Uzbek Village Plov
July, Uzbekistan. We ate this delicious staple in several villages between Samarkand and Bukhara. Plov is common throughout Central Asia. It’s available at canteens and roadside stalls, cooked for the whole family after work, and prepared on a vast scale for guests at a wedding breakfast. Our most memorable plov experience, and perhaps the tastiest, was indeed at a wedding breakfast we happened to pass whilst cycling through the villages between Samarkand and Bukhara. It was our second day on the road between those two cities. We started early in an attempt to fit in some cycling before the mid-July day became unbearably hot.
As we were passing through one village a man waved us down; he introduced himself as Nasradim and it was his daughter, Naforsat’s, wedding. There was watermelon, tea, and plov, and if it pleased us we were welcome to join them. It didn’t take much to persuade us. Smiling faces and willing hands wheeled our bikes through the large entrance gates typical of the houses and into the courtyard-garden area where a series of long tables were laid out. Guests were milling around sipping tea. Towards the far end of the scene there was busier table occupied by immaculately dressed older women; the overall effect an eye-catching array of brightly coloured patterns, sequinned headscarfs, shimmering jewellery, and the cursory gold teeth.
After being shown to the tap to freshen up we were seated at the nearest table and huge plates of steaming plov were brought out. Uzbek weddings happen on a vast scale; we’d been told 200 guests is considered small and 600 large. This was the first day of proceedings in which the families of the bride and groom celebrate separately. Beginning with a huge breakfast and ending with dancing and music in the evening. It was around ten and we’d caught the tail end of breakfast which, like us, had begun around five so as to make the most of the coolest part of the day. By now people had mostly finished and were relaxing and socialising, coming and going throughout the day until the evening dancing commenced.
Having eaten all we could eat we followed Nasradim to the back of the garden where he showed us the hugest plov dish we’d ever seen. I suspect it would take three people to lift. In the villages plov is often made over a wood fire in these huge thick basin style dishes. But this one was a dish you could take a bath in. It was deliciously moist and flavoursome though. A breakfast cooked on that scale and in just one pot: we were impressed.
That morning we didn’t get to witness the plov being prepared but a few days later we were lucky enough to observe the method when we stayed with another family. On this occasion we also had a delicious plov. This time in the evening.
We had returned to visit the family on our way back from Khiva and Bukhara and arrived laden with ingredients. Our intention was to cook for them as a thank you for putting us up the week before. We’d had a riotous time playing with their kids and Sophie had fallen in love with a certain ginger farm kitten, Chut-Chut (small in Russian).
That evening we got to share the kitchen. We began cooking up a curry on a gas canister whilst they were making plov over the cooking hearth. So whilst being sure not to neglect our own creation we took full advantage and kept one eye on the plov.
What we learned:
The rice was sifted and washed, then left soaking in water while other other ingredients were prepared. The fire was stoked up intensely to begin with; to burn fast and hot beneath the pan while cuts of meat were seared Carrots were cut into long thin shredded-style slices, approximately 5mm thick and 5cm long. Onions into half rings. Whole heads of garlic had the roots removed but were left in the skins. These cooked whole within the top of the mixture. Their flavour permeated through the dish and the cloves ended up a lovely gooey texture. (When it came to the meal itself, people passed around the heads of garlic, taking however many cloves they fancied). Once the cuts of meat were seared, after about three or four minutes, it was all removed and the vegetables were fried in the fat and juices over a fairly high heat for a few minutes until they had softened and browned on the outside. Vegetable stock was then added until what was in the pan appeared almost broth-like. This was then heated over the hot fire for a few minutes. Seasoning (cumin, salt, pepper) was then added. And any dried fruits. These often include barberries and raisins that have been pre-soaked for a while till they’re nice and fat. By now the fire had been allowed to settle and the pan was being heated be the embers. Add the meat back in and leave simmering until most of the liquid has evaporated off. On the evening in question this seemed to take around half an hour - but it’s probably a case of leaving until it suits you as the mixture just sits and slow cooks nicely. The rice was then added and a few ladles of extra water (or stock) were poured over. The mixture was then covered with a second smaller upturned plov dish resulting in a rice mound. This part of the process lasted until the rice was cooked through. Steamed within the upturned dish. Once the dish was removed the mixture was stirred thoroughly so all any juices and vegetables at the bottom were evenly dispersed. The plov was served, piled high on plates that were shared between one, two, or three people depending on their appetite. Each topped off with a small cut of the meat and sprig of herbs.
Obviously we presume not everyone has access to a typical village cooking hearth or plov dish so we’re subbing in a few elements here and there in the following method. Feel free to get in touch if you think there’s room for improvement. We won’t have time to trial this one ourselves till we’re back!
Uzbek Village Plov
There seems to be an abundance of plov in Uzbekistan. We were never sure how much of what was ending up where. The amounts we’re proposing below should serve 8 - 10 people.
What you will need:
1kg x rice
Oil or ghee
Vegetable stock (plenty, to taste)
10 x medium size knobbly old carrots (in long thin slices, approx 0.5cm x 5cm, or coarsely grated if you prefer)
4 x average size onions (sliced in thin half rings)
3 x garlic heads (roots removed but left whole)
Salt & pepper
Barberries and/or raisins (soaked)
Small cuts of lamb shoulder (enough for one per person, if meat’s your cup of tea)!
Fresh coriander (roughly chopped)
We imagine a large casserole dish or thick bottomed wok pan would work well for this. Wash the rice and leave to soak. Cut the meat into individual pieces of approximately 2 inches in length. Wrap the garlic heads individually in foil with some oil and leave roasting in the oven at around 180 degrees. Sear the meat in oil or ghee over a high heat for 3 - 4 mins. Remove the meat, turn the heat down, and add the onions to the oil and meat juices in the pan. Cover and leave to sweat/brown for a few minutes. Turn the heat to medium and add the vegetable stock, carrots and meat, stirring in the onions to ensure they’re not sticking to the bottom of your pan. The stock should cover but not overwhelm the mixture. Season with plenty of salt and pepper and a spoonful off cumin. Let this all slow cook until most of the water has evaporated off. We suggest half an hour to forty mins, by which time the meat and carrots should be nice and tender. Next; drain your rice well and mix in the dried fruit. Then layer this on top of your other ingredients. Create three garlic sized pockets within the rice and add the roasted garlic heads, removing the foil but leaving them in their skins. Pour over some boiling salted water. You should just about cover the rice and then cook initially on high, reducing the heat as the water reduces. When the rice is part cooked, cover it tightly with a suitable size upturned bowl or pan, creating a plov dome. Turn the heat right down and allow it to steam for around fifteen to twenty mins, until the rice is moist and sticky but cooked through. When the rice is ready add a pinch more salt if necessary and stir it all through, ensuring an even distribution within the rice of all the lovely ingredients from the bottom of the pan.
To serve in true Uzbek style; position a cut of meat on the top of each plate and sprinkle with fresh coriander as you see fit.
And for a little extra zest: we think the wedding plov also had thinly grated orange zest in amongst the carrots, and perhaps a bit of juice in the stock. Some plov has whole chillis roasted in with the garlic and some has thinly sliced chillis amidst the onions at the beginning. When next we get the chance to make this we'd love to try sprinkling some toasted almond flakes on top at the end too. Every plov seems to be slightly different. The above recipe will hopefully provide a good basis for some nice experimentation though.