Missoula’s Tajik community, population four, threw a dinner party. On the scene with notebook and spoon, I quickly noted over 20 folks that looked Central Asian, as well as about forty non-Central Asians. Everyone was speaking Russian except Chef Boy Ari, who can only say “da,” “niet,” “niet problem,” and “vodka.” I decided to skip the language hurdle and stuff my face with food.
A group of men was gathered into an imposing cluster around a pot on the stove. By their faces, they spoke of serious things. One man had a square hat, colored purple and black, that sat back on his head like a yarmulke. I dug the hat, and I wanted to trade, but all I had was my old baseball cap with an “X” on it. Meanwhile, my above-average nasal equipment detected some niet problem emanating from that pot, so I made a move, which the men allowed, heaping fragrant goodness upon my plate. “What is this?” I said. “Plov” they said.
Plov? What the...? The culinary cousin of the better-known pilaf is a common Central Asian dish, to be sure, though it traditionally belongs to Uzbekistan more than Tajikstan—everyone knows that. But not wanting to raise a stink, I quietly ate my plov, which hardly stank. A savory combination of rice, veggies and meat, the plov had that distinct feel of slow cooked, old-school fare. It was so good that I would have bet the farm it was Uzbek plov.
Lo and behold, it turns out that a group of 14 Uzbekis were in town, a visit coordinated by UM business professor Dick Daily. The group included businessmen, teachers, and bankers. When they caught wind of the Tajik shindig, the Uzbekis offered to make plov. And that’s how the Uzbekis ploved the Tajik party.
Despite the fact that women do most of the cooking in Central Asia, Tajik and Uzbeki alike seem to agree that Uzbeki men make the best plov anywhere. Chef Boy Ari remained quietly skeptical of this, while festering with single-minded determination to crack the truth behind the plov.
Meanwhile, the Tajiks had prepared dumlama, a dish of brussel sprouts, chickpeas, and mushrooms, cooked in their own juices. With plenty of falling-apart cabbage slightly reminiscent of Chinese mu-shi, the dumlama was niet problem as well. Since I was fashionably late, like a fool, I missed the samoosas, whose flaky dough and sumptuous filling earned high praise.
The party was hosted by the UM Russian club and spearheaded by their faculty advisor, Marina Kanevskaya, who left Russia for Israel 25 years ago, before coming here. Surrounded by so many people whooping it up in Russian, a language common in all of the Central Asian -stans who shared Russia as common colonizer, Kanevskaya is exuberant. “I have resurrected the Russian Empire upon the banks of the Clark Fork River,” she observes.
Central Asia is a melting pot where the cultures of Turkey, China, Mongolia, South Asia, Tibet, and Persia all mix. This is silk road country, a geographic positioning that for centuries made the region a nexus for the emerging global economy—until ships replaced roads for mass cargo transport between Europe, Africa, and Asia. At an average latitude slightly southern to ours, the climate can range from sub-tropical to arctic, depending on season and elevation. The largest glacier in the world, at 70 square kilometers, is in Tajikstan.
The Tajik party is a melting pot for academics representing geography, history, business, and other departments. History professor Mehrdad Kia recently received a rather large and prestigious Title-6 federal grant—the only such grant given last year for Central Asian study - to develop a Central Asian minor at UM. I asked Kia why Missoula has become such a hub for Central Asian activity. My ears were perked for provincial similarities of the culinary persuasion, Central Asia being where apples and apricots were first domesticated and all.
Kia dished the question to Otto Koester, administrator for UM’s Central Asian and Caspian Basin program, who waxed rhetorically “What is it that young Americans most need to understand about the world in terms of emerging geopolitical, social, economic, and environmental issues? This part of the world has lurked in obscurity for years, but since the USSR’s collapse, is quickly coalescing again into a focal point in the world scene.”
Kia added “Central Asia is a vital and volatile part of the world, crawling with Japanese, Turks, French, Germans, Iranians, Russians, Chinese. The oil reserves of the Caspian Basin are greater than all of the Middle East combined—so of course the U.S. has troops in all of these places, including Afghanistan. UM is the only university between Minneapolis and Seattle with major opportunities for Arabic and Persian studies, including language, art, politics, history. By going towards Central Asia, UM is playing into its own strengths.”
Tune in next week for how it all comes together: The purple and black square hat, and the shocking-yet-simple truth about men and plov. And if that’s not enough for you, check out Kia, and more Central Asian material, at the Crystal Theatre this Monday! See page 35 for details.
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