You are what you eat. Nowhere could this maxim be more obvious than in the Pamirs. A barren land of rock and rubble, brought to life only through the hands of its people. But what does it mean that nowadays, in the Tajik Pamirs, foreign foods such as borscht, plov and lagman dominate the dishes offered to travelers? It is possible to spend many months in the Pamirs without eating a single Pamiri dish. Are you eating someone else’s food now, or did the Pamiris change?
This post started with the idea of gathering some dishes people could ask for when searching out real Pamiri food. I contacted Frederik van Oudenhoven, one of the authors of With Our Own Hands, a herculean effort to document the food culture of the Pamirs, and after summing up some basic recipes, our conversation took a turn.
We started talking about how Pamiris should deal with the increase in tourism numbers. The commodification of the sacred traditions of Pamiri hospitality is inevitable in a worldwide capitalist system, and development work often only aids in splitting into marketable packets the holistic life view of people who still regard work, family, food and religion as one and the same.
What could we, as visitors, do to help them preserve what is worthwhile about their (food) culture, and adapt gracefully to the challenges and possibilities the new global culture brings?
First, some tips based on Frederik’s answers, followed by some dishes you can encounter more easily in your travels, culled from the (once again) tear-inducingly beautiful With Our Own Hands.
Tips for savourers
Number one tip: show interest. There is a tendency among village people to be initially ashamed of their food, as they are often simple farmer meals. Foreign food is deemed more prestigious. This quickly changes, though, when someone starts showing some real interest.
So ask questions. Food is closely linked to all other aspects of life. Don’t ask what recipes they know of, your conversation partner will only squint and scratch her ear before mumbling a few words. Ask instead: what is that growing in your field, and what’s this herb I found on the mountain, and how do you use it? What is the history of this big tree? What happens when you have a celebration, a wedding, Nowruz? When you have a cough, a broken leg, a lazy husband, a newborn baby?
If you ask someone to cook a certain dish for you, make sure you are there when it is being prepared. Look intently at what they do with their hands. What you see is not the experience of a lifetime of cooking; these methods go back 50 generations or more, every daughter sanding, honing and polishing the skills of her mothers before her to produce the smooth, rhythmic rituals you are watching.
Frederik and Jamila’s work with the book has meant there is more interest in traditional foods and you might soon be served some of these dishes at your homestay, as owners are asked by development agencies to cook those native foods for curious foreigners. This way, the recipes stay preserved, but run the risk of adding little more than an extra entry in the cook’s recipe book, its meaning sieved from the context. It’s exactly in the web of relations with other traditions that the food acquires its specific taste.
So it’s important to make that effort to be in the kitchen. The preparation and cultivation of the ingredients is the link with the culture. Women may have a slightly different experience than men here, but this is not women-only terrain – men are welcome too.
As a foreigner, you have the ability to be a mirror. Pamiris are very proud of their culture. Confronted with completely different traditions, sometimes diametrically opposed to theirs, it becomes easier for them to see who they are, and where their identity might lie. Just like us travelers, really.
Last tip: be prepared to not like it! Not all of these foods are palatable to foreign taste buds. On the up-side, most of them are vegetarian.
Every village in the Tajik and Afghan Pamir has received a copy of With our own Hands, which might be useful in explaining what you mean. It contains more than 100 recipes – I just lift out a few that will be easy to find.
Non is the ubiquitous staple food in the Pamirs. This is quite a recent evolution, though, and only possible thanks to imported flour from Kazakhstan and India. Early summer is the time to seek out breads from local grains that ripen earlier than wheat like finger millet or barley. In other times, pea, grass pea and rye are more interesting wheat substitutes. Special events are marked with the baking of rich breads or pancakes.
While bread is the most important food in the Pamirs, the expense of flour makes soups the most common food in the Pamirs. In Kyrgyzstan, osh refers to a city in the South, and in Uzbekistan to the national dish plov. In the Pamirs, it is the most popular noodle soup, which comes in 50 varieties. Other interesting soups that are possible to find for the beginning foodie are walnut soup (guzkharvo) and the intriguing dried apricot soup (noshkhukhpa). Even the pits of the apricot are made into a hearty medicinal soup called khomnigul.
Pamiri mulberry trees are wooden monuments. Their dependable harvest has saved thousands during recent wars when trade was interrupted. Mulberries are candy, medicine, staple food (as pikht) or the start of a fun evening when transformed into brandy. For many people in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs, mulberries, especially pikht, the flour or paste that is made from dried mulberries, continues to form the basis of their diet for much of the year. There are many varieties and recipes to taste and learn about.
Places & moments
Almost every village in the Tajik Pamir will have people who remember some old dishes, but, dietary habits have changed a lot after 70 years of Soviet rule. After the collapse, young men went away en masse, leaving ever fewer hands to tend to the land. The Afghan Pamir has never had this evolution, and much more traditional foods are eaten there.
Siponj in Bartang valley is an interesting place where, together with the local school, a woman called Latofat organises a yearly ‘national foods day’ where kids ask old people for recipes and prepare their favourite meals.
Restaurants that make Pamiri dishes are few in number, though some may be able to prepare a traditional meal if asked. The little place in Khorog’s UPD neighbourhood that did a really good Qurutob (a kind of salad with dairy, herbs and bread) has closed, but we’ve heard an ambitious new glitzy restaurant has opened up near the bazaar. Tips on other cooks and restaurants are welcome in the comments. For those missing their manty and oromo, the Jamantal restaurant has Kyrgyz owners bringing meat from Murghab to make Kyrgyz food, Pamiri style.
The best times to get a taste of special foods is at celebrations: Nowruz, marriage, death and birth. In these moments, past and present blend almost harmoniously. A new twist to an old dance, a funny foreign word in the lyrics of an ancient song.
Slow-cooked fusion cuisine – that’s what we’re after.
Thanks to Frederik and Jamila for proofreading, and Theodore Kaye and Judith Quax for the use of their images. Hope to repay you soon.