Variations on plov, a meaty, rice-based dish, are found throughout Central Asia. The word plov is the root of pilaf, its more delicate incarnation. Many give Uzbekistan credit for being the birthplace of plov, but it's been a beloved dish for centuries among many of the other stans in the region. More recently it's become a cult dish further afield, and is very popular in Ukraine.
I learned much of what I know about plov at a dinner party, when 14 Uzbek businessmen showed up and proceeded to make plov. The party was full of nationals from former USSR countries, many of whom had something to say about plov.
One of the things I learned is plov preparation is traditionally a man's work, and still carries a masculine mystique comparable to the status of grilling in the United States. A Tajik college student bluntly told me she thought women wouldn't add enough meat if they were in charge of the plov.
When I asked one of the Uzbek businessmen about women and plov, he patiently folded his arms behind his back, and gave a silky response that equated women making plov to men giving birth to babies.
"If a woman wants to eat man's plov," he said, "they must order their husband or their brother to make it. That way, they can eat with pleasure. If you want to eat something that is prepared perfectly, you must have the master prepare it. Man is the master of plov.
"It seems to us such a simple thing," he continued. "Our fathers taught us when we were young, taking us to parties and showing us things. Together with our fathers and grandfathers, it was very interesting to the child. So it was easy to learn how to prepare the plov."
I also heard a more pragmatic theory: Women do it every day, so it gets old. When men do it, they do their best. Meanwhile, at least one of the Uzbek businessmen had his sights set beyond the gender divide, likening plov preparation to a spiritual quest.
"First of all, if we want to make something good or tasty or best ... first we ask God for help," he said. "Always when I am preparing, I ask for power and knowledge. With heat we do everything: onion, carrot, garlic, meat, rice. And we use tasteful things, like spices and pepper, so the plov becomes very tasteful."
Beyond that, for a plov to pass an Uzbek inspection it must be prepared with melted lamb fat, preferably cut from the base of the lamb's tail, a region called kudryuka. It should be cooked over a fire, and in a dish called a qozon (if only Uzbek words were allowed in Scrabble).
Traditionally plov dishes use lamb or mutton meat, though I often substitute deer. It can be made with beef, although it doesn't have a strong enough flavor to really make the dish work. The gaminess of lamb is the perfect counterbalance to the cumin, coriander and other spices in the dish.
The recipe is simple and versatile enough to accommodate all manner of substitutions and creative license. Across Central Asia, plov recipes vary between different regions, and even from house to house. The recipe that follows should be considered a reference point as you explore your own personal plov. Your im-plov-isation, as it were.
The basic idea is to fry the meat, onions, garlic, carrots and spices into a browned, greasy mix, add rice and water (or stock, ideally), and let it cook until the rice is done.
For Uzbek-style plov, begin by melting your lamb fat in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium/high temperature, using a potato purée tool to get as much liquid fat out as you can. Then fry lamb chunks in the grease. Alternately, brown a pound (for four servings) of whatever meat you wish, cut into cubes, in the oil of your choice. Plov is also tasty enough, if less authentic, when made with olive oil or bacon grease.
When the meat is nicely browned, add an onion, sliced thinly from end to end. When the onions are soft and light brown, add the cloves of a head of garlic, chopped, and a tablespoon each of cumin and coriander, ideally freshly ground, and a teaspoon each of salt and ground black pepper. Add five coarsely grated carrots and cook for about five minutes, stirring often, until the carrots are soft.
Mix it all together. Add 2 cups of rice, and about 5 cups of water, broth or stock (if using salty broth or bullion, reconsider adding salt above).
Cover, and simmer over medium heat until the rice is done. Stir frequently to make sure the plov does not stick to the bottom of the pot. Season one last time with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Depending on the type of rice, it may be necessary to add more water until the rice is fully cooked.
Let the plov sit or "rest" for about 15 minutes with the lid on before serving. This lets the flavors settle and come to terms with one another, and for the moisture to distribute itself evenly.
If only Russian and Ukrainian diplomats could sit at a table together, talking over a resting plov as the various components come to equilibrium. It's hard to make war against one with whom you've made plov. If men can make plov together, they can make peace together.