Plov, glorious plov. Italy has risotto, Spain has paella, Uzbekistan has plov. It’s so much more than just rice. Plov is a beloved national obsession. Wedding plov, Navruz plov, Thursday plov, plov for every occasion. The significance cannot be underestimated, nor can it can be truly appreciated without experiencing it, smelling it, eating it, tasting it, savoring it, dreaming about it, living it, the plov life. It’s one of those things you just can’t understand unless you’ve been here and experienced it firsthand.
Our first experience with plov, also known as osh, was during our welcome week at school, nearly three years ago. Expertly prepared by local staff in a massive kazan over a wood fire stove out in the open air, this introductory Thursday plov was our first experience with Uzbekistan’s national food obsession. Recipes can be found everywhere, but eating it outside of Central Asia would surely take something away from the experience.
First and foremost, the key ingredient is rice, although some might argue oil comes in a close second. Generous heaps of cubed lamb meat and fat add essential flavors, but the plov can also be prepared with beef. Onions, carrots, at least one more whole garlic clove, assorted spices of cumin, coriander, and red pepper round out the mix, and endless regional variation of special ingredients. Raisins or quince can be added for a delightful touch of sweetness in every bite, chickpeas for texture, and whole peppercorns for that pure perk of spice with a satisfying crunch. With 1,000 different way to prepare there’s no wrong way to make plov, unless you happen to be doing it wrong. Opinions aside, the one thing everyone can agree on is that plov is an ever present crowd pleaser for absolutely every occasion.
Again, without experiencing it firsthand the allure of the plov is beyond comprehension. Our driver has repeatedly invited me to join him and the Mahallah elders at 5:am to experience preparing this traditional meal, something I have unfortunately yet to take him up on. Another interesting fact about this dish is that it is traditionally prepared by men, this in a culture where the women do the vast majority of household work. On plov day it isn’t even necessary to set foot in the kitchen as the meal is prepared outdoors over a fire, or in a purpose built “summer kitchen” with fittings designed specially for plov production.
In Tashkent, plov is served with black tea, in other regions the tea will be green, as is my personal preference. Consumed in such large quantities you might expect digestion to be a problem, but in reality the balance between oil and rice makes this meal go down real easy. The tea, however, is a must, and despite mid-summer ambient temperatures exceeding 40°C, plov should never be consumed with a cold beverage which is said to cause extreme digestive distress. The fact is hot tea is just as refreshing on a hot day as a cold one, and probably has that much needed medicinal quality to get such a heavy meal moving during your post plov food coma.
Plov is as much a part of Uzbekistan’s brand as Timur the Great and the Silk Road. Tashkent boasts not one, but two International Plov Centers where the only thing on the menu is Plov, every single day. Plov recently showed up for sale in cans, canned plov in the duty free shops at the airport! It soon began appearing in the supermarket where presumably if it’s for sale, people actually buy it. So beloved is the plov that you can even buy it canned!
The real deal, however, is still best prepared and served with love to friends, family, and neighbours. They say the soul of a country is best appreciated through its cuisine. If plov is the best representation of Uzbekistan’s soul, this country is a special place indeed.