Food and drink in Uzbekistan food is typically Turkic, dominated by mutton, noodles and bread, but with many Persian flavours added, such as saffron, pomegranate, pistachio, almond and dried fruit.
Uzbekistan’s national dish is plov (also known as osh), an oily rice-based dish with pieces of meat, grated carrots, onions and, if you are particularly fortunate, roasted garlic and hard-boiled egg. It is typically only available at lunchtime, and is popular at weddings and other large celebrations when male chefs (oshpaz) cook huge quantities outdoors in giant dishes known as kazans.
Local variations are proudly maintained: in Bukhara plov is cooked in three separate cauldrons and mixed only when it is served, in Fergana two specific types of dezvira rice are used, with hot pepper and a pinch of cumin, and in Khiva it was originally made in a cauldron of hot sand. Plov is invariably washed down with green tea, its astringency helping to cut through the mutton fat.
Other notable national dishes include shurpa, a soup with fatty mutton and vegetables; norin and lagman, two mutton-broth soups with noodles that may also be topped with a piece of horse meat; dimlama, meat and vegetables stewed slowly in a tightly sealed pot; and the ubiquitous shashlik, grilled kebabs with cubes of mutton or beef and fat, which is considered to add to the flavour. For a quick snack, consider either manti (also called qasqoni and found across the Turkic lands), a steamed dumpling containing minced mutton, the similar chuchvara, or somsa, a fried or baked pastry parcel (not quite a samosa) that contains either mutton or, occasionally, mashed potato.
Every meal is accompanied by the flat, round loaves of bread known as non. The most common form, obi non, is cooked in a clay tandoor oven. Non is generally torn into chunks rather than sliced, and you should show respect by not placing it upside down on the table.
Vegetarians are in for a tough time: the concept is little understood, and even less frequently catered for. Meat-free versions of the classic Uzbek dishes tend to be pretty dull, but you should at least be able to get a Greek or achichuk salad, consisting of tomato, onion, cucumber and dill. Luckily, Uzbek breakfasts are excellent, with plenty of eggs, cheese, bread and fruit, and will set you up for the day. If you are in Uzbekistan in summer and early autumn, the country is bursting with fresh fruits. Stalls in bazaars and by the roadside sell an amazing variety at knockdown prices.
An Uzbek’s veins run with tea as much as blood, and the chaikhana (tea house) is central to any community: people go to do business as much as to gossip and relax. Green tea (zilloniy chai) is most common in the provinces, but black tea (chorniy chai) is preferred in Tashkent. Both are available wherever you go, but expect a funny look if you want your tea with milk (tea with sugar is fine). In summer you may also be offered ayran or kefir (chilled yoghurt drinks).