Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Uzbek Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Before you start exploring vegan Uzbek cuisine with her today, you might want to click here to read her column about Kurdish cuisine, here to read her column about Levantine cuisine, and here to read her column about Indian cuisine.

Culture Tuesday – Vegan Uzbek Cuisine

The Uzbek cuisine is a beautiful fusion of that of its neighbors with unique flavors and cooking styles of Uzbekistan. The cuisine features very filling, rich, and relatively calorie-dense meals intended to sustain a person over a long period of time (several hours) due to the agrarian culture of the nation. The cuisine is rather non-vegan friendly. However, the growing number of Uzbek people (mainly in diaspora) adopting a vegan, or more plant-based, lifestyle has led to an increase in the number of traditional dishes that have been successfully veganised.

The staple ingredients of vegan Uzbek cuisine are wheat flour, rice, oil, herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables. Flour is used to make a range of breads called, ‘non,’ dumplings (manti/kaskoni), and noodles. Rice is used to make dishes such as plov, sirkoniz, bakhsh, and shulah. The vegetables are used to make dips, sauces, fillings, and salads as well as a host of other dishes.

Vegan Uzbek Cuisine: Tokosh
Vegan Tokosh (Stuffed Grape Leaves). Image credit: @polza_v_banke. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Bread

In Uzbekistan, bread is considered to be sacred and greatly respected. It is used as food and a hospitable gesture as well as a symbol of blessings. Examples of its symbolic uses are of bread being placed on or around a baby or toddler to signify well wishes and blessings for their future. If the bread is placed as a pillow beneath the head of a baby, it signifies a blessing of long life for the baby, and when the bread is placed between the knees of a walking toddler it signifies a blessing of a good and prosperous journey through life for them. Another symbolic example is a bite being taken out of the bread by a person emigrating for work, education, or military service, and the remnant being dried and hung up for good wishes and somewhat like a prayer for the person to be able to return home someday.

Uzbek bread, non, is a round flatbread recognizable by its shallowly depressed centers and intricate designs. These designs can be used to identify the type of non, the region it was made in, the region the nonvoy (baker) is from, or the event the bread is intended for – engagements, parties, or meals at home.

The breads are made from leavened dough. In modern times, especially for Uzbek people in the diaspora, the dough can be made using (a store-bought) active dry yeast. However, more traditional methods of making non involve making a sourdough starter or wild yeast. This is done by combining some flour with water and leaving it in a warm environment until natural yeast forms and develops over time making the flour and water mixture bubbly. This sourdough starter/yeast is known as, ‘xamir.’

Vegan Uzbek food: Non
Non (Uzbek Bread). Image credit: @orientmicedmc. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

To make the non, its dough is divided into specific wights and each piece is rolled out into a circular shape. The middle of the bread is stamped using a chekich – a, traditionally metal, but sometimes plastic, decorative bread stamp – to impart a design onto the dough, then the rounded edges of the bread are formed followed by patterns of indentations, pinches, and further decorative elements (such as those made by a bosma) around the inner portions of the surface of the dough. The dough is then brushed with oil and/or sprinkled with water (to give it its distinctive golden color and sheen upon baking) and, depending on the type of non, it could also be adorned with sprinkles of sesame seeds and/or nigella seed prior to baking it on the inner walls of a tandyr (clay oven). The resulting bread is soft, light, and chewy and always served soon after baking in order for these qualities to be preserved when the bread is being eaten.

Uzbek bread (non) is considered to be sacred and greatly respected. Its intricate designs can be used to identify the type of non, the region it was made in, the region the baker is from, or the event the bread is intended for.

Despite the similarities in the process of making non, there are a variety of breads in Uzbekistan featuring rather significant differences. For example, obi non, is a plain bread. However, as patyr is a festive non, it differs from obi non in a few ways – the non is flaky due to a dough lamination process and, sometimes, it is baked with onions in it. The lamination for patyr can be made plant-based using vegan butter. Katlama non is also a flaky non made from dough that is laminated by rolling it out and folding/placing layers over each other with oil smeared between each layer. Bukhara obi non is an aromatic version of obi non due to the addition of sesame and nigella seeds sprinkled onto the dough prior to baking it. Engagement non is distinguished by the bright pink and yellow coloring of its center. Lastly, noni toki is a bowl-shaped crispy flatbread that is made by baking the bread on a convex surface such as an upside-down wok-like pan. Noni toki is the most different of all Uzbek breads probably as a result of it being part of the Bukharan Jewish cuisine in Uzbekistan as opposed to being from the more mainstream cuisine of the nation.

Vegan Pumpkin Samosas with Cilantro Mint Chutney
Pumpkin Samosas (Uzbek Samsa). Image credit: @naturallyzuzu. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Other Flour-based Foods

Uzbek cuisine houses a plethora of other flour-based foods. These include manti (or qasqoni), samsa, guzlama, and noodle dishes. 

Manti are dumplings introduced to Uzbekistan by Uighur settlers from China. They can be made by filling a thin dough with cabbage, pumpkin, turnips, potatoes, suitable ground meat substitutes or a combination of two or more of these. Chuchvara are, essentially, mini manti. Like manti, they can be made by steaming or frying the filled dumplings or cooking them in a soup. When fried, chuchvara is referred to a qovurma chuchvara to differentiate it from the steamed chuchvara. Qovurma chuchvara is also usually served as a shared appetiser or snack while the steamed chuchvara is more often served as a meal due to its more filling effect when eaten.

Samsa is a flaky pastry (often triangular) that is filled in various ways (for a vegan version, either with a ground meat substitute and onions, a mixture of vegetables or potatoes and onions) and baked in a tandyr to impart a unique smokey aroma and taste to the samsa. 

Guzlama is another flaky pastry. However, the dough is rolled out, filled folded over itself to encase the filling and pressed flat (often into a square or semi-circular shape) before it is deep fried. The fillings for guzlama are similar to that of samsa.

Traditional noodle dishes are not vegan. However, as more Uzbek people are adopting plant-based lifestyles, vegan Uzbek cuisine is expanding.

Uzbekistan’s cuisine uses noodles in a range of ways. It has dishes such as laghman and kaurma-laghman. Laghman is one of the most popular Uzbek dishes. It is generally not vegan. However, as more Uzbek people have adopted plant-based lifestyles, vegan recipes for laghman exist. Laghman is a noodle soup dish consisting of vegetables as well as a few non-vegan ingredients which can be substituted using mushrooms, vegan meat substitutes, legumes, and/or more vegetables to retain the meaty and filling effect associated with traditional laghman. On the other hand, kaurma-laghman is, essentially, a fried version of laghman. Instead of making a noodle soup dish, it is stir-fried.

Vegan Uzbek Cuisine: Pearl Barley Soup (Kocha Suyugh Osh)
Kocha Suyugh Osh (Pearl Barley Soup). Image credit: @naturallyzuzu. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Shurpa (Soups)

There are a vast number of traditional soups that can be easily veganized to become a part of vegan Uzbek cuisine. These include shurpa-mash (a soup consisting of rice, mung beans, carrots, onions and, sometimes, dried apricots too), oseyo (watermeal soup), kocha suyugh osh (pearl barley soup), kaurma-shurpa (turnip, potato, and carrot soup, mashkurda (a soup made with mung beans, potatoes, and rice) and umpach-zashchi (soup made from browned flour onions, herbs, and spices).

Each soup is made following similar steps. They are made by cooking sauteed onions in a pot then further cooking it with the rice/barley, legumes, vegetables, herbs and spices of choice, and stock/broth. For a plant-based version, the stock will be a vegetable stock. The soups are mostly (if not always) chunky as opposed to smooth blended, or pureed, soups.

Vegan Uzbek Cuisine: Achichuk Salad
Achichuk Salad. Image credit: @nataliaten10. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Salads

Uzbek salads are rather fresh, simple, and delicious. They are often served as accompaniments to rice dishes. Some of the most popular Uzbek salads are shakarap, achichuk, and slotah bukhori.

Shakarap is a salad consisting of tomatoes, onions, herbs, red chillies, salt, and black pepper. Achichuk is similar to shakarap. Its differences are that in addition to the aforementioned ingredients, it also contains cucumbers. Both achichuk and shakarap are made with garlic and/or pomegranates by some cooks too. However, more often than not, they are made without the inclusion of those two ingredients. On the other hand, slotah bukhori is a salad consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, spring onions (green onions/scallions), salt, black pepper, cilantro and lemon juice. Common variations of it include sliced chillies and/or lettuce.

A Whole Lot of Plov

Plov is the most popular and commonly eaten Uzbek food. However, depending on the region it is made in, or the region of Uzbekistan its cook is from, it can be found under different names reflecting its variations or distinguishing qualities. Generally, plov is made by cooking rice in a kazan (large cast-iron pot) with sauteed onions, garlic vegetables, herbs, spices, salt, pepper, and water or stock. The different versions of plov are variants of this basic recipe.

Vegan Uzbek Cuisine: Plov
Uzbek Plov (Pilaf). Image credit: @ladyvictoria1990. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Bakhsh, also known as, ‘green plov,’ is a Bukharian Jewish plov that has a green tint from the inclusion of a range of green fragrant herbs during the cooking process. These herbs can be cilantro, coriander, dill, parsley, and mint. It is a rather herby and aromatic rice dish and can be found in two forms – bakhshi khaltagi and bakhshi degi. Bakhshi khaltalgi is more often eaten during Shabbat (the day of rest) as it is precooked in a bag (khalta) that is immersed in boiling stock, water, or soup. On the other hand, bakhshi degi is more often eaten on weekdays as its recipe and cooking methods are more similar to the more conventional, or mainstream, Uzbek plov. It requires more work and effort to make than bakhshi khaltagi hence the preference to cook it on days that are not Shabbat to keep the day holy and adhere to Jewish customs.

Dishes like sirkoniz represent cultural desire to get as many nutrients as possible in one-pot meals to feed the generations of families that live together under one roof.

Sirkoniz, also known as, ‘serkaniz,’ is another Bukharian plov which is made with a lot of garlic hence its English name, ‘garlic rice.’ Bukhara, Uzbekistan borders China – the largest producers, and exporters, of garlic hence its influence in the Bukharian cuisine of Uzbekistan. Sirkoniz also tends to contain legumes such as chickpeas. This is due to the cultural desire to get as many nutrients as possible in one-pot meals to feed the generations of families that live together (under one roof). Therefore, sirkoniz is a rice dish consisting of vegetables, legumes, rice, onions, herbs, and spices making it a more nutritionally dense and filling version of the more conventional plov.

Vegan Uzbek Cuisine: Shashlik
Vegan Shashlik (Skewered Tofu). Image credit: @ladyvictoria1990. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Other Uzbek Dishes

There is a plethora of other Uzbek dishes. These include oshi toki and shashlik.

Oshi toki can be described as the Uzbek version of dolma. Similarly, to dolma, it is a stuffed grapevine leaf dish. The leaves are filled with rice, onions, dried fruits, herbs, spices, and occasionally, tomatoes, greens, and/or chickpeas too. However, as this dish is seldom vegan, to keep it plant-based, only the aforementioned ingredients can be used, or, alternatively, ground meat substitutes can also be included for a more filling oshi toki.

On the other hand, shashlik is similar to kebabs. It is a skewered and grilled dish. Existing vegan versions of it (mostly home-cooked) consist of a meat substitute such as tofu or seitan, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers (capsicum), courgettes (zucchinis), or any accessible vegetables. The skewered ingredients are seasoned or marinated before they are grilled and take on a delicious and aromatic smoky flavor from the cooking process.

Vegan Uzbek Cuisine: Laghman
Uzbek Laghman. Image credit: @naturallyzuzu. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Recipe – Vegan Laghman by Zuliya Khawaja

This vegan laghman recipe was developed by Zuliya Khawaja (NaturallyZuzu on Instagram). It is a beautiful and flavorsome dish with an easy-to-follow recipe. For this recipe, Zuliya used king trumpet mushrooms as a substitute for the traditionally used meat and made a vegan egg as a substitute for the fried egg that is often used to adorn a more conventional laghman.

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Vegan Uzbek Cuisine: Laghman

Vegan Laghman


Ingredients

Scale
  • 3 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tsp grated ginger
  • 1 eggplant, diced
  • 1 large kings trumpet mushrooms, diced
  • 1 large bell pepper, seeds removed and diced
  • 2 medium size carrots, diced
  • 1 cup of green beans, chopped
  • 2 cup of shredded cabbage
  • 1 tbsp of tomato paste
  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained
  • 1 tbsp of dark soy sauce
  • 1 tsp of cumin
  • 2 tsp chili flakes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp of salt or to taste
  • 4 cups of water

For the topping

  • handful of chopped cilantro
  • chili oil
  • cooked vegan egg

Instructions

  1. Cook 2 lbs of fresh noodles according to package instructions and set aside. Add a teaspoon of oil to them after they are cooked so they do not stick together.
  2. Heat a wok to high heat, add the oil, then stir fry the onions and mushrooms together. 
  3. When onions are golden brown, add the garlic, ginger, tomato paste and stir fry for 5mins on high. 
  4. Add the bell peppers, carrots, eggplant, green beans, and cabbage. Stir fry everything on high for 6-8 min. 
  5. Add the soy sauce, cumin, pepper, salt, bay leaves, and water. 
  6. Bring the stew to boil then add the chickpeas. 
  7. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer the stew for about 15 min. 
  8. Serve Laghman in a soup bowl. To do so, place a handful of freshly cooked noodles in the bowl and top it off with a generous amount of stew, some chopped cilantro, vegan egg, and chili oil.

Notes

Find more of Zuliya’s recipes on @naturallyzuzu.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

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