Mint. Pomegranate seeds. Roasted eggplants. Walnuts. Slivered pistachios. Barberries or zereshk. Naan. Shashlik. Ground coriander. Tahini. Red lentil soup. Cumin. Samsa. Chai. Saffron. Green olives. Dill. Cinnamon and cloves. Halva. Sour cherries. Dried apricots. Ground sumac. Strained yogurt.
As I flip through Samarkand by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford, subtitled Recipes & Stories from Central Asia & The Caucasus, everything seems uncannily familiar. It’s like meeting a long-lost twin I never knew I had. I have been staring at these ingredients all my life, but here they are looking back at me, dressed differently than the way I have always known. I experienced a similar culinary déjà vu in the old marketplace of Tbilisi in Georgia; the aroma of local spice mixes was intensely familiar to my Indian nostrils, but names and combinations like khmeli suneli were unrecognizable.
The reason I bought a book on the cuisine of Samarkand is because suddenly, we in Dubai are swooning over Caucasia and Central Asia. Three years ago, no one in the city was talking about visiting Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Today, courtesy of influential media and bloggers (and seemingly better funded tourism ministries), these post-Soviet destinations have lit up on our travel radar. Residents are returning from their trips to Georgia hallucinating about soup dumplings (khinkali) and brined cheese pastries (khachapuri). Restaurateurs are investing in concepts to nudge Caucasian and Central Asian food to the fore – from the splashy Eshak in City Walk to the closet-sized Little Georgia in JLT to the hidden Ararat, barely rising above the construction rubble of Deira’s new Al Wasl District. We can track at least eight Uzbek restaurants in the city, including UZB Avenue in Barsha that serves a traditional Uzbek specialty of horse meat with noodles. I will neither affirm nor deny tasting it.
Eden and Ford focus on Samarkand, which during the Middle Ages, used to be “Asia’s great shop window, one of the world’s finest marketplaces, where everything from rare spices to yak-tail fly whisks were bartered and sold.” They retrace cultures along the ancient Silk Road from its eastern frontier in Xianjing, China, through Central Asia (Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and then onward to the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey).
Historically, the Silk Road was one of many integrative forces across cultures in Asia. Others included the ambitions of conquerors like Alexander the Great and Tamerlane (‘Timur’) and the spread of religions like Christianity and Islam. These forces painted strokes through a damp canvas, causing distant cultures to bleed into one another until they were no longer monochromatic but rather, streaked with hues of the other. Over time, the Turks, Mongols, Persians, Indians, Chinese, Koreans and Russians all contributed to this evolutionary dinner table. Kababs and dumplings, samosas and kimchi, borsht and meat pilafs could all live side by side, happily ever after.
For those of us who have spent a good portion of our lives in Dubai, our taste buds are already tuned to the various wavelengths of flavour broadcast across Caucasia and Central Asia. Many of us have grown up with our fingers running across the tapestry of Arabic, Persian and Indian flavours adorning Old Dubai. The Turkish joined later, reinforcing the addictive cycle of kababs, bread and istikhans of digestive black tea that the Iranian restaurants had already set in motion.
A recipe for Caucasian eggplant rolls stuffed with walnuts and pomegranate seeds seems unfamiliar but not unusual. Remember the countless times we have dipped bread into mashed eggplants with ground walnuts, fried onions, mint and kashk (dried yogurt) across Iranian restaurants in Dubai? They call it kashk bademjan. Red lentil soup is the precursor to many an Arabic meal in the city from Yemeni to Iraqi, while Qamardeen is the rich Ramadan thirst quencher made from dried apricot leather. We know our lentils and our dried apricots, but have we ever had them together in the same soup bowl as the Armenian recipe in the book? Then there are recipes for Uzbek samsa and plov, which I instantly associate with Indian samosa and Persian polo (or pilaf). But no polo I have ever had, until I forked up a bite of Tashkent plov at Eshak, has been garnished with sliced quail’s eggs.
Where it starts feeling alien is when you have borsht and kimchi in the same menu breath as pilafs and kababs. We eat them on separate tables – kimchi at our Korean restaurants and borsht and pelmeni dumplings at the Russian ones – but in Samarkand, they are all glued neatly to one book spine.
We also do not often see kababs and noodles on the same table (with the exception of only an infinite number of Indian restaurants claiming to serve ‘Chinese’ in the city.) But that is changing too. The past decade has brought us many more Afghani restaurants with their kababs and meat dumplings splashed with yogurt (manti). Dedicated food sleuths will also know of Kiroran, a Chinese restaurant in Deira where braised beef in soy sauce, sautéed lamb with nan-bread, beef kababs and hand-pulled noodles are all perched on the same menu. This is not fusion, but culturally routine for the ethnically Turkish, Muslim Uyghur community of Xianjing.
My journey through the flavours of the Silk Road have left me with two important realizations. The first is that Dubai is a modern day Samarkand. If only we can detach ourselves from Nutella Dutch mini pancakes and Lotus cheesecakes, we might successfully spark another evolutionary cycle around flavours that feel divergent. But it needs to feel like a natural consequence of interacting with the different cultures living and cooking in this city, rather than a forced fusion on our plates because sushi and biryani were both available at Friday’s brunch buffet.
And that brings me to my second realization. That we can get horse meat in Dubai.