Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep, and doesn’t know where to find them.

Look over there, her friend declared, they are in an Uzbek soup with crème.

I knew little about Uzbek food, and, in the days ahead of our trip, was getting curious about what we’d be eating on the ground in Uzbekistan. From everything I could find online and in books, it was clear that Uzbek cuisine is dominated by one meat: mutton. This summary from one of our guidebooks says it best:

Uzbek national dishes include Sherpa, a soup with fatty mutton and vegetables, norin and lagman, two mutton-broth soups with noodles that may also be topped with a piece of horsemeat, and the ubiquitous sashlik, grilled kebabs with cubes of mutton or beef and fat.  For a quick snack, consider manti, a steamed dumpling containing minced mutton, or somsa, a fried or baked pastry parcel that contains either mutton, or occasionally, mashed potato. (Bradt Travel Guides, 2016)

And knowing some of the national dishes is helpful – if you can read the menu. There were many restaurants where menus were only in Cyrillic or Uzbek, and we had to rely on luck and the limited English of our waiter to guide us away from horse, brain, and other adventurous cuts of meat. And, there was that one time when we asked our driver if the meat in the soup was mutton, and he looked at the waitress, they exchanged a knowing glance and chuckle, and he replied with a less-than-convincing “yes.” Ultimately, daddy’s got to eat.

Plov with mutton, and soup with… mutton.

By the end of the trip, we had done much in solving the case of Little Bo Peep’s missing sheep. And while I loved my meals throughout Uzbekistan, I was ready for a break from mutton soup, mutton shish, and mutton with rice. Chicken, pork, fish, and beef – cheesesteaks, chicken wings, sausages – bring them on! I could already feel them dancing in general merriment in my stomach.

After takeoff on the flight from Moscow back to New York, the flight attendants came around with our first meal.

“Beef or fish?,” they asked. “Beef!” I said, probably too excitedly. No one should be that excited for plane food, and the flight attendant’s look confirmed that.

She handed me my tray. I could feel the heat coming off that little package of goodness. I looked down, ready to peel back the foil….

Plov in the Desert

Plov, a rice-based dish from which our term Pilaf is derived, is the national dish of Uzbekistan. It’s served at weddings and special functions, different regions have different versions (each claiming theirs to be superior to others), such that it lends itself to a competitive oneupmanship among Uzbek grandmas. Insult the Plov, you insult the family. It’s typically served with (surprise) mutton and vegetables, and on special occasions, with shredded horse meat. Eating horse, one driver told me, is “the Uzbek Viagra.” Giddy up.

Finding Plov is surprisingly difficult. Without invitation or access to weddings, festivals, or grandma’s tables, visitors have to rely on restaurants. Some have it on the menu, but only at lunch time, and then only until it runs out. Some restaurants narrow the window further, stating that Plov is only available between 12 and 1 pm. So, for the most part, this national dish remained a national mystery to us.

Many of the limits around Plov are cultural, but some may also be a result of the challenge of growing rice in a largely desert nation. In fact, water-intensive agricultural practices like rice, and to a greater extent, cotton, have had a major ecological impact on Uzbekistan and Central Asia, generally.  The most visible and devastating result has been the disappearance of the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world, over the past half century.

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Abandoned ship on the now-dry bed of the Aral Sea. (NY Times image)

Moynak, once a bustling fishing town on Northern Uzbekistan’s Aral coast, is now more than 200 km from the water and is visited primarily by tourists seeking selfies with the rotting hulks of ships stranded in the sand. Decades of poor water management systems under the Soviets were further complicated by the hasty abandonment of a Soviet bioweapons testing laboratory that once sat on an island in the middle of the sea and the dumping of toxic waste into the water. One Uzbek poet wrote, “When God loved us, he gave us the Amu Darya [feeder river of the Aral Sea], when he ceased to love us, he sent us Russian engineers.” (Bissell, Chasing the Sea) The Aral Sea is now less than ten percent its original size and is widely considered to be one the worst manmade ecological disasters in the world. However, some are hopeful they can, er, turn the tide. In September 2018, an Uzbek Techno Fest was held in the dry bed of the Aral Sea. It hosted DJs from Moscow and Berlin and held ambitions to be “the Burning Man of Central Asia.” The organizers noble goal was twofold: first, to bring attention to the Aral Sea crisis; second, was to, rainmaker-like, “use electronic music to call the sea back.”

As of Tuesday, the sea had not yet returned.