Just published another article on MUNCHIES a couple days ago: “In Uzbekistan, A Bowl of Greasy Rice Will Make or Break Your Marriage”; or, “Where to eat in Tashkent, everything you need to know about plov, and what the hell is naryn?” (And so far, nobody has commented that if I’d bothered to learn two words of Russian or Uzbek, I wouldn’t mock the traditions of the good Uzbek peoples. Knock on wood.)
Some bonus material! Here is a picture of the plov in one of the giant kazans at the Central Asian Plov Center. Notice the puddle of aphrodisiac grease in the back of the kazan:
And for the anecdote…
MUNCHIES just published my article on khachapuri: “Georgia’s Cheese Bread Might Be Better Than Pizza”. It covers all the various types of cheese breads you can find in Georgia, from the classic Imeretian khachapuri to the much rarer khabizgini.
To help you orient yourself, I’ve created a map of all the Georgian regions that claim their own local variations of the dish. As you can see, they are pretty much all located in Western Georgia, which makes me wonder if there’s a connection with the historical division between the kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia in antiquity. That is, I wonder if cheese breads descend only from the former.
Earlier this week, I published a story on Vice’s food blog, MUNCHIES. The article (its title was picked by the editor) retraces my search for Tajikistan’s national dish, qurutob, both in Dushanbe and in my own kitchen, with a little background on Tajik cuisine. Check it out!
Last summer, after touring Moldova, we crossed the border with Ukraine and headed towards Odessa. The goal wasn’t really Odessa itself, which I had already visited, but a remote village called Vylkove (Vilkovo, in Russian).
Vylkove takes its name from vilka, which means fork, on account of its location in the Danube Delta. Although the town is nicknamed “The Venice of Ukraine”, you’d have to be blind or seriously drunk to confuse the two. Don’t expect any sumptuous palace, carnival, or herds of tourists; Vylkove is just a little fishing village.
Today I’m starting a new travel series: Ukrainian Snapshots. I’ve been to Ukraine many times over the past ten years. Back in the days before Aerosvit went bankrupt, the New York-Kiev direct flight was a convenient and reasonably affordable option whenever I planned to visit the former Soviet Union. Before the opening of its new terminal, Moscow’s notoriously disorganized Sheremetyevo did not have a transit zone and therefore required going through the masquerade of the visa process (until recently, your typical Russian embassy/consulate was a kind of cour des miracles where aspiring tourists proffered fake invitations, bogus travel insurance, variable amounts of money, and countless hours of their time to a grumpy and/or corrupt clerk, all to receive a piece of paper pompously called a visa). By contrast, Ukraine could be visited without a visa, and little Borispol is 30 minutes away from Kiev’s center (no contest with the 1-2 hours it takes to get from the airport to the city center in Moscow).
For this reason, and also because some of Ukraine’s less touristy destinations are more conveniently accessed from neighboring countries if you happen to already be visiting them, many of my trips to Ukraine were quite short; a couple days here and there. My last week-long trip actually goes back to summer 2006 (Crimea). So instead of presenting my Ukrainian travel stories in any particular order, I’ll focus each of my posts on a given place and point in time. As usual, don’t expect me to review many mainstream touristic curiosities — this is not a travel guide. I might also start another travel series in parallel. After all, with Ukraine International Airlines recently reviving the New York – Kiev route, there might very well be more snapshots to come in the future.
I’ll kick off this series with an anecdote: the Kiev-Odessa flight and the Tupolev 134. This may not have anything to do with food, but it sure qualifies as an adventure.
In my previous Moldovan Impressions, we explored the local culinary traditions, visited the wine cellars, and discovered the renegade republics. We will soon leave Moldova to move on to stories of neighboring Ukraine, but before that, a little digestive is in order.
In capitalist societies, class inequality has led to Cognac being the privilege of the rich (and hip hop culture). Countries that were not so long ago devoted to socialism have been quick to try to replicate the Western lifestyle, in their rush to establish market economies (and hip hop culture). Meanwhile, bourgeois distilleries have ensured their monopoly through an appellation contrôlée — a rather dubious one, when you think of it, for a beverage whose double distillation most certainly erases any trace of terroir.
In the Soviet Union, however, the Politburo and the proletariat shared the same luxuries throughout the Empire. If brandy production started in both the Caucasus and Bessarabia at the end of the 19th century, one can thank communism for the spirit’s true democratization. Indeed, in 1978, the Ministry of the Food Industry decreed that every Soviet Republic must produce its own ordinary “cognac”. In Moldova, one producer of both the aged brandy and the democratic version (called Белый Aист, “White Stork”), was Kvint, in Tiraspol.
Our mock tourist guide of Transnistria continues! After the history and travel logistics sections, let’s talk about the attractions, the gastronomy, and the souvenirs.
I have to warn you: “pretty” isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when thinking of Transnistria and its capital city, Tiraspol. And I dare anyone to name a Transnistrian national dish. Don’t expect to find much Soviet memorabilia for sale, either. There aren’t enough tourists for that. So, why visit?
9 November 1989: the Berlin Wall falls, marking the end of the division between the East and the West. Within a year, the Eastern Bloc ceases to exist.
27 August 1991: following the failed Soviet August Coup, Moldova, like most other republics in the USSR that haven’t done so yet, declares its independence.
8 December 1991: the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly meet to declare the Soviet Union dissolved.
25 December 1991: Mikhail Gorbachev publicly resigns as the President of the USSR, and that office ceases to exist.
The communist dream is over. Everywhere across the Empire, the red flag is taken down, statues of Lenin dismantled, the Hammer and Sickle emblems on buildings and monuments desecrated.
Well, almost everywhere.
With only three and a half million inhabitants and a territory smaller than the New York metropolitan area, one might think that Moldova doesn’t have any ethnic conflicts. The composition of the population seems pretty straightforward: 70% Moldovans, followed essentially by ethnicities from neighboring countries, such as Ukrainians, Romanians, and Russians. Ah yes, Russia… Sure enough, this last bunch, concentrated in the border region of Transnistria, didn’t really welcome Moldova’s independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. If you check on a map, Russia’s not even a neighbor of the new state.
But Transnistria is a story for another day. In this post, I’m looking at a much lesser-known dissension, and the fate of a handful of irreducible freedom-loving, eastward-looking people of mysterious decent, who once declared themselves independent even one month before Transnistria. The Gagauz!
Last time, I took a look at Moldovan food as it’s served in restaurants. Since Moldovans cook at home a lot more often than they dine in restaurants, let’s also visit the Central Market in Chișinău, where many provisions can be bought.
Founded in 1825, Piaţa Centrală is located right in the city center, not far from the bus station (a proximity resulting in double the bustling crowds). It’s not as impressive as the markets of Tbilisi or Tashkent, but it does give a good idea of Moldovan cuisine. To complement the pictures, I will also mention some recipes from Sergey Donika’s Moldovan Cuisine. With 493 recipes, this cookbook contains more stuff than I’ll ever cook in my lifetime.