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Uzbek Cuisine, Chinese Style

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Fall Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(3) page(s): 23 and 24

Uzbek culture, ancient though not known by that name, came to China with travelers on the Silk Road. Little is known about their very early history other than they were probably part of very old Persian states including Bactria, Khoerezm, and Sogdiana. For some time they may have dominated Central Asia but this was probably cut short by the ravages of Jenghiz (Genghiz) Kahn in the early 13th century of this era. The name, Uzbek, Chinese and other sources indicate, originated from the Ukbek Khan, a local Mongolian ruler in the 14th century.

Today, most Uzbek people are Muslims, and most of them live in China in cities and counties in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region. Some also live in the Yunnan Province. They are a very small minority population, perhaps fifteen thousand or so live in China. Even though their numbers are small, they had considerable impact in the regions where they live. Outside of China they are not a small group, some twenty-five million live in Uzbekistan.

We feature them in this issue by reader request. Many tourists come in contact with them in China in Urumchi, Kashi, Yining, and other places they visit. Still others who have visited them now go to Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand, cities in Uzbekistan. Though that country gained independence in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most Uzbek people in China have not sought to go there.

New as a country, Uzbek people are not new to Central Asia any more than they are new to China. Theirs is an ancient civilization with a newer Muslim-dominated religion. Incorporation of this religion became part of their culture in the second half of the seventh century CE.

Uzbek foods had considerable influence in earlier centuries when their ancestors came to China as merchants. They spread goods and good ways of living introducing handicrafts, silk mills, their type of animal husbandry vis a vis herding and butchering; and now their descendants are spreading their Muslim way of life, and their foods.

Uzbek influences are intertwined with those of the Uygur People discussed in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 11(1) on pages 9 and 10 and pages 37 and 38. Muslim beliefs were generalized in an article titled: Islamic Cuisine in China in Volume 11(2) on pages 7 and 35.

Akin to that spoken by Uygur people, the Uzbek language is a Turkic branch of the Altaic language. They write it down using Arabic script. From their food habits, as Muslims, they do not eat pork nor do they drink alcohol. What they do eat and love is mutton. They also eat both beef and horsemeat, and they use many dairy products including mare’s milk. The basic staple in their diet is wheat, often made into a very crusty pancake. In China they eat this staple food at virtually every meal along with lots of rice, pilaf style, which they call plov.

The Uzbek people prefer their meat stewed and have contributed many casserole-type foods into the Chinese culinary repertoire. They also like it skewered and grilled. In most Chinese cities from Beijing to Guangzhou, one can find merchants selling some made the latter way; it is a common street food. However, what makes theirs a bit different was popular generations ago and is not always present today. This is the addition of a sweetener, mainly honey. They add that to their casseroles and mix spices in and brush it on their skewered meats.

Early Chinese dynastic leaders adored their sweet casseroles. Sweet or not, they almost always added potatoes. If you have a stewed batch of food in China and it has potatoes, its origins are probably Uzbek. To go with all of their foods, the Uzbek people’s beverage of choice at all meals is green tea. Many add milk to it if hot, and do not bother to do so if it is tepid or cool. Nowadays, Uzbek people also like to drink beer; that they like cool or cold.

One dish Uzbek people love, and one we had at both Uzbek homes we visited some years ago, is Naren. It is a delicious mix of chopped meat, onions, and sour milk made and served with potatoes and pieces of their thick pancake-like bread torn and put into the casserole. It soaks up the juices. Additional fresh pancake-like bread was there for dipping and eating, as was a plov rice dish. Both dishes had a lot of white and black pepper. Neither could have been better.

Their stewed foods cook for hours assuring magnificent mingling of flavors. Because of the time needed to make them, nowadays they are reserved for holiday dining. However, at least one is always served to guests, and we were lucky enough to be one of them. Eating as our hosts did, we used just three fingers of the right hand. That meant getting/grabbing pieces of meat and/or potato with a piece of pancake-like bread. With that one hand we needed to tear it enabling garnering of meat, potatoes, and gravy on each piece before popping it into our mouths. For us it was no easy task.

The plov was called Mixed Meat and Vegetable Plov, and we were a bit clumsy and slow eating ours. Our host spotted our ineptness and tore many pieces and placed them nearby. We were most appreciative. Had he not done so, we might still be trying to get our fill.

Uzbek people eat a lot at meals and they like to snack, and do often. Favorites are sugared nuts, spicy nuts, dumplings, salted apricot seeds, roasted soy and chick peas, puffed wheat and puffed rice made into balls held together with some honey, dumpling-like foods not unlike a samosa, several sweet honey-laden pastries, and several noodle dishes sweetened with lots of shredded carrots.

They also like salads made with wine vinegar, dishes made with black sesame seeds, lots of vegetables, and large stuffed fruits. In one home, we had a stuffed stewed fruit, our notes and memory do not indicate which one, with meat and potato filling and some dried fruits. Our hosts advised that holiday foods are more of the same. For the affluent, which they were not, dishes made with sheep’s tail, the fattier the better, are holiday fare.

Most of their stews, holiday or not, have lots of meat, lots of potatoes, lots of carrots, often rice and noodles, nuts, died legumes, salt, pepper, cumin, and pieces of pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, quince, pumpkin, and sometimes a hard-cooked egg or two.
Uzbek Plov
2 pounds cubed lamb
2 Tablespoons wheat or chick pea flour
1/4 cup mutton tail or other animal fat
2 large onions, cut in large pieces
6 cloves garlic
4 large carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 cups rice
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
½ cup raisins
½ cup walnuts
½ cup chick peas or half-cup broken dry noodles
1 teaspoon salt
1. Toss meat and flour and fry in fat until well-browned. Put these in a casserole and add onions, garlic, carrots, and rice, and stir until the rice browns slightly.
2. Next add three cups boiling water, black pepper, raisins, nuts and salt, stir only once, then reduce heat to low, cover tightly and cook for four hours. Check once every half hour to be sure there is liquid left and if not, add half cup of boiling water.
3. Turn off the heat, let the casserole rest for ten or fifteen minutes, then serve.
2 Tablespoons rendered meat fat or oil
2 pounds potatoes, peeled, and cut in large cubes
1 pound beef, cut in cubes
1 pound lamb or mutton, cut in cubes
2 carrots, peeled and shredded
1 large onion, sliced thickly, the large rings cut in half
1/2 cup of one-inch pieces fresh coriander
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup rice or broken pieces of dry noodles
1.Heat fat and lightly brown the potatoes. Add both meats, carrots, onion, coriander, salt, and pepper, and the rice. Do not stir. Simply cover with one cup boiling water, and cover the pot, then reduce heat to low and preferably put pot on a flame tamer.
2. Cook for three or four hours, never lifting the lid. Then turn off heat and allow to stand another hour or two before serving.
Samsa, Uzbek Style
2 cups flour
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt and white pepper, mixed
1 pound ground lamb
1/2 onion, minced
2 cups lamb broth
2 to 3 Tablespoons vinegar
1. Mix flour, eggs, salt and pepper, and slowly add up to a quarter of a cup of water to make a ball of dough. Cover with a cloth and set aside for two hours.
2. Mix lamb and onion, and some salt and pepper, if desired.
3. Roll the dough into twenty thin two-inch circles. Cover them and take out three or four at a time.
3. Fill each circle with scant teaspoon of filling, wet edges and crimp them together as half moons.
4. Bring broth to the boil, reduce the heat somewhat then add half the dumplings, and simmer for ten minutes, drain and put on a heated platter. Serve while cooking the other half and have the vinegar in a shallow dish for dipping.

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