The James Beard of Uzbek Cuisine

We know more about Uzbek cuisine than any other in Central Asia, thanks to the efforts of the late Karim Makhmudov, probably the most thorough cookbook writer ever published during the Soviet regime. The accompanying article is based on my translations from Makhmudov's books "Uzbekskie Bliuda" (1962 and 1982), "Bliuda Uzbekskoi Kukhni" (1983) and "Plovy na Liuboi Vkus" (1987) and correspondence with the author, who died in 1990.

Makhmudov wrote in both Russian and Uzbek, everything from coffee-table books full of color photos to monographs on traditional Uzbek pilafs and breads. In the utilitarian context of Soviet cookery writing, his books were almost like anthropological studies, as if he were consciously trying to preserve the Uzbek heritage against the pressures of Russification. In some cases, he implied, he was trying to revive recipes that were all but extinct.

He may also have been struggling with the fact that ingredients such as recognizable cuts of meat were often beyond reach. Uzbekistan enjoys a milder climate than Russia and in the Soviet period had better access to meat and produce than Moscow, at least in the relatively expensive farmers markets, but shortages were quite obvious to foreign visitors.

For instance, Bert Fragner, a scholar from the University of Hamburg who traveled through Central Asia in the 1980s, concluded that the only people who really could have used all the recipes in regional cookbooks such as Makhmudov's were restaurateurs and caterers, and then only when they were called on to produce a traditional ethnic feast for a Communist Party occasion. Fragner noted that the tables of contents in these books were identical to the menus in the ethnic showcase restaurants of the old Soviet Socialist Republics--including all the dishes that were permanently crossed off for lack of ingredients. For anybody but a restaurateur or caterer, he concluded, the cookbooks must have been a form of escape literature.

These days the ingredients may be even harder to find than before, but it's certainly a hopeful sign that Karim Makhmudov's widow and son are talking about opening a classical Uzbek restaurant in Tashkent named after him.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World