Landlocked in the heart of Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s cuisine is highly influenced by the countries that surround it. To the east lies China, bringing with it the use of ingredients like soy sauce, ginger and vinegar. A dish where this influence is most clear is lagman – a hearty meat stew with hand-pulled noodles.
Swing south and you’ll find Afghanistan, Pakistan and India whose spices are similar to those used in Uzbek cooking (though they are generally exploited in less complex ways in the latter). To the north is Russia, which still exerts particular influence on the cuisine following Uzbekistan’s Soviet past; dill, for instance, is ubiquitous.
Finally, to the west lie Iran and Turkey, where the culinary crossover is, perhaps, the most marked. Many of the standout flavours of Persian food – saffron, pomegranates, fresh herbs, pistachios, almonds, dried fruits, pilafs and smoky, grilled kebabs – are also to be found on Uzbek menus.
As with so many destinations, for the best Uzbek food, try to negotiate an invitation to dine at a family home. If you don’t manage that, the following restaurants are also well worth seeking out…
Central Asian Plov Centre
Plov is the undisputed king of Uzbek cuisine and the plov centre, in Tashkent, is the perfect place to try it. Specialist plov chefs called oshpaz cook this layered meat and rice dish in giant outdoor kazans, scenting the air with a rich meaty smell.
Sit in the bustling dining hall here and you will be brought a lagan (large painted platter) on which first the rice, then spiced shredded carrot, then an unctuous piece of slow-cooked beef or lamb and a scattering of quails eggs will be layered.
Ergashev & Abdurashidov, Tashkent (00 998 71 234 2902)
Chef Chustiy is Uzbekistan’s answer to Jamie Oliver. A social media champion, he specializes in bringing traditional Uzbek dishes up-to-date. Whilst he doesn’t play around with classic ingredients and flavours, his versions of samsa (crisp pastry triangles filled with lamb), lagman (a meaty noodle dish) and tomato and purple basil salad are beautifully refined. Try the tasting platter at his Tashkent restaurant.
Separated from the street by a wall of water, this Samarkand restaurant has an attractive outdoor terrace. Enjoy well-executed local dishes such as chalop (yoghurt and herb soup), smoky lamb kebabs and manti (steamed dumplings stuffed with cumin-spiked mutton).
The pattern-stamped non (fluffy Uzbek bread) is very good, as is the carrot salad. This spicy, piquant dish is a Central Asian-Korean fusion, a legacy of the half million Koreans exiled to the region during WW11.
Located in the Russian quarter of Samarkand, Old City restaurant has a long and varied menu with both local and Russian dishes. It is a great place for fresh vegetable salads and (unusually in meat-heavy Uzbekistan) caters well for vegetarians. Try the cucumber with dill and purple basil, or the Russian beetroot salad. The wine selection is good too.
100 rue A. Jomy, Samarkand (00 998 93 346 8020)
For the best breakfast in Uzbekistan head to this charming Bhukara guesthouse. Located in a 19th-century Jewish merchant’s house, eating in the old painted dining room feels like a timeless experience.
A breakfast feast is laid out each morning including hot blinis, fluffy pancakes, fresh doughnuts or warm bread. Eat these with homemade apricot compote, tart yoghurt and fresh yellow cherries.
Restaurant Old Bhukara
This attractive rooftop restaurant has great views over the magical city of Bhukara. Inside, tables are laid with ikat cloths and niches are filled with colourful Uzbek pottery. Choose shashlik or kebabs, freshly cooked on a charcoal grill, and eat them with non (bread) and juicy tomato salad.
Street Samarkand 3, Bhukara (00 998 90 185 7077)
Silk Road Spices
The chaikhana (teahouse) is the central meeting place in every settlement across Central Asia. It is where village elders, known as asksakal (white beards), gather on divans under wood-carved pillars to while away the day with tea poured from samovars.
This large teahouse in Bhukara is more accessible to foreign visitors than most, with an English menu of fantastic spiced teas. Try the saffron and cardamom infusion, served in traditional cotton-patterned pots, and the delicate pistachio halva.
Khorezm Art Restaurant
The vivid green noodles flecked with fresh dill are the main draw at this madrasa restaurant in Khiva. Made in-house they can be topped with an egg and soured cream, or with a meaty stew. This is also the place to try the local specialty of tuhum barak (egg dumplings).
Fresh pasta dough is filled with beaten egg and milk, then served with a generous slick of molten butter. Enjoy these in a wonderful old courtyard with elaborately patterned chapan coats hanging on the walls.
Allah Kuli Khan Madrasa, Khiva (00 998 95 606 9270)
Samarkand: recipes and stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus by Eleanor Ford and Caroline Eden is published by Kyle Books (£25).
Written in June 2016. Photography by Laura Edwards.
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