Here’s a recipe that may seem novel, perhaps even formidable. But the pursuit, if you set yourself to the task, will not disappoint. Osh-palov (also plov or simply osh) is the national dish of Uzbekistan, a land-locked country in Central Asia not unlike Italy in shape, a right boot to match the left, with courtyards sheltered by canopies that drip with tight clusters of black grapes and sandy fields that glow with cotton bolls and sunflowers. I lived and worked as a teacher in Uzbekistan for two years: my first meal there and my last was osh, and countless meals in between were as well. It’s a dish that fed travelers along the Great Silk Road in ancient cities like Samarkand and Bukhara and Khiva, where merchants today still stand in stalls sheltered by the same looming madrasahs as the ones their ancestors stood in the shadows of before them and they lure foreign travelers to their wares—spices, silk, ceramics. Alexander the Great of Macedonia partook of this dish. As did the fearsome, powerful Tamerlane. It transcends the rise and fall of empires, the creation and dissolution of nation-states, the upheaval that has characterized much of the region’s history and does not elude it even to this day.
We’ll have trouble replicating osh exactly, for there are various ingredients and cooking implements unavailable to us here that we must find substitutes for. There will be raisins, for instance, which are added to the dish during cooking. Boxed raisins could never be as fragrant and toothsome as those made from grapes grown in Uzbekistan. Of course you might endeavor to buy grapes and make your own raisins, and this would get you closer to the rich, dark pebbles of fruit in osh and how they grow soft from the cooking oil and the steam, but even then your grapes won’t be Uzbek grapes culled from vines watered by the Amu Darya River, that ancient waterway, the Oxus in Latin, Jayhoun in Medieval Arabic, a word derived from Gihon, the biblical name for one of the four rivers whose waters originated from the Garden of Eden. It’s no matter, a large handful worth of any raisins you have will do. Measure them out and set to the side for later.
For our purposes, we’ll stick to the traditional ingredients: dark raisins, a generous scoop of chick peas, two to three whole bulbs of garlic, and a string of withered, red chili peppers. Varieties of osh can also include chunks of honey-sweet fruit from the stubborn quince whose flesh must be cooked to a light amber or subtle pink to be eaten, perfect for the tenderizing effects of the long-cooking osh pot; or pieces of pumpkin, some dried apricots, pheasant, even boiled eggs. Then there’s the matter of the fat source, the ingredient that excites every true gastronome’s appetite. Fat from the rump of the fat-tailed Karakul sheep is considered the most delectable delight in all of the country. These sheep are a curious breed native to the Central Asian steppes. They have skinny legs and curly hair. Their rumps hang heavy from their hind legs like giant bifurcated tumors and bounce cumbersomely when the sheep are made to gallop. In the summer months and in the villages especially, Karakul sheep rumps are swollen with the plentitude of good grazing. While the meat on these sheep is considered palatable, certainly not something to waste, it is the sheep’s rump fat (dumba) that is coveted.
At outdoor cafés and roadside restaurants, scallop-sized hunks of dumba are skewered to metal sticks one atop another and roasted over a flame much in the style of shish kabob, what Uzbeks call shashlik, an onomatopoeic term for the way the fire sizzles with dripping meat-fat. Of the varieties of shashlik, oq sashlik composed entirely of fat is the most coveted and thus the most expensive. Chunks of cooked fat glisten like pearl onions basted to golden translucence in a slow-cooking oven, and when eaten, they melt hot and tinny and coat the mouth’s inner surface. Scalding tea might clear some of the residue, but hours after the meal, the fat will adhere to the roof of your mouth and to the recesses of your tonsils in a slick sheen.
There’s a slim chance you might get your hands on some Karakul sheep of the fat-tailed variety in the US for your homemade osh since they’re raised here today on a small scale. Char Luthy of Misty Acres Kennel in Bloomingdale, Michigan raises Turkish Karakul fat-tailed sheep. She offers honey, Nubian goats, rabbits and wool for sale on her website. Perhaps she could be persuaded to let go of a mid-size sheep with a good-sized rump from her Karakul herd for the right price. It’s worth a try. Your osh will be made that much more delicious with the addition of dumba, for you’ll need just over a pound of it. Chop a little more than half into bite-sized pieces and reserve the rest whole. Now, if Char holds her sheep close, as with the raisins, we’ll make do with what we can. In this regard, we shouldn’t feel much disappointment. A confession: tail fat is a delicacy in the preparation of osh even in Uzbekistan. Most people simply can’t afford to purchase dumba and still have money enough for the requisite meat. They make do.
In addition to, and often in place of tail fat, Uzbeks use cottonseed oil culled from the seeds of the cotton plant. This works well for them, not least of all because it can be gotten by the bottleful and for cheap at any bazaar in any town or city across the country. Cotton is the country’s charm and their pride, and yet it is also their bane. A Soviet scheme begun in the 1950s transformed this arid region of Central Asia into a fertile cotton belt, a seemingly nonsensical endeavor considering the adverse soil conditions in a country that’s eighty percent desert. In order to slake the water-thirsty cotton plant, engineers built a vast maze of irrigation canals to divert feeder rivers away from the country’s Aral Sea to the spreading fields of “white gold,” effectively draining the sea to ten percent of its original size. The sea bed is a salt pan desert. It cradles the rust-down carcasses of fishing boats from under which the water dried up and shrunk away, marooning the fishermen who fished from them.
In the US, cottonseed oil is trickier to find in the quantities required for making osh. Considering, too, the conditions of the soil in Uzbekistan, the third largest cotton exporter in the world, the way dust storms pick up sand toxic with residual pesticides and fertilizers and scatter it wide, you might just stick to vegetable oil. Check your cabinets and make sure your bottle is more full than empty: oil will play a prominent role in this dish. Heat just under a quart of it in the thickest-bottomed pot you’ve got. Do this over high heat. In Uzbekistan, cooks use kazanlar, heavy half-moon pots made of blackened metal that vary in size depending on the occasion, some measuring six feet wide at their brims. A kazan of such magnitude costs nearly as much as a car and cooks who own one are in great demand, especially during the wedding season, and these cooks can make up the expense of purchasing an oversized kazan in three months time. The closest approximation in English to the word kazan is “cauldron.” If you have a cauldron, here’s your chance to break it out. A cast iron wok is also a viable alternative. I use my dutch oven with a roomy, tight-fitting lid to good effect.
You cannot cook osh without a flame to lick the sides of your pot and cradle it hot. For this reason an electric stove will not do. If you are without a gas stove, you might build a stokable fire outside and cook atop that, rigging a pot over the flame. It would be worth your effort. In this way you will most closely mimic the Uzbek-style of cooking with its tandoor ovens molded out of mud and hay that rural Uzbeks build in their courtyards and the gas pipes that they slide underneath to build a high flame that engulfs the sides of a cook pot. Wait nearby and watch the oil as it heats. When it’s hot enough, the oil will smoke blue and grey. Let it, for Uzbeks believe bringing oil to its smoking point purifies it. If your quest for tail fat was a success, this is the time to add the chopped dumba—do this carefully—to the now steaming oil. Let the grainy fat shrivel, imparting the oil with an aromatic flavor that will scent your surroundings and bring your dog sniffing to your side. Scoop these glorified cracklings from the pot, and since it’ll be another few hours before the osh is ready, top a runny egg on a slice of toast with them. Sprinkled with coarse salt and some ground pepper, they’re better than bacon. The perfect chef’s snack. Fortifying yourself afterwards with a swig of vodka of your own distillation poured quarter-ways up a tea cup and repeating this action every now and then during the remainder of the cooking process would be entirely copacetic with the making of osh as well.
Maintain the dumba-infused oil at a high temperature. In anticipation of your undertaking, you will at some earlier point have sought out a butcher and requested a combination of bone-in beef and lamb laden with equal parts meat and its parts: the cartilage, bone, gristle, tissue, and tendons—what we consider the extraneous and otherwise unsavory meat materials that butchers are accustomed to hacking from supermarket cuts before packaging. You’ll need two pounds and change. Separate the meat into sizable chunks, but do not remove its extra material. The more unseemly the meat the more coveted by an Uzbek who does not, of course, consider it unseemly in the least. It should be clear by now that our palates are mere cultural constructions. This same Uzbek would lose his stomach at the prospect of eating a slab of meat in a shock of magenta at one of our American steak houses. The only “rare” meat in Uzbekistan is that which hangs from the eaves of a stall where flies swarm the flank and the sun beats it to purple. Likewise in Uzbekistan, esteemed guests— the town elder, say, and a visitor from faraway America beside him (that’s me)—who find ourselves presented with a communal plate of osh topped by the most imposing of hunks of meat parts share different reactions. The elder rubs his beard in pleasure over it; and he pulls the meat apart with his fingers and places a portion of the choicest bits on the side of the mound of rice closest to me to eat and takes the others for himself; and he makes kars-kars noises with his back teeth as he masticates that meat between them with the pleasure full clear on his face. All the while, unconvinced that what he’s shared with me is actual, digestable meat, I attempt to edge my portion closer to his side of the mound and further away from my own.
Over a high flame, fry the meat and the remaining tail fat in the oil until the edges are black-brown and crisp but the insides are still red. The meat will cook further and thoroughly to softness with later additions of water and rice. For now, remove it and set it aside. At some previous moment, you will have used a reliable knife to cut an equal portion worth of carrots to meat into thick-ish matchsticks, two to three inches in length. In Tashkent, the carrots used for osh are golden yellow. In the Samarkand region where I lived, orange carrots are customary. Regardless of their color, choose carrots that are thick and stump-like. Don’t bother with the organic section and those darling finger-thin carrots, the statuesque ones that look as though they stand en pointe when held in an upright position. Think dirt-crusted and hearty. Think compact and knobby. Think of Matryoshka dolls rather than Kirov ballerinas.
Here’s one way carrots are prepared for osh in Uzbekistan: my host-mother in Samarkand, Mavluda-opa, would drive her gunmetal knife into one plump carrot after another at quarter-pinky intervals until the whole of them had been rendered into long planks. Meanwhile she trained her eyes on a dubbed Mexican telenovella, a favorite around the country, that flickered from an ancient black and white television in the corner of the kitchen. She was preparing osh for the family’s dinner. When the deeply-tanned heroine slapped a man across the face, Mavluda-opa gasped dramatically and said something unrecognizable under her breath to the villanous Carlos, then returned to chopping, piling the planks atop each other and cutting through them to the surface below to produce long twigs. Her thick fingers forced the blade through the flesh, a thwacking noise pounding along the floorboards with each chop.
In place of the meat you removed from the slurry of oil and tail fat, add a quarter of the cut carrots and twice as many in proportion of diced onions. Be sure to keep the heat high so any liquid that hits the oil immediately vaporizes. The vegetables meeting the oil will cause it to bubble. Stir. In a short time the carrots will grow limp and the onions soft. If you add water at this moment, which you have set to boiling a brief time earlier in preparation for this step, you will stop the cooking of the onions and your osh will come out light in color and unimpressive. The tyrant Tamerlane was known to have thrown men off the Tower of Death for lesser crimes. Show diligence and cook the onions further, but not so far as to burn them, and your finished dish will turn out a rich caramel color and will share that sweetness tinged with the bitter that onions fried to brown impart on a dish.
Others will argue it’s the bone of the meat melting its marrow into the cooking liquids that gives osh its distinct, “noble” color and that this can only be achieved by the expert hands of a male cook. Even the honorary title for one who cooks osh is one only men hold: oshpaz. It’s a source of pride for men awarded the title and a position held in high regard by the rest of the community. In the public sphere, making osh is a task strictly guarded by men; but, and whatever the inferior results, making osh in the home most often falls upon women, the ones primarily responsible for feeding their families. Osh made by a woman’s hand is generally acknowledged as a lesser version of the real thing and as such is suited only for lesser occasions. The gender divide is easily translatable: their osh is our BBQ; their qazans, our closely-guarded grills. Perhaps cooking osh is considered a male endeavor because it’s an arduous task requiring brute and bulk for the sheer quantity that must be made by oshpazlar for special occasions and at restaurants and for the prep work for the ingredients that go into it. But ask a woman who culls the fields beside her husband, look at the hands of a woman who milks cows daily and bakes batches of bread once and even twice weekly, heaves water from far-away spigots and launders clothes by hand, and you’ll realize this last bit, about brute and bulk, is nonsense. But it’s a man’s world, Uzbekistan, and such is the way the osh-making custom continues. My host-mother prepared all the meals for the family, including weekly osh. She was also the housekeeper. Bread baker. Animal tender. And a full-time teacher. The thing is, her osh was really nothing special, a mere mound of pale rice with bright carrots atop it. Her dishes might give credence to the claim that osh is best left to men were she not, simply, a miserable cook. So the woman can’t do everything.
Return the meat to the pot. Let the bone do whatever it is the men say it will. Add enough boiling water to cover the contents of the pot then season generously with salt and pepper. Gather whole cumin seeds to fill the well of your hand but not overflow it. Flatten your palms together as if in prayer, careful to contain the cumin seeds therein. Rub your palms back and forth quickly and firmly across the seeds so that they break up and fall into the pot. Salt and stir. The concoction will have boiled sufficiently until the liquid evaporates, approximately one hours time, before you turn down the heat and add raisins, chick peas, and the remaining carrots. Remove the papery, outmost layers of skin from your bulbs of garlic, but leave the bulbs intact. Nestle them at even distances around the pot. Repeat with the chilies. Were your cauldron transparent, you would notice distinct layers, a veritable savory trifle: slick, orange oil at the bottom; meat; carrots; the black, white and red of the chick peas and garlic, raisins and chilies; and to top it all off, your next addition: rice.
The only proper rice used for osh in Uzbekistan is devzira rice cultivated by farmers for centuries on individual plots with small yields in the lush Fergana Valley, a land watered by the Zeravshan, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers. As early as the Samanid epoch of the 10th century, courtiers were eating osh made from devzira rice at their feasts. It has a pink-red hue with short grains. Run your fingers through the rice to catch stones and silt, and your hands will come away dusted pink with pollen. Devzira is well-suited for osh because it contains less starch than other varieties of rice and has a high tolerance for absorbing water without losing its structure. Because devzira is not available in North America, seek out Bhutanese red, or an Italian-style rice like Arborio. Do not make the mistake of using basmati. It will not produce the same resinous quality, the stickiness that characterizes the grains of rice in plates of osh. You will have rinsed two pounds of rice exactly seven times according to custom before scooping it into your osh pot. Flatten the grains evenly across the pot with a metal spatula or a flat-bottomed fat skimmer. Add water enough to cover the rice to the height of the first joint of your forefinger and then stand watch over the pot.
If they are not too great a distance from your station, your tea cup and your dwindling bottle of vodka might help you pass the time as you watch the water work its way into the rice. When the water has evaporated some and the rice has consumed it some and it has taken on a pearly shine but is yet opaque, skewer deep holes into the rice with a wooden dowel at staggered intervals. The water you have set to boiling on the stove should be poured therein. Use your skimmer to flip the rice a bit so that the top layer displaces the under layer and makes its way towards the heat at the center of the pot. Be absolutely sure not to disturb the meat and vegetables underneath. Imagine the local oshpaz and centuries worth of cooks before him standing over the kazan, faces reddened by steam, assessing the absorption of water to rice. You have joined their ranks. With the nobility suited to the task, take in hand your fat skimmer and gather the rice into a hill in the center of the pot. At this point, experienced cooks gauge the progress of the rice by tapping the hills with the flats of their skimmers. If the skimmer makes a plopping sound against the rice and releases from the impact with a slight pull, there is still water left to be absorbed. I have heard one cook describe the sound of a skimmer hitting near-done rice as closer to a dull “thunk.” When you achieve this sound, cover your pot with a deep lid. Lower your flame to a minimum and allow the steam to gather under the lid and cook the rice finally. Uncover. Dig your fat skimmer to the bottom of the pot and turn the vegetables, meat, oil and fat together with the rice until the ingredients meld into proportion.
If the smell that you release when you lift the lid from the pot does not impress you the way it will the guests you have gathered around, do not feel defeated. It is a phenomenon widely acknowledged that a meal accomplished through strenuous labor results in exhaustion on the cook’s part rather than hunger. But do as the men in villages do when they gather just before dawn during the wedding season to help the local oshpaz prepare wedding osh enough for three hundred or more villagers: reserve enough vodka to fill the tea cups of your arrived guests and yours as well or open a fresh bottle for the purpose of welcoming them to your feast. This tea-cupful distinct from the ones you took before it is meant to open your stomach, and it will.
In my village during the months of July and August there was a wedding to be celebrated nearly every weekend to which everyone was invited. Guests gathered in family courtyards to celebrate at midday and into the night. When I arrived at one such wedding and took a place with my host-family, the late August sun shone to candy-colors the plates at our table piled with watermelon slices here; sweet clusters of fried dough held together with honey there; the foil wrappers of candies; pomegranates scored from the top down into sections that bloomed with petals of red fruit; green-apple, cola, and pineapple-flavored sodas stacked in the center; and apricot seeds dusty with snow white ash. It was a long-awaited moment in the hot sun when plates of osh were placed in the center of each table and the elder with knotted fingers took the meat from atop the pile of rice and broke it into pieces, the meat falling away from the bone and the bone glistening soft and white, the edge of the platter ringed with a moat of oil the color of the hearkening autumn.
Make your own guests comfortable at the table upon which you have arranged dishes of nuts and candies, round disks of bread your guests should pull apart with their hands and distribute along the table; a salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and furry stalks of dill; bowls of sour-milk yogurt, grated turnips, grapes and shelled walnuts; bottles of vodka and neon-colored sodas—all, accompaniments for the meal. Present the osh to your guests on large, round platters onto which you will have scooped a generous portion enough to satisfy four people and atop which you will have placed a piece of meat scavenged from the pot and a bulb of garlic from which the cloves should cleave away effortlessly and squeeze soft from their skins into your guests’ hands. Place each dish in the center at either end of the table in position for your guests to reach comfortably.
Uzbeks traditionally eat osh only with the right hand and without the aid of utensils. To bring the rice from plate to mouth requires a practiced technique. Give it a try in the privacy of your kitchen before you attempt it in front of your guests. Forgo a fork and instead cup the fingers of your right hand together like a hook with your thumb held firmly at the crook of your bent index finger. This is the “plov claw.” Use your fingers to grab a mouthful of osh to the edge of your plate. Gather it into a compact ball and scoop it into the crook of your fingers and bring it to your mouth. Pull your hand down your open mouth and catch the osh with your lower lip as your fingers draw together finally into a fist. With your hand in this position over your mouth, you have the vantage of swiping any stray rice or dripping oil that may have caught on your lips and chin before you remove your hand from your mouth. With this practiced technique, partake from the section of the mound of osh closest to you and allow your neighbors range enough to do the same.
As the plates of osh grow nearly empty, guests in Uzbekistan lean back on pillows and enjoy half-cups of hot tea. But if you were my ancient host-grandmother in this moment whose thin braid slipped out of your headscarf and trailed long down your hobbled back and who had no age and no birth date, who had lived through the siege of empire like ancestors before you, like generations to come after you, never having left the village of your birth and upbringing, who knew the vastness of hunger and the riches of the harvest—tomatoes that beat red, figs split pink, syrup-sweet melons—you would give thanks at the end of the meal, soaking your fingers into the oil left at the edge of the plate, cupping your hands like gold-dipped wings open towards the sky. And you would whisper an invocation to your God, Allah, and draw your fingers from the top of your forehead down your face, your eyes closing as your fingers passed over them, anointing yourself, lifting your head to the heavens, in the last breath sighing: omen, and those who surround you will join in chorus, grateful for the meal.