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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Uzbekistan

Historic Diet

Uzbek Food - Plov / Pilau / Pilof
Plov / Pilau / Pilof

Uzbekistan is a country consumed partially by desert, but also is home to some rivers and plains that allow incredible life in some regions, while preventing it in others. Due to this and the short growing season, the country has a limited number of fruits, vegetables, and animals present. Most of the foods that were historically found growing in Uzbekistan include berries, mushrooms, wheat, melons, and some root crops like onions and carrots.

The animal life is also limited in scope in Uzbekistan, but numerous animals are present and have been used for food for thousands of years. These animals include goats, sheep, and horses, all of which were and still are used for their milk as well as meat. Fish and other seafood are almost completely absent in the local diet since the country is landlocked.

Culinary Influences

Uzbek Food - Samsa
Samsa

Uzbekistan has had relatively few culinary changes in its history, but when those changes arrived they came with great changes. The earliest people lived primarily as nomads, whose diet consisted almost wholly of meat and dairy products along with whatever small produce could be found in the region. However, early in the country's history the people settled and this altered the diet as sustainable farming and more advanced cooking techniques were available.

These settlers were both the earlier nomads as well as the arriving Turkic people, the people commonly referred to as the Uzbeks today. With the arrival of the Uzbeks, the local lifestyle changed as did the diet. Pasta, plov, kebabs, and pastries all rose in popularity among the people due to this settling effect and even today these foods are popular among the people.

During and after this time the Silk Road rose to prominence and Uzbekistan fell squarely in the middle of this important and rich trading route (although the ethnic Uzbeks didn't control many of the major trading cities at the time; the cities were controlled primarily by the Tajiks). The influence from this trade changed the cuisine as new foods, spices, and cooking styles were introduced as people from every direction arrived in great numbers on a temporary basis to trade. Often these traders brought foods from their home to the region and with them raised the popularity of rice from the east and spices from the south. However, the changes are not limited to these two important items as these influences subtly, but forever changed the flavors and diet of the people.

The next influence, which again had a substantial impact, was the arrival of the Soviets in the early 1900s. With the Soviets came Russians and numerous Russian foods remain popular in Uzbekistan today. Foods like pelmani (meat dumplings), peroshki (rice, meat, or vegetables cooked in dough), borsch (beet soup), and more became popular dishes, which can still be found today. The Russians also raised the interest in fish, although the poor access to seafood means its popularity is still relatively low.

In more recent times the foods in Uzbekistan have gained a more international flavor as many cities have adopted some "ethnic" restaurants. These restaurants though are limited to what the local people have grown accustomed to and enjoy, including Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Turkish restaurants. More often than not, these outside influences have altered home cooking more than they have created the establishment of restaurants, although the country's largest cities do have restaurants featuring these ethnic foods.

Staple Foods

Bread: the local bread is generally flatbread called nan or patyr and is served with nearly every meal

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Besbarmak/Beshbarmak: boiled mutton (or another meat) with noodles and broth
Oshi Toki: rice and meat stuffed in grape leaves; usually served cold
Plov/Pilaf: the national dish is rice fried with meat, carrots, and onions
Shashlyk: grilled mutton, pork, or chicken sometimes served with raw onions, parsley, and/or a vinegar sauce
Shurpa/Shurva: soup made from mutton and vegetables

Dining Etiquette

The Uzbeks are very hospitable people and it is not uncommon to be invited to a local's home. If you do get an invitation, be sure to bring a gift; local sweets or, if you know your host drinks alcohol, a bottle of vodka or wine is a great gift. Once you arrive for dinner remove your shoes and leave them at the door, then greet everyone with a handshake (although some conservative Muslims don't believe men and women should touch so wait for locals to extend their hand first if they are of the opposite sex). The table will likely already have food on it; this doesn't mean you're late, although you might be, but instead is tradition as food should be on the table the entire meal. Before eating begins you may encounter a few different circumstances: you may be asked to begin the meal, you may be offered soup, tea, or a glass of vodka accompanied by a toast. If offered vodka, it is rude to turn it down and you may be asked to offer a toast, which should include thanks to the host.

Once you get past the initial course, most of the etiquette rules are over, or at least the expectations are fairly relaxed for foreigners. The Uzbeks are very forgiving of etiquette mistakes, but do your best to follow suite. You may find that the host will serve everyone personally as certain cuts of meat are reserved for certain people based on your importance or personality. Unfortunately, this means you must eat what you're served and as a guest of honor that could be a sheep head. You may also notice that after each course your plate will be cleared and you will be given a new one. If dining at a restaurant with locals, remember to avoid ordering pork products as most Uzbek Muslims don't eat pork, although it is available and some Muslims do eat it.

You may find that there are utensils (cutlery) present; if so use them in any manner you prefer, but ideally in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), especially if in a formal setting. On other occasions you will be expected to eat with your hand; if this is the case be sure to only use your right hand to eat. You'll likely also be served bread with your meal, which must be eaten in its entirety and placed directly on the table when not eating it; again use your right hand to eat your bread. When the food is finished, you may be served tea or another beverage, which you are expected to accept.

If dining out at a restaurant, check your bill to see if a "service charge" has been added; most nice restaurants do include one. If not be sure to leave the server a tip of about 5-10%.

Celebrations & Events

When it comes to celebrations in Uzbekistan, the largest festival is most certainly nauryz, which is a New Year festival that is celebrated each year on the spring equinox. This event celebrates new life as the historically nomadic people have survived the long winter. During this event the people generally join together to celebrate by eating a number of traditional dishes including meat and sumalyak, a drink or soup of cream of wheat.

For more personal celebrations like a birthday or anniversary plov is the one consistent and the main course. Although nearly as common is vodka and numerous toasts which are all encouraged to participate in. During these events numerous other dishes are also served.

Drinks

If you want to meet locals in Uzbekistan sit down for some tea or if invited out, you will most certainly be offered tea. Green tea is the most popular tea and sugar is never added. For a more historic drink, try ayran, which is a yogurt drink and more common during the hot summer months or sumalyak, which is cream of wheat. If you want coffee, juice, or soft drinks, they are also available although none have a true place in the country's culture.

Alcohol is popular in Uzbekistan, despite the fact that the people are primarily Muslim, a religion that outlaws alcohol, however due to the people's long history under Soviet rule there is little taboo with drinking alcohol today. Even for locals who don't drink they rarely take offense when others drink. Also due to Soviet influence, beer and vodka are the most popular alcoholic drinks, but there are a few local wineries as well. Vodka, beer, and wine, both local and foreign are widely available in the country. For other alcoholic drinks, including most hard liquors, you may have troubles finding what you want, but if you look hard enough they are available, although rarely in restaurants.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Uzbekistan, but in Tashkent it is generally considered safe. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water in Tashkent check with your local hotel or guesthouse to guarantee the cleanliness of the water in the city. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013