Osh: Uzbekistan’s comfort food5 min read
Osh (Russian: plov) is the window to the Uzbek soul. It tells a tale of history, taste, and upbringing. Osh, which is made with rice, meat, and vegetables, is considered the tastiest food in Uzbekistan. Making delicious osh separates expert chefs from mediocre ones; it pulls the curtain back on someone’s life and helps us understand where they come from.
It shows hospitality skills as well as place in society. Osh is a satisfying meal that brings friends, family, and strangers together. For the weary traveler, it is Uzbekistan’s ultimate comfort food. It makes the worn out feel relaxed and the lost feel at home. Ravshan, a chef in Nukus stated that osh is “powerful for its ability to bring people together and make them stay together, it is a staple of the culture keeping Uzbekistan together.”
Osh is always the center of large events, such as weddings, throughout Uzbekistan. Dr. Saodat Adilova, a distinguished professor at Tashkent State Pedagogical University — named after Nizami, and a personal friend, described the dish as one “that gathers family” and “the only reliable food to eat,” because it cannot be saved overnight, ensuring that it is freshly prepared each day. Making osh is a delicate and precise skill. It takes years to master. Real, traditional osh requires having a wood fire and a large kazan [special metal cookware]. Each ingredient must be added one at a time to the kazan, requiring time and patience.
Osh has become a source of pride for local cafés, as each try to market their cafés as having the tastiest dish and best chef. Café and choyxona [teahouse] culture brought along its own type of osh — choyxona style. This type of osh has a unique taste, saltier, with a savory sensation and more darkly colored than its counterparts. Choyxonalar [teahouses] have traditionally been the place to gather and converse over osh and other national dishes. Unlike other Uzbek traditional foods, such as norin or shashlik, osh becomes a community affair in Uzbek society. With over 200 different ways to prepare it, and different recipes for different events, osh is able to reflect the event or community it is prepared for.
Before COVID-19, wedding halls would be extravagantly decorated the day before the wedding with bright colors and wondrous patterns commemorating the ceremonial event. For wedding parties, nahorgi/to’y osh [wedding osh] is a traditional way to bring the male guests together, as hundreds of men, friends and strangers, gather to enjoy the national dish in the early morning. This feast requires a master chef countless hours to prepare. The traditional way of eating osh is with the hands, and during the wedding osh meal, it is customary for single men to eat osh from the hands of the groom so that they too can be married soon. It is also said that to differentiate a good osh, one should leave the meal with oil dripping down one’s arms.
Even though the pandemic makes it difficult for large groups to come together, osh is still the foundation for smaller gatherings. Osh is cooked in almost every family’s kitchen at home on its designated day of the week — Thursday. It not only lets people gather in their homes to eat but serves as a small way to maintain a semblance of normalcy during this uncertain time. Otabek Ismoilov, a lawyer from the Fergana Valley, says, “Osh is like a family member for every Uzbek; it is always there.”
Just as osh encourages unity, it is also useful for distinguishing and understanding individuals’ backgrounds and heritage. Each region throughout Uzbekistan has its own variation of the dish. The Tashkent style is beautifully made with a side of horsemeat and quail eggs, so many Uzbeks in Tashkent claim it is the best to eat and to photograph at large events. In Karakalpakstan, the semi-autonomous region of northwest Uzbekistan, the ingredients are simple: rice, carrots, oil, and beef or lamb on top. Yet the recipes in Tashkent and Fergana Valley are much more complex. They include raisins and chickpeas, and in Fergana, dolma [wrapped grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, or vegetables]. In addition, each region uses their own type of rice. As a result, chefs typically use the type of rice they grew up eating, so rice type can be an indicator of the chef’s place of origin.
Tashkent and Samarkand use Lazer rice, but cities in the Fergana Valley, like Chust and Namangan, use Devzira or Alanga rice. Izzat, a resident of Andijon, put it succinctly when he said, “osh associates with a hometown.” For the Uzbek chef, the use of certain ingredients and variations on recipes helps to retain regional ties, especially if working in another region. As recipes vary in complexity, prices for the various types differ. One can begin to understand the background of the person serving the osh based on the recipe, including how much meat comes with it, as meat is the most expensive ingredient.
Osh tells the story of diversity in Uzbekistan. Each region will tell you their version of osh is the best and that they use the freshest ingredients, the best rice, and the most savory meats. Yet, the beauty of osh is not just its taste. It is a conversation starter. It unites loved ones. Osh has become so central to the identity of Uzbekistan that it has taken on a proverbial role in the Uzbek language. One of the most used phrases is “o’ldirsa ham, osh o’ldirsin” [If I die, let it be by osh]. Osh is an integral component of Uzbek daily life and society, and as such, it is best appreciated when sharing with friends and loved ones. One may come to Uzbekistan a stranger, but over a traditional dish of osh, will leave the country a guest and dear friend.
Special thanks to Dilmurod Kurbonov, a student at Tashkent State University of the Uzbek Language and Literature, for assisting with research.