got hurled from the scene on more than one occasion when he became too bold approaching one of the children’s plates. Much to Sophie’s dismay.
Most of our nights in Uzbekistan were spent outside under the stars and as Zarbuve and her daughter brought out their bedding and began to lay out a nest for the night we followed suit and organised our sleeping matts on a daybed under a tree. The two older girls, Sabina & Jasmina, found our little inflatable lantern and lime green inflatable matts hilarious and began to throw the lantern around and hurl themselves at the matts, shrieking hysterically. Their parents sipping tea and laughing gently in the background. Sophie had decided the risk of a kitten-claw puncture was worth the pleasure of Chut-Chut joining her for the night and, much to the girls’ amusement, she soon had him curled up on her chest like a tiny purring hot water bottle. The matts survived the bouncy castle treatment and we said goodnight to our highly adrenalised, not-so-sleepy new friends. The next morning Sophie had rolled over but Chut-Chut was still there, tucked under her arm and purring away.
Being taken under the wing of an entire family, young and old, is one of the nicest feelings when away from your own, and after a long giggly breakfast the next morning we hugged Zarbuve, hi-fived Sabina and Jasmina, and received an adorable little peck on the cheek each from Ferengez who looked as gorgeous and cheeky as any toddler ever has in a brightly-coloured little knit waistcoat. It was an emotional goodbye to say the least; Ruth and Zarbuve had tears in their eyes watching Sophie unpick Chut-Chut’s claws from her top and gently place him on the ground. Sophie was so obviously smitten that the family suggested we take him with us in a basket. I don’t think they were joking and I’m sure Sophie was tempted in the moment but with one final stroke we continued on our way. Quietly at first. Ruth and I were both smiling and I couldn’t help musing over how incredibly lovely the last twenty four hours had been.
Over the next few days we began discussing our plans for the Pamir Highway; our route through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan which would take up most of the next two months. And Sophie, who’d wanted to cycle there for several years, decided to join us. She would do a long loop back to Bishkek, where she had begun her own journey prior to meeting us in Tashkent, and then fly back to Germany from there. What this meant was that after Khiva and Bukhara, we three would all be pedalling back towards Samarkand together. It now seemed obvious that we should make a return visit to Zarbuve and our friends in the village. And for Sophie the amusing possibility of picking up Chut-Chut became a serious consideration.
Our Google search history soon became cat-littered.
‘Do cats suffer altitude sickness?’
‘Long distance cat baskets.'
‘How to take a cat from Asia to Germany?’
‘Cat passport registration. Samarkand?’
‘Flying with bikes and cats?’
‘Vaccinations for flying kittens’ … etc etc
Sophie isn’t an crazy cat lady with no grasp on reality. She’s an amazing woman who speaks a handful of languages fluently, is well travelled, holds a masters in environmental law, and has spent a decent amount of time in Central Asia. She understood that you can't just hide a kitten inside a watermelon and cross a border. She’s not naive. But she’s also willing to try things even if they sound just a little bit crazy and having done a bit of research she thought it might just be possible to take a farm kitten back to Leipzig. Either way, before any of this became worth worrying about we decided we’d return to the village and cook for our friends - to say thank you for their hospitality last time around.
In order for it to be of interest we needed to concoct something that was suitably not-local, but we would have to do this using a limited range of ingredients that were very much local. We had some fresh garlic, lemons, and ginger still and we always had an assortment of travelling herbs and spices. And though most of these were no longer at their best they could still encourage a dish in a particular direction. The villages we were cycling through were fairly self sufficient and we hadn’t seen a supermarket for a while. Or a mini market. Or anything really. But even though our pannier-cupboards were bare and we’d conceived a plan to cook a meal for two families in a kitchen that might not resemble any kitchen we’d ever seen before, we weren’t too worried. The longer you ride a bike the more you begin to see that stuff often has a way of working itself out. Cycle-touring and serendipity go together hand in hand.
Within an hour or so a man pulled up on a motorbike alongside us and introduced himself as Abdul Rachman. As is customary in the area he invited us to join him for tea. He bid us follow him back down the dusty track, declaring he only lived five minutes away. By now we’d come to recognise that 'five minutes' is an entirely elastic statement that might mean ‘round the corner’ but might also mean ‘round the mountain’. July in Uzbekistan is hot though and we all felt dusty and parched. So after briefly conferring we gratefully accepted Abdul Rachman’s offer of tea, turned our bikes around, and set off again in the direction from which we’d just come.
It wasn’t five minutes.
But it wasn’t far off.
And it was lovely. A very welcome break. We sat in the shade with Abdul Rachman and his wife Samanda, and daughter Max, enjoying a pot of green tea and half a watermelon together.
After tea the family showed us around their plot of land and began proudly offering various items of produce, insisting we take whatever we could carry. We’d become accustom to drive-by gifts of fruit and roadside offers of carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers in the villages. We didn’t take such generosity for granted but gifts of food and offers of tea, meals and, more often than not, a place to sleep, are a lovely fact of travelling through Islamic countries, especially in the rural parts. By this point in the trip it was something with which we’d become familiar and comfortable. That day, however, it was on a different scale. Soon the back of the bikes were laden with enough veg to feed a entire family, or even two, and the crowning item; a huge pumpkin. We felt very lucky.
An hour or so before dusk we arrived at Zarbuve’s. We wheeled the bikes around the side of the house as we’d been shown last time, past the daybed on which we’d spent the night a week or so before, and knocked at the door. A surprised Zarbuve answered and immediately smiled and hugged each of us. She spoke to Sophie in Russian for a while and laughed quietly, gesturing us all follow her into the house where Sabina, Ferengez and Jasmina were all curled up on sleeping matts having their afternoon naps. As tea was poured we made a concerted effort to stay quiet but soon all the kids were wide awake and our present for them, a large ball, was spotted.
Within a minute or two the calm room was filled with excited shrieking noises, the ball flying backwards and forwards chaotically. Ferengez’ technique was to grasp the ball in two hands and roll it up her body until it was raised above her head, a smile slowly spreading from an initial look of deep concentration; becoming bigger and bigger until the ball was as high as she could hold it and she could smile no wider. Then she would pretty much fall over each time she threw it, its trajectory varying but her thrill consistent. Jasmina, a couple of years older, had amazing natural coordination and showcased the kind of skills of which football-loving children twice her age would be very jealous.
Dinner was discussed and although it seemed the idea of guests cooking was a funny one, a plan was hatched. Sophie asked about Chut-Chut but sadly for her he was nowhere to be seen.
After more tea we were led to the kitchen. On one side was a large plov oven; a sandy clay coloured cob style wood-fire oven with a big hole in the top into which a family size plov dish is lowered to sit just above a wood fire. In the corner opposite was an disconnected gas range which looked like it hadn’t been used in a while and that seemed to serve as a worktop, and besides that there was a huge gas canister. The ceiling was black above the plov oven, fading out to its original colour eventually; but evidently charred by the daily wood-smoke of endless plovs. Cooking pots and dishes hung from various places and water would be brought up from the well, as required. As there were a lot of people (and more would doubtless turn up) Zarbuve and Dilbas would also cook plov whilst we would knock together a pumpkin hotpot of some kind on the gas.
Except for the occasional intrusion of the ball and a few minutes when Sabina stoked the plov fire and smoked everybody out the cooking went according to plan. And by dinner time the news had travelled that the bike-riding foreigners were back. Curiously; they wanted to cook something. And yet more curiously; they were asking about a kitten. Soon extra matts and cushions were required. What we were cooking seemed to be a source of intrigue and we were excited about sharing our contribution. We sliced and diced our gargantuan pumpkin, added our ingredients in stages, and then seasoned our simmering stew. And in between turns of stirring, Sophie went in search of her AWOL kitten.
Once both the dishes were ready hefty plates of plov were laid out next to bowls of our pumpkin stew, which were picked up, handed around and studied up close in amusement, eventually settling on the matts between the more familiar helpings of plov and portions of salad. Clearly our gesture had been appreciated in some way as it had been a source of hilarity and great interest but as the plov was tucked into we realised that nobody else was eating the pumpkin stew. Not a single person. It wasn’t especially spicy or herby. It tasted, to us, like a decent veggie stew. But as we glanced around we realised absolutely nobody was even trying it, let along eating it. We wondered whether people would simply eat their meal in stages; plov followed by pumpkin followed by salad perhaps. But as more plov was ladled out and salad plates emptied the still-full bowls of pumpkin stew began to look both comical and pitiful. Had we somehow stepped out of turn or committed a social faux-pax? In so far as we know this wasn’t the case; the scene was slowly becoming hilarious and everybody was enjoying themselves. Vodka was brought out, music was played, a local English teacher from the next town even turned up. All in all it was another incredibly lovely evening.
As for the neglected stew; to be honest we still can’t explain it. Needless to say it served a purpose. As with the best of food this unwanted & untouched offering brought people together. And it made everybody concerned laugh, though maybe for different reasons and perhaps nobody knew what was going on. I imagine our friends back in the village probably scratch their heads as much as we do whenever it comes up in conversation.
And as for Chut-Chut; sadly for Sophie he didn’t make a repeat appearance. Zarbuve explained he'd moved to a neighbouring farm that had less cats. Needless to say he was one incentive for the return visit and in some way inspired our thoroughly western-European gesture. One which was lost in translation but that seemed to go down very well nonetheless. Perhaps cooking in your host’s kitchen is as inexplicable a thing as spending the night with a cat on your chest. Or perhaps it was just time to eat plov and why change the habits of a lifetime. Cultural anomalies aside we felt lucky to have met these families the first time around and a week later, as we departed once again, we felt doubly lucky.
If you want to recreate our rejected pumpkin stew; either for its aesthetic value or to actually eat, here’s how we did it. .
Served twelve. Consumed by three. Amused all. . .
What you will need:
3 large onions
4 x tomatoes (roughly chopped)
2 x red peppers (sliced and diced)
1 x large pumpkin (peeled and cut into smallish chunks or cubes, save the seeds)
5 x medium sized potatoes (cut or cubed similarly to the pumpkin)
5 x cloves of garlic
Paprika (a goodly spoonful or two - ours was quite old by this point)
3 x carrots (peeled and sliced)
2 x tins of chickpeas
Ginger (a goodly slice; grated)
1 x lemon
Pumpkin seeds (from your pumpkin, lightly toasted and sprinkled on top)
Using a large pan, fry the onions in oil for a couple of minutes over a medium heat. Add the tomatoes and red peppers and continue to fry. After a couple more minutes add the pumpkin, potatoes and tomato puree, and turn up the heat, stirring so as not to let anything stick to the bottom of the pan. After a couple more minutes turn the heat down to a medium flame and add the cloves of garlic and all the herbs and spices, along with a cup of vegetable stock. Keep it moving so the garlic doesn't burn. Heat this all through for a minute or so and then add enough water to cover the contents (we used cold but I would have used hot if we'd had a kettle). Cook for ten minutes or so and then add the carrots. If it's reduced down too much add a cup of water as necessary. Leave this to bubble away for a further twenty minutes or so, until the pumpkin and potatoes have begun to soften and are nearly cooked through. Add the chickpeas and grated ginger to the pan along with the juice of a lemon and salt and pepper to taste. Leave this simmering away on a low heat for a few minutes or until you're ready to eat. It should thicken up nicely as it cooks. Serve with toasted pumpkin seeds, chopped basil or parsley, and a goodly squeeze of lemon on top. For a nice bit of extra colour and flavour you could also grate the zest of your lemon over the top.