What did I learn: UZBEKISTAN

A Tashkent subway station – Source

Another month is coming to a close! So, what have I learned about Uzbekistan?

Uzbekistan, and the five “Stan” countries as a whole, were a big blank spot in my mental map when I started this month. I knew a little bit about the Silk Road, the breakup of the USSR, and the loss of the Aral Sea, but not much more.

I found this month geopolitics were a big focus – Uzbekistan’s modern position is a tricky balancing act, situated between Russian, Chinese, and American interests. Notable is the change Uzbekistan is going through since the 2016 death of President Islam Karimov (and the high drama surrounding his daughter Gulnara Karimova). The new government under Mirziyoyev has made some crucial reforms like ending forced labour, letting foreign media in, and allowing religion back into everyday life.

It will be interesting to see if the trajectory of reforms continue, or if pandemic and power structures pull things back. Dissident authors like Hamid Ismailov are still banned from the country, and it isn’t clear yet if encouraging government-overseen moderate religion will stem issues of radicalization, especially with a land border with Afghanistan. There also seems to be a big rural/urban divide, with wealth from exports of cotton, gold, and natural gas concentrated in the cities. Attempts are being made to address the environmental catastrophe of the Aral Sea.

Uzbekistan’s larger history almost has too much to dig into – the history of the Silk Road and the many influences in the region over the decades, Prokudin-Gorsky’s colour photographs from 1911, the ever-changing Uzbek writing system, and stunning places like Registan Square only touch the surface. Adeeb Khalid’s Central Asia proved to be indispensable for getting a sense of the last few centuries and how they created the Uzbekistan of today.

I think I answered my question from the start of the month – why does Uzbekistan have such a huge population compared to its neighbours? There doesn’t seem to be a big trick to it – when the modern borders were drawn inside the USSR, major cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent, as well as the densely-farmed Fergana Valley ended up in Uzbekistan. These places have been major settlements for centuries and the heart of empires – in contrast the more nomadic histories of places like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

I felt like there’s an interesting parallel between the migrations of Koryo Saram and Bukharan Jews. The Koryo Saram, Koreans forcibly resettled into Soviet Central Asia, have largely integrated into Uzbekistan, but some seek (or struggle with) a return to Korea under South Korea’s right of return laws. The Bukharan Jewish community had been in Uzbekistan for centuries, but due to the forced assimilation and prejudice of the Soviet era, almost the entire population has left for Israel, the US, and Canada – where they have rebuilt their communities and kept much of their identity.

I wanted to fight a bit against the easy narratives of “exotic and mythical Samarkand” or “grey Soviet misery” that I kept on coming across this month. There’s much more nuance from the voices of Uzbeks themselves. I got a taste of Uzbek literature and short stories, movies (both action and comedy), and popular music, including modern pop and dance, Soviet disco, classical music, interesting radio stations, and the most successful meme to come out of the country recently.

As for the food, this month I had my biggest culinary victory with Locally Foreign – baking non from scratch. My first successful handmade bread! I also had the biggest culinary fail – navat that just would not crystallize. I loved how the plov turned out, and the moshxo’rda and Korean carrot salad were tasty experiences. I also tried qurt and survived eating shur-donak! I’d also recommend the Uzbek restaurant I went to in Toronto – great manti!

There’s still a lot about Uzbekistan I’m sorry I didn’t get into – I still want to learn more about older history of the region, especially Timur the Great, or Persian connections (al-Khwarizmi was born in what is now Uzbekistan) and deep Sufi cultural and religious influences. I also would like to learn more about Karakalpakstan beyond just the Aral Sea disaster – the distinctive autonomous region covered in the far west of the country. There’s also modern geopolitics I’d like to have dug into more – Uzbekistan as a crucial hub for China’s Belt and Road initiative, or their tense relations with Tajikistan and the now (allegedly) removed minefields along the border.

UZBEKISTAN: A Collection of Uzbek Short Stories translated by Mahmuda Saydumarova

A Collection of Uzbek Short Stories is a slim volume, translated into English by Mahmuda Saydumarova. Saydumarova moved from Uzbekistan to Saudi Arabia when she was a child, and went into academia there studying and teaching English and linguistics. She compiled and translated this collection at only 23, intending this to be a brief introduction to Uzbek literature for Western audiences.

The short stories come from a broad range of authors – some written in the first half of the 20th century, some very recent. There’s an interesting mix of tones, some feel more like a parable, others a family drama. “The Sensitive Case” by Farhod Musajonov really intrigued me – a village manager and comedian trying to outwit each other in applying the language of bureaucracy to laughter itself.

UZBEKISTAN: Novda (2015)

Novda (“the sprig”) is a 2015 coming-of-age Uzbek film – it’s a comedy / melodrama set in a small village. The movies follows a few members of a family and their wacky neighbours, with a plot that winds about a bit. The youngest son is trying to navigate crushes on a pair of friends, peer pressure, and a violent bully. The adult son has returned to the village after medical school, and has his own pressure over who to marry. Their parents are largely portrayed as comic characters, but their worries about their sons and their dissatisfaction with their own lives simmer underneath. It’s mainly just a fun, goofy movie, with some very silly bits (the resolution of the violent bully for one) but there is also some emotional meat to it. It’s on Youtube with English subtitles.

UZBEKISTAN: Non from scratch

One of Uzbekistan’s great culinary staples is non – leavened flatbreads, and usually stamped with beautiful designs to keep them from rising. Non and naan come from the same Persian etymology, and are often cooked in a similar way – being stuck to the side of a tandoor.


I’m going to try to make non myself, though I’ll warn I am not a breadmaker – every few years I try to make a loaf from scratch and it never quite works. However, I’m going to use the Tashkent non recipe from Caroline Eden’s Red Sands – a collection of travel reporting and recipes from Central Asia. Her recipe calls for adding raisins and nuts, but I want to try to just make it plain. She’s also adapted it to a convection oven.

The recipe very helpfully makes it clear how much time things should take and what consistency things should be at each step, so I could make a few tweaks as I went along – I needed a bit more water before kneading, I didn’t need as much time to let the bread rise since my kitchen was warm, adjusting baking because my oven runs hot, etc.

Sadly, I couldn’t get my hands on a chekich – an Uzbek bread stamp – so I used the tines of a fork. The goal is to keep the middle of the bread flat or low.

Oh WOW it turned out great! I was shocked and overjoyed – I’ve never made bread successfully before. This came out beautiful – crispy crust, fluffy and not too dense, neither under nor overcooked. I’ll nitpick a little – I think I should have flattened it down more, the middle still seemed a little high, and the nice pattern I tried got a bit messed from a fold in the dough, but you know what? I don’t care that much. I’m just so happy it worked.

I may have eaten half the loaf straight still hot out of the oven – ripped with my hands, which is the way you’re supposed to. Just a little bit of butter and salt and you’re laughing, and the rest I had at breakfast with jam.

UZBEKISTAN: The Railway by Hamid Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov is one of the most widely published and translated authors from Uzbekistan, but his work remains banned in his home country and he is not allowed to return – there’s a great interview with him from 2018 about it here. He fled in the early 90s to the UK after the Karimov government opened criminal investigations into him for wanting to “overthrow the government” due to his writings. He had already written The Railway before he left – it was published in Russia under a pseudonym in 1997, and wasn’t translated into English until 2006.

The Railway is a web of short, interconnected vignettes about a fictional small town in rural Uzbekistan. Each chapter tells the tales of different residents, jumping in time anywhere from the late Tsarist era to the Brezhnev years, and builds up a portrait of how all the villagers’ lives connect. The styles of the different chapters change – from realistic to magical realism to parable – but it’s all very satirical, often very darkly so. Character flaws are magnified to the point of parody, but there’s real tenderness and emotion, and an undercurrent of the real dramatic changes that Central Asia has lived through in the 20th century.

UZBEKISTAN: Sherzod Ergashev’s cat duet

I remember seeing this delightful meme go viral a few months ago on TikTok – Uzbek musician Sherzod Ergashev dueting a cat video on the tar, and people adding more and more instruments as it went along.

Ergashev has a whole bunch more meme music played on classical Uzbek instruments – this version of the Coffin Dance on the oud and tanbur is actually really beautiful:

He also is a serious musician and singer, and a polymath when it comes to instruments, both Central Asian and Western. I also enjoyed this socially distanced tar duet with Iranian musician Naghmeh Moradabadi.

UZBEKISTAN: Emirate of Bukhara in colour

The man in this picture is Sayyid Mir Muhammad Alim Khan, the last Emir of Bukhara, taken in the same year as his coronation … in 1911.

Yes, this picture is from 1911. And no, it hasn’t been digitally colourized after the fact, it’s a colour photograph taken in 1911. Russian chemist Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky developed a method that took three pictures at once with different coloured filters – red, blue, and green, and then could reconstitute the image by layering the the pictures. It was a tricky process with bulky equipment, and sadly never caught on, but Prokudin-Gorsky was given authority by the Tsar to travel around the Russian Empire between 1909-1915 and photograph people and places.

There are wonderful collections of his work on several sites, including on History Colored, Wikipedia, and the Library of Congress. He spent a lot of time photographing the Emirate of Bukhara, which then roughly covered most of modern day Uzbekistan. It was part of the larger Russian Empire, and in 1920, Bolshevik revolution deposed Emir Alim Khan, who fled into exile in Afghanistan. The Emirate became the Bukharan People’s Socialist Republic, and in 1924 the borders were redrawn into the Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs. (I really recommend Adeeb Khalid’s Central Asia if you’re interested in this history.)

These pictures astound me, both for the historical value and the scientific achievement, but also that the high quality and colour make them so real in a way that black and white pictures don’t. Here’s more from what is now Uzbekistan around the 1910s, all from this gallery on Wikipedia.

A civil servant on a winter’s day
The Bukharan Minister of the Interior
A jail in Bukhara
Jewish children studying in Samarkand
A nomadic Kyrgyz family on the Hungry Steppe
A dilapidated madrassa in Samarkand, with storks nesting in a tower.


I was down in Toronto this weekend, and got a chance to stop by an Uzbek restaurant. Toronto’s magic is having restaurants for almost every cuisine in the world: there’s three dedicated Uzbek spots….and they all happen to be in the same two blocks! I went for lunch at Samarkand Hall – they had fantastic decor and really friendly staff.

I went for a plate of manti – huge steamed dumplings, filled with spiced ground lamb and topped with caramelized onions and dill, with sour cream on the side. They were fantastic – I hoovered them down!

Manti are eaten throughout the Turkic-speaking world, and vary in size, filling, and topping, depending on location – Central Asian ones are usually these huge steamed dumplings, and are sometimes filled with pumpkin, cabbage, or beef, as well as lamb in Uzbekistan.

It’s likely the name manti comes from the same etymology as Chinese mantou, but mantou has shifted to mean steamed buns instead of dumplings in China. The manti I had reminded me of giant xiaolongbao in terms of shape and texture, but the flavour profile of the meat, dill, onion, and sour cream felt more Eurasian – not unlike how you serve pierogies.