I realized yesterday that many meal choices on my trip came down to:
1) Noodles with mutton
2) Rice with mutton
Small chaikhanas (tea houses) sometimes have menus, but more often the person waiting on you will just tell you what they have. In addition to these two options, they love to offer shashlyk (meat grilled on a skewer, usually lamb or chicken). And there’s always bread and tea to go with everything.
It’s not really as dire as it sounds, though. Option #1 is laghman, a spicy soup filled with irregularly shaped handmade noodles, dill and/or parsley, and maybe even some veggies. Option #2 is plov, the national dish of Uzbekistan (and several other Central Asian countries under various names). Plov is a greasy mix of rice, shredded carrots boiled to a tasteless mush, and mutton. Occasionally it’s brightened with raisins or nuts. Very occasionally.
With either dish, it’s easy enough for a mostly-vegetarian like me to eat around the chunks of meat. Or, as I did one night, to slip the pieces of mutton in my plov to a small stray kitten who was mewing under my chair. It was a great system: I got to avoid eating the fatty, tough-looking meat; the kitten got some dinner; and the restaurant owner (assuming she didn’t notice my treachery) didn’t have know that I was leaving such delicacies uneaten.
Overall, I preferred laghman to plov, but then again, I’ve always loved noodles. (So much so that when I was about twelve, a friend nicknamed me Noodle.) Sometimes we had other options, like potatoes. One lunch place offered a delicious plate of pan-fried potatoes and veggies. Others leaned more toward the oily and bland. I became a fan of salt, pepper, and the fiendishly spicy paprika that sometimes took the place of black pepper.
One day I got to try a double noodle dish. It’s a specialty in a certain part of Kyrgyzstan, and it was the perfect lunch for a hot July day. The woman serving us sat outside under an umbrella with all sizes of bowls spread out on the table before her. Into each serving bowl went a tangle of the wheat noodles that I was familiar with from eating laghman. Then she took a coarse grater to a large, jiggly, translucent white blob to make – ready for this? – rice noodles! She added the freshly shaved rice noodles to the wheat noodles and then spooned in ladlefuls of a cold, spicy, vinegary broth. A few chopped spring onions, a choice of fork or chopsticks, and we were ready to eat. It was one of my favorite meals on the trip, and I was sorry not to see it again.