Our food cul­tur­al­ist Arva Ahmed ex­plores the tastes of Cau­casian su­i­sine, only to re­alise it’s sur­pris­ingly pre­dictable.

Friday - - Contents - PHO­TOS BY ANAS THACHARPADIKKAL Arva Ahmed offers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs (fry­ing­panad­ven­

Mint. Pomegranate seeds. Roasted egg­plants. Wal­nuts. Sliv­ered pis­ta­chios. Bar­ber­ries. Naan. Shash­lik. Ground co­rian­der. Tahini. Red lentil soup. Cumin. Samsa. Chai. Saf­fron. Green olives. Dill. Cin­na­mon and cloves. Halva. Sour cher­ries. Dried apri­cots. Ground sumac. Yo­gurt. As I flip through Sa­markand by Caro­line Eden and Eleanor Ford, – sub­ti­tled Recipes & Sto­ries from Cen­tral Asia & The Cau­ca­sus, ev­ery­thing seems un­can­nily fa­mil­iar. It’s like meet­ing a long-lost twin I never knew I had. I have been star­ing at th­ese in­gre­di­ents all my life, but here they are look­ing back at me, dressed dif­fer­ently than the way I have al­ways known. I ex­pe­ri­enced a sim­i­lar culi­nary déjà vu in the old mar­ket­place of Tbil­isi in Ge­or­gia; the aroma of lo­cal spice mixes was in­tensely fa­mil­iar to my In­dian nos­trils, but names and com­bi­na­tions like khmeli suneli were un­recog­nis­able.

The rea­son I bought a book on the cui­sine of Sa­markand is be­cause sud­denly, we in Dubai are swoon­ing over Cau­ca­sia and Cen­tral Asia. Three years ago, no one in the city was talk­ing about vis­it­ing Ge­or­gia, Ar­me­nia, Azer­bai­jan and Uzbek­istan. Today, courtesy of in­flu­en­tial me­dia and blog­gers (and seem­ingly bet­ter funded tourism min­istries), th­ese post-Soviet des­ti­na­tions have lit up on our travel radar. Res­i­dents are re­turn­ing from trips to Ge­or­gia hal­lu­ci­nat­ing about soup dumplings (khinkali) and brined-cheese pas­tries (khacha­puri).

Res­tau­ra­teurs are in­vest­ing in con­cepts to nudge Cau­casian and Cen­tral Asian food to the fore – from the splashy Eshak in City Walk to the closet-sized Lit­tle Ge­or­gia in JLT to the hid­den Ararat, barely ris­ing above the con­struc­tion rub­ble of Deira’s new Al Wasl District. We can track at least eight Uzbek restau­rants in the city, in­clud­ing UZB Av­enue in Bar­sha that serves a

Turks, Mon­gols, Per­sians, In­di­ans, Chi­nese, Kore­ans and Rus­sians all con­trib­uted to this evo­lu­tion­ary din­ner ta­ble

tra­di­tional Uzbek spe­cial­ity of horse meat with noo­dles. I will nei­ther af­firm nor deny tast­ing it.

Eden and Ford fo­cus on Sa­markand, which dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages, used to be Asia’s great shop win­dow, one of the world’s finest mar­ket­places, where ev­ery­thing from rare spices to yak-tail fly whisks were bartered and sold’. They re­trace cul­tures along the an­cient Silk Road, from its east­ern fron­tier in Xian­jing, China, through Cen­tral Asia (Afghanistan, Uzbek­istan, Ta­jik­istan, Turk­menistan, Kaza­khstan and Kyr­gyzs­tan) and then on­ward to the Cau­ca­sus (Azer­bai­jan, Ge­or­gia, Ar­me­nia and Turkey).

His­tor­i­cally, the Silk Road was one of many in­te­gra­tive forces across cul­tures in Asia. Oth­ers in­cluded the am­bi­tions of con­querors like Alexan­der the Great and Tamer­lane (Timur) and the spread of re­li­gions like Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam. Th­ese forces painted strokes through a damp can­vas, caus­ing dis­tant cul­tures to bleed into one an­other un­til they were no longer monochro­matic but rather, streaked with hues of the other. Over time, the Turks, Mon­gols, Per­sians, In­di­ans, Chi­nese, Kore­ans and Rus­sians all con­trib­uted to this evo­lu­tion­ary din­ner ta­ble. Kababs and dumplings, samosas and kim­chi, bor­sht and meat pi­lafs could all live side by side, hap­pily ever after.

For those of us who have spent a good por­tion of our lives in the UAE, our taste buds are al­ready tuned to the var­i­ous wave­lengths of flavour broad­cast across Cau­ca­sia and Cen­tral Asia. Many of us have grown up with our fin­gers run­ning across the ta­pes­try of Ara­bic, Per­sian and In­dian flavours adorn­ing Old Dubai. The Turk­ish joined later, re­in­forc­ing the ad­dic­tive cy­cle of kababs, bread and is­tikhans of di­ges­tive black tea that the Ira­nian restau­rants had al­ready set in mo­tion.

A recipe for Cau­casian egg­plant rolls stuffed with wal­nuts and pomegranate seeds seems un­fa­mil­iar but not un­usual. Re­mem­ber the count­less times we have dipped bread into mashed egg­plants with ground wal­nuts, fried onions, mint and kashk (dried yo­gurt) across Ira­nian restau­rants in Dubai? They call it kashk badem­jan. Red lentil soup is the pre­cur­sor to many an Ara­bic meal in the city, while qa­mardeen is the rich Ra­madan thirst-quencher made from dried apri­cot leather. We know our lentils and our dried apri­cots, but have we ever had them to­gether in the same soup bowl as the Armenian recipe in Sa­markand? Then there are recipes for Uzbek samsa and plov, which I in­stantly as­so­ciate with In­dian samosa and Per­sian polo (or pi­laf). But no polo I have ever had, un­til I forked up a bite of Tashkent plov at Eshak, has been gar­nished with quail’s eggs.

Where it starts feel­ing alien is when you have bor­sht and kim­chi in the same menu breath as pi­lafs and kababs. We eat them on sep­a­rate ta­bles – kim­chi at our Korean restau­rants and bor­sht and pel­meni dumplings at the Rus­sian ones – but in Sa­markand, they are all glued neatly to one book spine.

We also do not of­ten see kababs and noo­dles on the same ta­ble (the ex­cep­tion: The In­dian restau­rants claim­ing to serve ‘Chi­nese’ in the city.) But that is chang­ing too. The past decade has brought us many more Afghani restau­rants with their kababs and meat dumplings splashed with yo­gurt (manti). Ded­i­cated food sleuths will also know of Kiro­ran, a Chi­nese restau­rant in Deira where braised beef in soy sauce, sautéed lamb with nan-bread, beef kababs and hand-pulled noo­dles are all perched on the same menu. This is not fu­sion, but cul­tur­ally rou­tine for the eth­ni­cally Turk­ish, Mus­lim Uyghur com­mu­nity of Xian­jing.

My jour­ney through the flavours of the Silk Road have left me with two im­por­tant re­al­i­sa­tions. The first is that Dubai is a mod­ern­day Sa­markand. If only we can de­tach our­selves from Nutella Dutch mini pan­cakes and Lo­tus cheese­cakes, we might suc­cess­fully spark an­other evo­lu­tion­ary cy­cle around flavours that feel di­ver­gent. But it needs to feel like a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of in­ter­act­ing with the dif­fer­ent cul­tures liv­ing and cook­ing in this city, rather than a forced fu­sion on our plates be­cause sushi and biryani were both avail­able at Fri­day’s brunch buf­fet.

And that brings me to my sec­ond re­al­i­sa­tion. That we can get horse meat in Dubai.

Wa­heed, Wasquin and Ar­san – the team at Ararat restau­rant, where soup dumplings come with sour cream and aubergine is stuffed with cheese.

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