When coming to a new place, our senses are the first things that get activated. Smell, feeling, sight and sound all work together in a cohesive ensemble to paint a picture of what we are witnessing, experiencing and where we are. Culture is an abstract concept that rides a fine line between all of aforementioned senses. It is all encompassing and can be manifested in a variety of ways. However, for me, the best way to experience a culture is through its food.
From the ingredients used, the way it’s served, where it’s eaten, and its flavor all tell a story that no words can truly describe. Food is a lens to discover a country’s true culture and habits. It is completely apolitical, devoid of conflict and barren of the bad aspects of humanity; it is simply an amalgamation of delicious ingredients and spices and is a better descriptor than any academic work, literature, or ‘artificial’ thing. Food is a natural product of the environment. It is required for subsistence and survival and therefore reflects the finest details of heritage, tradition and culture.
Prior to my arrival in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, I had very briefly read about the traditional dishes here. Osh, a dish consisted of white rice cooked with thinly sliced carrots, chickpeas, fennel, copious amounts of garlic and pieces of either beef or lamb is considered a staple dish that fuels the people of Tajikistan in their everyday lives. Shashlik, which are grilled skewers of different types of meat often coated in a layer of cumin and served with a light onion salad with lemon juice and dill is another common-found dish here and is one of the better foods I have had the pleasure of eating. You can’t go wrong with grilled meat and cumin.
However, these two dishes are somewhat ubiquitous to the Central Asian region in general rather than isolated to Tajikistan specifically. For the true Tajik culinary-cultural experience, I had to try the one dish not found in the neighboring ‘Stans’ – Qurutob. Officially (one of) the national dish (es) of Tajikistan, Qurutob has opened my eyes to a different side of this beautiful country.
What is Qurutob? A food fit for hard work, long days and adaptable to hot or cold climates served in side-street shacks, or fine restaurants, Qurutob is a dish that utilizes Tajikistan’s edible flora and fauna to its maximum in a mixture that elicits raw comfort, bliss, and most importantly – sheer flavor. Qurut is a type of yoghurt that is formed into small marble-sized balls and is kept dry. It is salt-laden and very dairy-y in flavor. To dilute it slightly, it is mixed with Ob (the Persian word for water) and is made into a watery-yoghurt sauce consistency. Thus, the name of the dish is a description of what it is; Qurut combined with Ob. With this as the foundation, a little bit of fennel oil is added along with razor thin slices of fresh cucumber, tomato, and onions. Topped with a generous topping of finely cut pieces of dill, parsley and garlic and finalized by the addition of one (or more) pickled, spicy green peppers.
This in itself is a tasty combination of ingredients but is missing the last and most important component of Qurutob – Fatir. Fatir is a type of bread that is made by taking very thin sheets of white-flour or wheat-flour dough and stacking them on themselves. The result is a 1/1.5-inch-thick circular bread that is comprised of dozens of layers of thin and crispy dough. To complete the Qurutob, small pieces of Fatir are torn from the main loaf and added into the mixture. Altogether, the ingredients are mixed and served in a rustic wooden bowl. Oftentimes, it can also be ordered with a few roasted pieces of tender lamb or beef on top.
Qurutob is a variety of dishes in one. It’s a salad, it’s a dip, it’s an appetizer and a main course all in one. It is a dish with roots in poor country-side homes but is also eaten in finer restaurants in the capitol. It can be eaten by hand, or by utensil. Qurutob is a dish that does not discriminate on socio-economic status, upbringing, nor does it hinder health-concerned diets. It’s a universal dish that pleases everyone who has the honor of tasting it. The ingredients are fresh, homemade, and crafted with care and show the warmth and welcoming nature of Tajikistan, its people and food.
For me, Qurutob is the quintessential Tajik dish. It is fit for all types of people and utilizes every culinary resource this country offers. It is refreshing in the hot summer days and is also hearty and filling for the cooler winter days. Qurutob feeds both the poor and affluent and is extremely easy to prepare. This dish, its ingredients, and everything about it reflects how laid-back this country is. How easy-going, and how a relatively simple combination of foods can satisfy all walks of life. There is a reason Qurutob remains the one dish not found in any other Central Asian nations.
By: Milovan Dakic
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Term: Spring 2019