Uzbeks have many reasons to eat plov. Occasions like weddings, funerals, births and Navruz (Persian New Year) call for the cumin-scented rice loaded with cubes of tender meat and studded with melting onions and spiced carrot sticks. For some, it’s even a routine weeknight meal. The truth is, plov is good anytime in the minds of many Central Asians. It’s the national dish of Uzbekistan, which succeeded in getting it on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2016, but many neighboring countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan also count plov as one of their main dishes.
As an old Uzbek saying goes, “If you’re rich, eat plov; if you’re poor, eat plov.” This has been the lived experience of Damira Inatullaeva, a New York resident who grew up in Samarkand, an ancient city in southeastern Uzbekistan that lay along the Silk Road. “I first remember eating plov when I was 4 or 5 years old,” she says. “But at that time, plov was only a holiday dish, because it was not easy times, when I was young.” After a career as a doctor, Inatullaeva moved to the United States in 2013 and started teaching Uzbek cuisine for League of Kitchens, a New York City cooking school where immigrant women lead classes in their home kitchens. By then, she was making plov a couple times a week for her family.
Meanwhile, Umida Karl, who with her husband co-owns the Uzbek restaurant Uma’s in New York City’s Rockaway Beach neighborhood, grew up in Samarkand eating plov cooked by her mother about once a week. “I always think of my mom when I eat plov,” she says. “She was a very good cook—her plov was delicious.” Now, plov is the first entree listed on Uma’s menu. Karl estimates that 200 people order plov in a typical week at the restaurant—it’s by far the most popular dish. And when the steaming mound of rice arrives at your table, with aromas of cumin and garlic wafting up from the plate, it’s hard not to salivate. Chunks of meat, carrot matchsticks, barberries and plump chickpeas glisten amid the rice, and each bite is a hearty reminder of comfort at its finest.
At its core, plov is a dish made of rice, beef or lamb, oil or animal fat, carrots (usually cut into matchsticks), and onions, cooked with cumin and salt in a large pot. Karl notes that the cumin seeds in her native country are different from what you see in the U.S. “Cumin from Uzbekistan is stronger, darker and finer,” she says. “It’s grown in the mountains, and it’s pretty expensive. We import it from Uzbekistan for our plov in the restaurant.” She’s particular about other ingredients, too. “You want the best-quality rice for plov, because it matters the way it absorbs water,” she says. “It’s not a hard dish to make, but at the same time it’s also the most difficult, because you need to know how much water to add—it has to stay the right consistency.” The resulting dish is traditionally served on a large communal platter that everyone eats from, whether with their hands or, in more modern settings, forks. A tomato salad is often on the side.
“There is something mystical about plov that elevates it above taste and presentation. It is a shared obsession, generally served for lunch, representing hospitality, community and identity,” says Caroline Eden, author of Samarkand (co-written with Eleanor Ford) and Red Sands, which detail her travels through Central Asia across a decade and share recipes from the region, in an email.
Given that plov’s history traces back thousands of years, it’s not surprising there are hundreds of variations of the dish, with the most common additions being coriander, chickpeas, garlic, barberries, raisins and quince, when in season. Quail eggs and chestnuts also appear.
Recipes and presentations often vary by region. For example, Inatullaeva and Karl say the plov in Samarkand is cooked and served layered, with the rice on the bottom, then carrots, then beef on top, while in Tashkent, in northeastern Uzbekistan, it’s all mixed together. In the Fergana Valley, plov is very, very spicy, Inatullaeva adds, and in Bukhara, about 140 miles west of Samarkand, all the ingredients are cooked separately and then put in layers into a pot.
Plov can be made differently depending on the occasion, too. “For a funeral, most people will cook a basic plov with the main ingredients of oil, carrot, rice, meat and spices. But for a holiday or wedding, they will add ingredients like chickpeas, raisins, garlic,” Inatullaeva says. “It’s the same dish, the same plov, but the mood is different; at a wedding you feel joyful, and at a funeral you come to support the people and you feel grief. In this case, in our country, a host, when they offer you plov, they’re saying to you, ‘You are my guest—you are the guest, for example, of my mom who passed away—and this [plov] is especially for you.’” She adds that plov is often the final dish presented at an extravagant meal for guests. The chef cooks it in a large, wok-like, cast-iron pot called a kazan, and it can sometimes feed more than 100 people.
However it’s made, plov is undeniably a cornerstone of Uzbek food. “Plov is the king of Uzbek cuisine. We can’t imagine Uzbek cuisine without plov,” says Inatullaeva. Karl agrees: “Plov is the dish that everyone expects you to have.”
The ancient history of plov is slightly murky, but a few origin stories circulate. One popular one is that after conquering Marakanda (modern-day Samarkand), Alexander the Great had his cooks make a satisfying yet easy-to-prepare dish for his soldiers, so they could be full without slowing down, and this was plov (sometimes spelled poluv or palov). Many consider 10th-century Central Asian scholar Ibn Sina (Avicenna) the “father of plov,” as he wrote down the recipe for what he called palov osh. The Uzbek-born warrior Tamerlane, who ruled Central Asia in the 1300s, is also said to have served it to his armies.
It still remains part of plov’s allure that it can feed a crowd, just as those warriors feeding their armies found. Even today, men are often the cookers of plov in Uzbekistan, says Karl. Inatullaeva remembers both her mother and father cooking plov for their family. She recalls helping her parents and grandparents cook, but they never explicitly taught her how to make plov. Instead, she learned to cook plov from her husband. “Our tradition is that men cook plov,” she says.
“Uzbeks believe that in order to make the plov really sing, it should be cooked outdoors by a man,” writes Eden in Samarkand. “During the Soviet era, women took over most of the cooking, but master plov chefs, known as oshpaz, are often male. At weddings, birthday parties and during the holidays, the most skilled oshpaz can serve hundreds of people from a single kazan.”
Eden recounts a time when she saw plov being made for iftar, the fast-breaking meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan. “I ate plov once at the Ali Mukhamed mosque in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which is almost entirely attended by Uyghurs [Turkic-speaking Muslims often from Xinjiang, China],” she says in an email. “At the back of the mosque there was a kitchen, covered only by a corrugated iron roof with no walls. Ehmet, the chef, while stirring two giant kazans of mutton, told me that in six hours, at 8:17 p.m., 500 men would arrive. On the last day of Ramadan, they will feed 1,400 men, which means 12 kazans to cook the rice dish.”
If you visit Uzbekistan, you’ll see plov on most restaurant menus throughout the country. One of the best-known places in Samarkand for plov is the traditional restaurant Samarqand Osh Markazi, which only serves different types of plov, and in Tashkent, a massive dining hall called the Central Asian Plov Center is an institution. But some of the tastiest plov is found at hole-in-the-wall spots.
“One of the best plovs I ate recently was at a busy, unnamed restaurant on Lev Tolstoy Street in Samarkand,” says Eden in an email. “There was no menu, so I ordered ‘lunch’ along with the people I shared a table with. A gold-rimmed teapot arrived, brimming with green tea, followed by baskets of pudgy non bread and side plates of refreshing tomato and purple basil salad, all partners for the platter of plov, which came piled high as a sandcastle.”
Karl confirms this is par for the course. “Plov is usually served for lunch, and at restaurants, by 2 or 3 p.m., it’s all gone,” she says. “They start cooking it in the morning, carving the carrots by hand, and cooking in these huge cauldrons, sometimes over an open fire—it’s quite a sight actually.” She adds that at her New York restaurant they cook their plov in a kazan that they brought from Uzbekistan.
In the end, like all foods, plov must be eaten to be appreciated.
“We can talk a lot about plov,” says Inatullaeva. “But the best way is to try it. For me, plov means family.”
Uma’s Samarkand-Style Plov
- 2 cups of vegetable oil (olive oil or sunflower oil can be substituted)
- 2 pounds of lamb or beef shoulder, cut in large cubes (approximately 1 inch by 1 inch)
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2-3 pounds of carrots, julienned
- 2 pounds of Turkish rice
- Cumin seeds to taste
- Black pepper to taste
- Kosher salt to taste
- 1 or 2 garlic heads
- 1 cup of chickpeas
- 2 tablespoons red Uzbek raisins (optional)
- 2 tablespoons dried barberry (optional)
- Kettle of boiling water
Prepare carrots beforehand—they should be cut in the size of frozen fries.
You will need a special cast-aluminum wok-like pot, called a kazan, or you can also use a six-quart cast-iron pot like Le Creuset. You will also need a kafgir, which is a flat, round skimmer.
In a kazan or six-quart cast-iron pot, heat the oil and add the cubed meat. Brown the meat for a little while, then add the diced yellow onion.
Sauté until the onion is tender, reduce the heat and add the julienned carrots. Don’t sauté the carrots, just arrange them over the meat and onions. Bury the garlic heads inside the carrots, and add the chickpeas and optional dried barberry and raisins. Add the cumin and black pepper over the whole thing.
At this point, add water carefully around the circumference of the pot as to not wash out all the spices, until your carrots are slightly covered. Raise the heat and bring everything to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat, cover the pot and let it cook for about 20 minutes.
Rinse the rice and add it to the pot. Add about two tablespoons of kosher salt over the rice. Add enough boiling water through a kafgir over the rice to cover the rice completely. Bring the water to a boil and wait until it starts to evaporate. If you taste the water, it should be slightly salty. Your heat should be high, and the rice has to cook evenly, so watch it and adjust your pot accordingly. When you no longer see water above your rice, and you can run a table knife through the rice and not much water drips from the knife when you remove it, reduce the heat and arrange the rice into a mountain. With the same knife, make holes in the rice deep enough to reach the bottom of the pot—one in the middle, and a few around it. Cover the rice for about ten minutes.
After ten minutes, carefully and gently mix the rice only. Arrange it into another mountain, make holes, and cover for another 20 minutes.
Finally, it’s time to arrange the finished plov, Samarkand-style. On a few round platters, arrange a layer of rice, next a layer of carrots, and then all the meat and garlic right on top. Serve immediately, traditionally with spicy tomato salad and labneh yogurt with green or red radish.
This article was made possible by the Smithsonian Artisan Initiative, as part of its “Documentation Celebrating Women Artisans in Central Asia” project, with support from the USAID Trade Central Asia Activity and the Commercial Law Development Program of the U.S. Department of Commerce. If you want to learn more about Uzbekistan, take a journey through this Lookbook highlighting the work of 50 women artisans in Central Asia.