Central Asia boasts many variations on plov, a meaty, rice-based dish. The word plov is the root of pilaf, its more delicate spawn. Many give Uzbekistan credit for being the birthplace of it, but it's been a beloved dish for centuries among many of the other "stans" in the region, and more recently, it's become very popular in now-in-the-news Ukraine.
I learned much of what I know about the dish at a dinner party, with 14 Uzbek businessmen in attendance and cooking alongside nationals from many countries formerly of the USSR. One of their first lessons: Plov is traditionally man's work, and still carries a masculine mystique comparable to the status of grilling in the U.S.
"Man is the master of plov," argued one of the attendees. "It seems to us such a simple thing. Our fathers taught us when we were young, taking us to parties and showing us things."
Another pragmatic theory: Women make it every day, so it gets old, but when men make it, they do their best. One Uzbek businessmen looked beyond the gender divide entirely, likening plov-making to a spiritual quest. "First we ask God for help. Always when I am preparing, I ask for power and knowledge," he says. "With heat we do everything: onion, carrot, garlic, meat, rice. And we use tasteful things, like spices and pepper."
Beyond that, for a plov to pass 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. Traditionally lamb or mutton meat is used, though I often make deer-meat plov, and beef can be used, though its flavor isn't typically strong enough to really make the dish work.
Across Central Asia, plov recipes vary among different regions, and even from house to house. The recipe that follows should be considered a point of departure for the creation of your own im-plov-isation, if you will — the basic idea being to fry the meat, onions, garlic, carrots and spices into a browned, greasy mix, add rice and water, 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. Alternatively, brown a pound (for four servings) of whatever meat you wish, cubed, in the oil of your choice.
When the meat is nicely browned, add thin-sliced onions, then the chopped cloves of a head of garlic; a tablespoon each of cumin and coriander; and a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Add five coarsely grated carrots and cook until soft.
Next, add 2 cups of rice, and about five cups of water, broth or stock, adjusting for redundant salt in those if needed. Cover, and simmer over medium heat until the rice is done, stirring frequently. Season to taste with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Let the plov "rest" for about 15 minutes to allow for the moisture to distribute itself evenly and flavors to come to terms with one another.
If only Russian and Ukrainian diplomats could do the same around a resting plov. It's hard to make war against one with whom you've cooked this dish. If men can make plov, surely they can make peace.