Plov, a recipe without rules

SUN JOURNAL

Food: With the versatile dish, Smithsonian Folklife Festival introduces many to the culinary jewels of the Silk Road.

July 06, 2002|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - His kettle is 44 inches wide and can hold about a barrel of water. Every morning at 8, Mansur Makhmudov begins chopping up mounds of Uzbekistan's bright yellow carrots along with onion and mutton.

Then he pours a couple of quarts of sunflower oil in his wok-like kettle - called a kazan - and fires it up. Onions, carrots, meat and 25 pounds or more of rice go in. By 11:30 a.m., Makhmudov, who is 51, is ready to serve his plov to a hundred people at his cafe in Samarkand, once one of the great Silk Road cities.

"He makes the best plov in Samarkand," says Akbar Kasimov, an Uzbek journalist. Keep in mind that everyone in Samarkand has his favorite plov maker and everyone eats plov nearly all the time, so descriptions of best plov maker are heard often around the city.

The world of the Silk Road, its food and music, its clothing and art, its crafts - and of course its silk, is being celebrated (or perhaps revealed to Americans) in Washington during the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

This is the first time the 36-year-old festival has been devoted to one theme. Its planning was prescient. It has been in the making for a couple of years, and was inspired by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who established his Silk Road project in 1998.

Ma wanted to explore the music of the Silk Road, which stretched from Japan and China, through Central Asia and on to Rome and then Venice. He organized a Silk Road ensemble and commissioned composers from along the route to write new works informed by the old.

And he urged the Smithsonian to take his theme and expand on it for the festival. After Sept. 11, when the rest of the world - and especially Afghanistan and Central Asia - began taking on new dimensions for Americans, Yo-Yo Ma's lobbying appeared truly inspired.

The festival, which began June 26 on the National Mall in Washington, ends tomorrow at 5:30 p.m.

An estimated 225,000 visited last Saturday, clapping to the music of throat singers who live near the Aral Sea, cheering a fashion show presented by designers from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Japan and watching intently as silk was woven and glass was blown.

At lunchtime, most of them appeared to be lined up waiting to eat Afghan food, including that country's version of plov. It was an amazing spectacle - no lines at all for that great American staple pizza (offered near the Venetian pavilion) and endless lines of people, steadfast against the assault of a hot sun, determined to get their plov and other Afghan dishes.

No doubt it was just as well that neither Mansur Makhmudov nor Akbar Kasimov was there to pass judgment on the plov. They were back in Samarkand, with Makhmudov cooking and Kasimov eating.

It would be difficult indeed for anyone to agree on who makes the best plov. It's difficult even to agree on how to spell it. Plov is actually the Russian word for the dish, which is based on rice - other ingredients up to you.

Do a Google search for plov and you'll get 9,000 results - or more. Some are in French, some in Dutch and others in Bulgarian. Some are for the Turkmen version, others for the Azerbaijan style. You can even find a Uighur version - from the Muslims who live in western China.

One recipe that comes up urges the addition of adzhika, a Georgian spice mixture, but most insist on garlic and cumin. One match presents, triumphantly, an empty plate with only a few grains of rice uneaten.

Some recipes suggest chicken with raisins; others mix potatoes and yellow split peas. One combines pomegranate syrup, walnuts and chicken.

You should cook it in a kazan, a cast-iron pot big enough to feed the neighborhood. Failing that, look for a pot with a heavy bottom that will allow for long slow cooking without burning.

Mansur Makhmudov says you don't have to own a kazan and you don't have to live along the Silk Road to make a good plov.

"A good cook can make plov even in a saucepan," he says. "The most important thing is to make the oil very hot first. Otherwise there will be no good taste."

In Uzbekistan, men are in charge of making plov. "I learned from the generations at home," Makhmudov says. He was cooking by age 5, he says.

He taught his wife to make it, and she often cooks it at home on weekdays. For weekends and holidays at home, Makhmudov is in charge.

If you're lucky enough to visit Samarkand, look for Makhmudov's cafe. It's right on the Silk Road - at No. 1 Tashkent Street, on the road to Ulug Beg's Observatory.

Ulug Beg - one of Tamerlane's favorite grandsons - began construction of his observatory in 1424. He employed 50 scientists and turned Samarkand into the astronomical capital of its day, observing and mapping more than a thousand stars.

If you don't manage a visit to the observatory and Makhmudov, or to the Silk Road festival in Washington, try to console yourself with an expedition into the world of plov. Here's a recipe from Please to the Table, a cookbook by Anya Von Bremzen and John Welchman.

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