By Scott Levi
The Venetian doctor Niccolao Manucci lived in India for some fifty-five years, nearly his entire adult life. Working in a variety of capacities on behalf of his Mughal hosts, in the middle of the seventeenth century he found himself at the court of emperor Aurangzeb, who in 1658 ascended the throne in place of his father, Shah Jahan.
Twelve years earlier, Shah Jahan had placed Aurangzeb at the head of an army charged with marching across the Hindu Kush and retaking the Mughals’ ancestral homeland in Central Asia. The Mughal occupation of Balkh, near the banks of the Amu Darya, ended in failure and a disastrous retreat. Now, with Aurangzeb on the throne, the Uzbek ruler of Balkh, Subhan Quli Khan, dispatched an embassy to the new emperor in the hope that the two powers could once again enjoy peaceful relations.
India’s hot climate disagreed with the Uzbek nobles, and when one of the ambassadors fell sick Manucci himself was charged with caring for him and seeing to his recovery. This provided Manucci with the opportunity to become personally acquainted with the Central Asian visitors, and, much to his dismay, even share meals with them. His experience is instructive in how Mughal customs had changed over the century and a half since the dynastic founder, Babur (1483–1530), had made his way to India in the wake of the Uzbek invasion of the Timurid capital of Samarqand.*
It was disgusting to see how these Uzbak nobles ate, smearing their hands, lips, and faces with grease while eating, they having neither forks nor spoons…Mahomedans are accustomed after eating to wash their hands with pea-flour to remove grease, and most carefully clean their moustaches. But the Uzbak nobles do not stand on such ceremony. When they have done eating, they lick their fingers, so as not to lose a grain of rice; they rub one hand against the other to warm the fat, and then pass both hands over face, moustaches, and beard. He is most lovely who is the most greasy… The conversation hardly gets beyond talk of fat, with complaints that in the Mogul territory they cannot get anything fat to eat, and that the pulāos are deficient in butter.
Plov is an exceptionally hearty Central Asian variant of what is widely known in Turkish, Persian and Indian cuisine as a pilaf or pulao. In essence, each is a dish of seasoned rice, often cooked in a stock, and generally including a combination of spices, vegetables and proteins designed to make the dish a rich and tasty centerpiece to a meal. Even within their respective regions, each is differentiated in terms of cooking techniques and they exhibit endless local variations in the customary combination of vegetables, nuts, fruits and meats (if any). One may find garlic, onions and carrots alongside raisins and chickpeas, while other variations may favor lentils, peas, almonds, pistachios, barberries and even pomegranate seeds. Instead of lamb, one may also find chicken, beef and even variants calling for fish or horsemeat.
Dumba is the single ingredient that most distinguishes Central Asian plov. Dumba is the fat tail of the region’s highly valued fat-tailed sheep. Rendering it to provide the grease for cooking adds calories and equips Uzbek plov with a distinctive and deeply satisfying flavor. Historically, Central Asian nomads lived much of their lives out of doors and found animal fat to be an effective salve for protecting one’s skin from the damaging effects of the sun and wind. In traditional Uzbek cooking, the rice in a bowl of plov should appear to glisten. If it fails to do so, adjust the recipe by adding additional lamb fat (or vegetable oil) in the early stages of cooking.
Manucci was clearly put off by the table manners and comportment of the Uzbek envoys. But his account also illustrates the importance that culture and environment play in how culinary traditions develop and change. The more “refined” Mughlai pulao suited Indian tastes, relying on ghee instead of animal fat and emphasizing the use of spices. But to the Uzbeks this was considerably less satisfying than plov: the quintessential Uzbek dish that incorporated ingredients and cooking techniques perfectly suited to their steppe heritage, and is still loved throughout Central Asia today.
*Niccolao Manucci, Storia do Mogor, or Mogul India, 1653–1708, 4 vols, tr. By W. Irvine, London: John Murray, 1907–8, II, pp. 40–41.
½ c. sunflower or corn oil
1½ lb lamb meat, trimmed and cut into ½-inch cubes (reserve fat)
6 carrots cut into matchstick-sized strips
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 t. paprika
¼ t. ground turmeric
2 t. cumin seeds, toasted and crushed
½ c. water
3 c. rice, rinsed till clear (traditionally made with short grain rice, though basmati works well)
1 whole head of garlic, roasted with outer stem removed
6 c. boiling water
Place a large cast-iron Dutch oven or similar vessel over medium-high heat. Render lamb fat until the liquid coats the pot and begins to smoke. While vegetable oil is healthier, you can achieve a more authentic-tasting result by increasing the amount of fat rendered at this stage. Remove the (now crispy) fat solids and set aside. (Note: in Central Asia, this lamb crackling is called the jizza. It is salted and enjoyed as a delicacy.)
Add oil and return to temperature.
Add cubed meat and brown on all sides, stirring frequently, for 8-10 minutes. When browned, remove meat with slotted spoon and set aside.
Add the sliced onions and cook till browned, about 10 minutes. Return meat to the pot.
Add carrot slices on top of meat and onions. Add paprika, turmeric, cumin, salt and pepper. If so desired, add garlic cloves, chickpeas, barberries, raisins, or other items.
Add ½ c. water and stir well. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer for 2 minutes, adding more water if necessary. Flatten the top of the meat mixture with a spatula.
Pour the rice over the meat mixture and flatten the top of the rice. Slowly add the boiling water, taking care not to let the rice mix with the meat mixture.
Let boil uncovered for 15 minutes. When rice begins to thicken, poke several holes in the plov with the handle of a wood spoon to permit steam from the bottom to rise evenly.
Reduce heat to very low and cover tightly. Let cook for approximately 25 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.
Dish rice onto large platter and spoon the meat and vegetables on top. Garnish with roasted garlic.
Scott Levi is Associate Professor of Central Asian history at Ohio State University. He is author of The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and its Trade, 1550–1900 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2002) and Caravans: Indian Merchants on the Silk Road (Gurgaon: Penguin, 2015). He is currently a residential fellow at the Institut d’Études Avancées de Nantes, France, where he aims to complete two new research monographs: The Early Modern Silk Road: Integration and Crisis in Eighteenth-Century Central Asia, and Central Asia in the Global Age: The Rise and Fall of Khoqand, 1709–1876.