Marco Polo s roads lead to the uzbek dastarkhan

At the end of 2004, Turin (Italy) played host to the World Meeting of Food Associations, Terra Madre, attended by representatives from many countries, including Uzbekistan. Eleven farmers from the Republic’s provinces of Tashkent, Djizak, Navoi and Samarkand brought with them foodstuffs produced in small family companies in accordance with the recipes and historically established traditions of their regions.

Terra Madre’s organizers: the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Turin municipal authorities, the Slow Food Association and the Association of Friends of the Gastronomic Sciences University – aimed to acquaint the world community with peculiarities of different countries’ national cuisines and foodstuffs production technologies, which incorporate environmentally friendly and traditional methods. As well as that, they sought to promote integration processes in such an important economic sector as public catering. Family-based production of foodstuffs was classified as a separate branch.

Says Victor Tsoy, a head of the Uzbek delegation: “The products we are accustomed to, such as kurt, suzma, nisholda, airan, lepeshkas, kishmish (raisins), kuraga (dried apricots), dried melon and many others, were real discoveries for the majority of foreigners. I am pleased to note that delegations from Africa and Latin America clustered around the tables with Uzbek traditional victuals. They tasted each dish and product put up for show, peppering us with questions about the technologies and methods used in their production and carefully writing down all the information furnished.”

Reports delivered by Uzbek foodstuffs producers were met by the forum’s organizers with a great deal of enthusiasm. Moreover, the production technologies for dairy, meat and farinaceous foodstuffs they disclosed at the meeting were entered in specialized collections and the Slow – Herald of Culture and Taste magazine.
What’s more, an exhibition held within the framework of the World Meting of Food Associations, Terra Madre, afforded its participants an opportunity to demonstrate not only their original groceries and provisions, but also to highlight their national culture. Those visiting the Republic’s stand took an interest in the nation’s traditions, rites, folklore, history and even geography. The national clothes, dances and songs arrested their attention. Many of the visitors were so charmed with what they saw and tasted there that they expressed their wish to arrive in Central Asia. And the wish of one of them has already come true.

Mikhail Stepannikov, a Slow Food expert, decided to reach Uzbekistan using the same route that had been taken by the world renowned Italian traveler Marco Polo many centuries ago. The Great Silk Road serving as a global integrator attracted merchants and craftsmen from both the West and the East. Its former glory dwindled not a bit. Moreover, this “brand” is as popular worldwide to date as it was in times immemorial. Mikhail Stepannikov was especially keen to see and taste the most delicious dishes of Uzbek cuisine, to familiarize himself with the population’s eating ceremonies and holidays dedicated to one or another product (for example, the Holiday of Lepeshka, the Day of Grapes, the Day of Melon etc.) To get a fuller picture of all these things, he visited the ancient Uzbek cities of Khorezm, Bukhara, Sa,arkand and Tashkent.

In the words of Mikhail Stepannikov, everywhere he witnessed hospitality, respect and cordiality, which struck him ineffably. “When a militiaman from the hotel where I stayed found out the goal of my visit to Uzbekistan, he immediately invited me to his home, - recollects Mikhail. – There I was shown the entire process of cooking Khorezm pilav, plus the procedures for serving it up and some relevant rituals. I made the acquaintance of his numerous relatives, who told me a lot of legends featuring one or another national cuisine. What is especially valuable, all this information was brought through the prism of Oriental mentality. Both the wisdom and philosophy of the East shocked me. Listening to their in-detail stories, I realized the depth of the Uzbek people’s spiritual richness and development.”

Mikhail Stepannikov and his 6-year daughter, Mariko were impressed by ancient architectural and historical monuments of Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand in no less degree than Marco Polo, who had described his impressions of these cities in his diaries. Stepannikov followed the Italian traveler’s example, studying local cuisine and gleaning recipes for cooking one or another dish. The fact that one and the same dish is made differently in different localities amazed him. We no longer wonder at the fact that pilav cooked in Bukhara differs form that made, say, in Tashkent by taste, ingredients and technology. According to Mikhail Stepannikov, in Russia, all dishes are so unified that it is practically impossible to discover any variations in the way they are cooked.

“Our task, - emphasizes Stepannikov, - is to discover not only a variety of technologies used in Uzbek cuisine, but, what is even more important, to learn the eating culture of the Uzbek nation, which clearly demonstrates its uniqueness. As I live in both Russia and Japan, I take part in various ceremonies associated with the preparation and consumption of meals. The Japanese tea ceremony, where each movement or detail has been brought to perfection in the space of many centuries, contains the nation’s philosophy of Life. Each nation has its own peculiar features that distinguish it from others. While in Uzbekistan, I made sure that its gastronomy is inseparably linked with the people’s history and culture”.

As part of his journey across the Republic, Mikhail Stepannikov visited his friends residing in Khumsan, a populated area in the Tashkent Province. Their acquaintance had taken place during the World Meeting of Food Associations, Terra Madre in Turin. The Akramovs were glad to see Mikhail.  They showed their guest round the picturesque environs. Stepannikov saw how close the local inhabitants were to nature, and how unique their cooking technologies proved to be. The traveler is going to expound his impressions of Uzbek cuisine in specialist gastronomy-dedicated editions. One of them is “Chief”, a well illustrated popular magazine intended for managers of restaurants and cafes, cooks, confectioners and foodstuffs makers. The public catering sector occupies its own niche in the economy, with tens of thousands of specialists working there. And a corporate edition is indispensable for them. Besides, peculiarities of Uzbek cuisine will be recorded in the Slow Food encyclopedia.

At present, the interests of the Slow Food Association in Uzbekistan are represented by the Association of Travelers, Rabat Malik. This organization contributes to the preservation of national traditions, including those in the gastronomy domain. Its activity on this front is part of a broader program of actions designed to develop ethnographic and ecological tourism and to preserve biodiversity in the Republic of Uzbekistan. As Victor Tsoy, the Association’s leader, pointed out, they succeeded in establishing relations with Slow Food, because in the near future there will be created a special organization for the protection of biodiversity and gastronomic traditions, which supports a catalogue of endangered animals and plants, called “The Ark of Taste”.

“On top of that, we are pursuing common aims, - underlines Victor Tsoy. – Among them is the implementation of projects to assist small companies specializing in the production of ecologically pure foodstuffs. This activity is closely connected with the development of tourism in the Western Tyan-Shan Mountains. For the time being, a special fund, called Presidia, has been set up in Italy not long ago to address the indicated priority issues”.
In September 2005, a regular forum of local small-producer communities will be held in Italy. Sponsored by Slow Food, it will bring together specialists from different countries, including the Republic of Uzbekistan.  Mikhail Stepannikov is sure that, along with its rich culture, Uzbekistan will reveal its traditions and technologies used in the preparation of unique national dishes.

The International Association, Slow Food aims to develop the gastronomic culture, to preserve national traditions, to organize education programs, as well as to promote biodiversity protection measures and actions. Currently, the Association numbers 80,000 members from all corners of the globe. It has founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences, which trains experts in the areas of agriculture and foodstuffs. It is quite possible that in the near future, Uzbek specialists will be enlisted as lecturers and trainers for the University’s departments.