Tajikistan is the smallest of Central Asia’s ‘stans’: just 142,550 kilometres square. Its roughly nine million residents are also the poorest in the region.
Once, the region was prosperous – lying at the very heart of the Silk Road, locals profited from the trade routes that connected China with Europe. Today, however, it’s drugs that fuel trade. The nation’s next-door neighbour, Afghanistan, produces 90 per cent of the world’s heroin.
The capital is named for a day of the week: Dushanbe means Monday in Persian, a name that came from the weekly market on the site where the city now stands. The food’s not bad, either, if you can get it…
Osh is a fried rice, meat and veggie dish made in a qazan (a wok-shaped cauldron). The Tajikistanis make this dish their own, shredding yellow turnip and local mutton, and adding liberal sprinklings of cumin and coriander seeds, along with handfuls of richly antioxidant barberries.
Qurutob is another local favourite: a concoction of dried cheese balls soaked in water, placed atop fatir (a type of flatbread) and topped with a variety of vegetables, including onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, or herbs. Bread makes an appearance with everything here: among the most popular are non (another flatbread that’s popular throughout Central Asia) and kulcha, which is usually enjoyed at breakfast alongside butter, kolbasa sausages, jam, eggs, and either smetana (sour cream) or kaymak (clotted cream).
Lunch is a heartier affair, and often includes stews such as shurbo (lamb and beans), piti (mutton and vegetables), laghmon (goat and noodles), and ugro (beef and noodles), while manti (steamed meat dumplings) and belyash (meat-filled pastries) also make the menu.
But, while the wealthy eat well, the majority of the population has a harder time of it. Over the past 20 years, soil erosion, melting glaciers, floods and droughts have destroyed much of what little arable land remains; the World Food Programme reports that malnutrition rates in Tajikistan remain the highest in Central Asia. Rich though this nation’s history may be, it’s not going to feed hungry mouths.