I was first introduced to Uzbek food when I was living in Melbourne. There was a small family run place called Shesh Besh in Caulfield that I often frequented. The food was just… divine. The flavours were delicate, yet rich. Simple, yet bold. The lady who ran the kitchen didn’t speak English, but she was always warm and nurturing. It’s been 4 years since I left Melbourne, but I can still remember her young smile and her weathered hands.
Of all the things she made – my favourite was the plov. It’s quintessential comfort food. Rice, carrots and meat all cooked in one thick pot. It’s the kind of dish that warms your heart and your stomach. It has the power to lift you out of a bad mood with one bite. To say that I love plov would be a huge understatement.
I’ve tried making plov on my own – and whilst it was certainly edible – it just wasn’t Uzbek Plov. I read and tried a dozen recipes. But I haven’t been able to recreate the magic I felt when I was at Shesh Besh in Melbourne. So when Noza offered to teach me how to cook plov, I was ready to do cartwheels over the moon.
“I’ve been making pilaf for 15 years,” Noza tells me as we stand over the stove in her house in Tokyo. “But I still cannot make it exactly as my mother does.”
I smile. I know the feeling. I grew up in a culture where family recipes are heirlooms that are passed down from one generation to the next. The only time I ever feel a sense of accomplishment in the kitchen is when my food tastes exactly like my mother’s.
“In my culture,” I tell Noza, “we believe that every set of hands has a flavour. Two people could make the exact same recipe and wind up with something that tastes entirely different.”
Unlike Japanese food that prides itself on precision, skill and freshness – Indian and Uzbek food is usually prepared by eye. Uzbek Plov has always reminded me of Indian biriyani. But as I watch Noza prepare it – I realise how different the two processes are. Whilst the idea is similar – meat cooked with rice – the execution of the concept couldn’t be more different. My curiosity is piqued. I bombard Noza with a million questions about why it is prepared the way it is. I realise I’m like that student in class who always asks way too many questions.
“Uzbek plov is often served with this salad,” Noza tells me as she chops away at some cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. Since fresh dill and parsley aren’t easily available in Japan, Noza uses spring onions as a substitute.
It took around two hours to prepare the meal – the whole time my mouth watering with anticipation. It had been four years since I had Uzbek Plov. I wondered if it would be the same.
When we finally sit down for the meal – a flood of memories come back to me. Four years had passed since I’d had Uzbek Plov – but it felt like it had only been yesterday. The flavours were delicate, yet rich. Simple, yet bold. It is exactly as I remembered it. And then I felt it – that elusive feeling of satisfaction tinged with nostalgia. Who knows the next time I’ll have homemade Uzbek Plov? I eat slowly – relishing every morsel of rice as though it would be my last.
I think about how a lot can happen in four years. I discover that the restaurant Shesh Besh in the Caulfield suburbs of Melbourne has closed down. I, myself, had gone on a topsy turvy journey before winding up in Tokyo. But my love for Uzbek Plov had remained the same.
Like people – some dishes find a way into your heart and make a home there. But unlike love at first sight – love at first bite can survive the tests of time and distance.