at the table

Damira Inatullaeva on the Culture, Traditions, and Cuisine of Uzbekistan

published Dec 29, 2021
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Damira Inatullaeva
Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

This story is part of our At the Table series, created by Kayla Hoang. She has curated this collection of interviews and recipes from BIPOC cooks who have something to say about how their specific cultures are represented (or not) within the wider world of food media. 

Eight years ago, Damira Inatullaeva was a retired cardiologist in Uzbekistan who had spent much of her life working in the hospital. After moving with her husband from her hometown of Samarkand to the United States to be closer to their children who had come to the U.S. to study, Damira found herself seeking out a much different path. Today, she spends much of her time caring for her granddaughter and teaching Uzbek cuisine with the League of Kitchens, a culturally immersive cooking experience where immigrants who are exceptional home cooks teach intimate hands-on cooking classes. As one of their instructors, Damira is sharing her love of and expertise in Uzbek culture and cuisine with the League of Kitchens’ students.

For our final interview for At the Table, I sat down over a video call with Damira to learn more about Uzbekistan and its rich culture and cuisine, to talk about her classes with the League of Kitchens, and to learn about barak, which she is sharing the recipe for today.

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

Thank you so much for talking with me today, Damira. I’m so excited to learn more about Uzbekistan and Uzbek cuisine from you! You’ve led such an interesting life and I’d love it if you could start by sharing a little bit about yourself for our readers. 
I came to the United States eight years ago in October from Uzbekistan. It was fall. It was beautiful. It was so nice everywhere and I fell in love with New York from my first steps on this land. I have three children and two grandchildren. Our children lived in the United States — they came here to study — and we decided to move here to be closer to them. In Uzbekistan I was a doctor. I worked in a hospital and I was very busy, but always I loved to cook. In spite of being busy, I always tried to cook something delicious for my children. 

I can tell you a little about Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is located to the north of Afghanistan and is surrounded with other “stans” like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. The climate in Uzbekistan is almost the same as in New York, only in New York we have humidity. We have different landscapes in Uzbekistan. We have several rivers and two big rivers named Amu Darya and Syr Darya, high mountains, and fertile valleys. All this influenced the traditions of Uzbek cuisine. 

The capital of our country is Tashkent. The city was totally destroyed in 1966 by an earthquake and was then rebuilt. Now it is a beautiful modern city. My hometown is Samarkand. I have a lot of friends in many countries now because a lot of people of different nationalities lived in Samarkand and then moved to different countries. That’s why now I have friends all over the world. Samarkand is an ancient city more than two and a half thousand years old. It is contemporary of ancient Greece and Rome. In ancient times it was located on the Great Silk Road, which connected Eastern and Western countries. Goods like paper, silk, and spices traveled from China and India to Western countries through these routes. Through the Great Silk Road, which influenced the social life of the people, were several oases in the territory of modern Uzbekistan. These cities flourished and one of them was Samarkand. 

Cities in Uzbekistan are divided into neighborhoods called mahallas. In the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of each of these mahallas did different trades. For example, in one mahalla there were people who baked bread, one mahalla had people who made pottery, in another mahalla lived people who made jewelry, and so on and so on. Now everything is mixed. While many parts of Uzbekistan have changed, many of our beautiful ancient monuments remain and with Uzbek cuisine, many cooking traditions still exist. Many people still cook dishes according to authentic recipes.

Credit: Courtesy: Damira Inatullaeva

What drew you to New York City? 
When we thought about where to go, we had three opportunities: We could go to New York, where one of our sons lived; to Oregon, where our daughter lived; or Indiana, where our other son lived. We thought about where to go and my friend from Uzbekistan said to me, “You know, if you will go to New York and if you will survive there, you can survive anywhere.” So we came to New York and I love this city. [Before moving] I thought about how Samarkand is not a big city and New York is huge with a lot of people. Everywhere there are a lot of people and music and everything. I thought that I would feel not so comfortable in the big city. But, when I came here, I felt very good here, very comfortable. It was like this city welcomed me with open arms.

I love New York very much. I love New Yorkers. I love that everywhere you can hear beautiful music. You can’t imagine New York without people, without music, without different kinds of flavors or cuisines. Here I discovered that people’s taste can be different, the flavors can be different, and I started to try new tastes, new techniques of cooking, new spices, and everything is so interesting for me. 

When I came to the U.S., I said to my friends, “I will never, ever cook Uzbek food,” and they said to me, “What do you want to cook?”  I told them, “I will cook American food,” and they laughed because American food is broad. Many cuisines are inside of American food. I was puzzled because I thought, “The country is America. Food has to be American, right?” But American people have a very good saying — “Never say never,” and now I am the Uzbek instructor for the League of Kitchens. 

I love to cook, but also I love to go to the museums and here there are a lot of museums. My favorite is the Metropolitan museum. I love to go to the jazz clubs to listen to jazz. I listened to jazz before in our country, but when you listen to jazz live it is different than if you listen to a record. I love to go to the different theaters, to broadway. I love just to walk along the streets of New York and in the parks. When I leave New York for some time, I feel that I miss New York. What is interesting is every two years we visit Uzbekistan and when we return and the officer in the airport says, “Welcome home,” I feel that New York is really my home now.

In 2017, my granddaughter was born. Now I mostly babysit my granddaughter and help my children (my daughter-in-law and my son) because they are very busy and you know small kids need a lot of attention [laughs]. It is a very great joy for me because I see how she grows and how she changes. Now she speaks very well and we have conversations with her and she tells me her thoughts and she sings me the songs and we walk in the parks and I’m just enjoying life. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

You mentioned you were a doctor in Uzbekistan. Now you’re teaching classes with the League of Kitchens. How did that come about? 
I retired before coming here because the retirement age in Uzbekistan is 55. When I came to New York, I decided to do something different. Because I love to cook, I started to look for jobs connected with cooking. Eventually I found the League of Kitchens and I started to work with them. It was so interesting for me because I love cooking and socializing with people. I love to listen to their stories, and I love to tell them stories, too. I love to share my knowledge about the history of Uzbekistan or culture of Uzbekistan or fairy tales and legends.

For those who aren’t familiar with the League of Kitchens, can you explain what you do in your classes?
Before quarantine and before the pandemic, we (the other instructors and I) did classes in our homes. It was two kinds of classes: a four-hour class and a two-and-a-half-hour class. During the longer classes, we cooked five dishes. During the shorter classes, we cooked three dishes. Usually six or more students came to my home and we peeled the vegetables and prepared everything that we were going to cook together. First, when they came [to my home] there were welcome snacks. After that we moved to the kitchen. Then, we might take a break and eat something, then again move back to the kitchen and cook, and at the end it was a party. We would sit around the table and just enjoy our conversation and our food. I enjoyed that for the time that they were in my home, I could make them happy. For me it was very interesting every time to hear the students’ opinions of Uzbek dishes because, you know, Uzbek cuisine is pretty new for Americans. Sometimes people are surprised by how we mix the different ingredients together. Sometimes they are surprised by the technique of rolling out the dough or folding barak or how we make sambusa. 

When the pandemic happened it was a big shock for everybody. Our boss and founder of the League of Kitchens, Lisa Gross, proposed we make videos about how we cook some dishes. We started to make these videos and put them on Instagram and then she decided to start online classes. When she first offered this to me I said, “Okay, I will try,” and it was a really new experience for me. When you have people next to you, you see their reaction, but when they are on the other side of the screen, it was a little bit like, “What is this?” Now we are used to using Zoom and our students are doing an incredible job cooking in their home kitchens.

Before quarantine, we also had many activities with the League of Kitchens. We made demos at the farmers markets and that was really interesting because you interact with many people passing through in the market. We had panels in museums and libraries and people interested in different cuisines came and asked a lot of questions. But for me, the most interesting experience was the presentation of Uzbek food with the League of Kitchens at the James Beard House in 2018.

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

That’s such an honor! Can you tell me more about your time cooking at the James Beard House?
I’m a doctor, not a professional cook. I’m just a woman who can cook [laughs]. This is a professional restaurant. For me, it was very interesting how everything was organized. And of course, I had a team who helped me there and the team was under the direction of the wonderful Chef Alicia Parter, who was a chef at Pok Pok. Chef Parter helped us translate my food into a five-course plated dinner and brought some of her chef friends along to cook as part of our kitchen team for the dinner along with the League’s recipe writer, Liz Tarpy. All the work we did there was so interesting — how we set the menu, how we combined everything, how they presented it to our guests, how these were my dishes that we cooked all together, even seeing how you could make cocktails from Uzbek soft drinks. Everything was a new experience and I’m thankful to have had that opportunity.  

What were some of the dishes you prepared? 
Mostly it was dishes that I teach my students in my classes. For appetizers, we made fried pastries named bichak and green squash pancakes. For appetizers we also made some salads. There was bodring salat with cucumber and potato, radish salat with radish and greens, and boemjon salat with eggplants and other vegetables. And [we made] sambusas (the famous Uzbek pastry) with butternut squash filling. 

For the first course our guests had mashhurda, a soup with mung beans. What is interesting in this soup with mung beans and rice and vegetables is that we add dried apricots. The dried apricots give a sweet taste to the soup and we serve it with labneh and greens. Then the second course was dumplings. We offered our guests boiled dumplings served with sour cream. And at the end, we ended the meal like we do in our country. 

In our events, the meal includes snacks and appetizers, first course, second course, and at the end of every event there has to be the King of Uzbek cuisine, plov. Plov in my family is mostly cooked by men, so for cooking plov at the James Beard House, we invited my husband and he made amazing plov and I think our guests liked it. Plov is a dish with rice, carrot, meat, spices, sometimes garlic, different raisins, chickpeas, different things. In different parts of Uzbekistan, people cook different types of plov and my husband cooked Samarakandian plov. After plov, we offered our guests desserts. 

For dessert we offered dried fruits, often popular in Uzbekistan, and wonderful Uzbekistan raisins that we served with walnuts. I made cookies with walnuts named pahlava, like Turkish baklava, only the recipe and taste are really different. And we offered tea to our guests and one of the companies presented their wines that were a very good fit with all our dishes. It was a really good evening. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

That menu sounds so delicious and it’s so incredible that you were able to share Uzbek cuisine there. Let’s talk more about the cuisine. I’d imagine that Uzbek cuisine varies depending on the region, but how would you best describe the food that you grew up with?
I told you about the Great Silk Road and the climate and the landscape. Everything influenced what is now Uzbek cuisine. Centuries ago, the territory of modern Uzbekistan and other republics of Central Asia were a place of contact and mutual influence between settled communities and nomadic tribes. Nomads contributed products that came from cattle breeding and settled farmers planted grains, fruits, and vegetables. Mostly in nomadic tribes they cooked dishes with meat and ate dairy and settled people cooked a lot of vegetarian dishes — a lot of vegetables, dishes with grains, porridges, baked bread, and so on. All this influenced modern Uzbek cuisine. Also, because of interactions with people from other countries, dishes that can be found across different cuisines began to appear in Uzbekistan. For example, dumplings. In many countries you can find dumplings — Chinese dumplings, Uzbek dumplings, Russian dumplings, even Italian ravioli. 

And over the centuries, in Samarkand and other cities in Uzbekistan, there were a lot of orchards, gardens full of fresh vegetables, and vineyards. In Uzbekistan right now you can find more than 150 kinds of grapes and more than 100 kinds of melon and Samarkandian apples, apricots, and peaches. In our cuisine, we combine everything. Sometimes you can find dishes where we mix our vegetables together with fruits. When we cook meat, we will add not only vegetables but fruits, like the dried apricots. 

When I came into the family of my husband, they had a big, big orchard and it was amazing. There were such wonderful kinds of trees, like apple trees, and on the trees hung the fruit until late fall and the apples were so juicy. We had peaches in these orchards. We had beautiful, small, small apples that my mother-in-law — she was an incredible cook — used to make jam and jellies. We had four trees of wonderful different kinds of apricots. All these fruits you can find in the United States, but the finest apricots are in Uzbekistan. We also grew eight different kinds of grapes. Eating fresh fruits and fresh vegetables right from the garden is really different. When you take a tomato from the garden, it has another smell, another taste. Freshly picked apples or apricots or grapes taste different. And you know everything was organic [laughs].

My mother-in-law was very wise and she knew a lot of the traditions of Uzbek cuisine and knew a lot of authentic dishes. I teach several of her recipes in my classes. She made a lot of preserves and pickled a lot of vegetables. She also made molasses from the fruits of the white mulberry tree. She never added sugar and it still had a really strong sweetness. I remember how she made porridge from the corn and we ate this porridge together with the molasses.  

We had a lot of grapes and some of them we saved in our basement. We had a big basement under the house and during the winter we hung the fresh grapes. We had special grape varieties that would ripen in late fall. My mother-in-law used to hang the grapes in the basement to keep them fresh. Through some thoughtful ventilation and construction tricks, a certain temperature and humidity was maintained in the basement. Thanks to this, the grapes were able to keep fresh almost until spring. In Uzbekistan, people know how to keep the vegetables and the fruits fresh for a long time. In our country, in the several years after the crash of the Soviet Union it was very hard to find food in the stores. They were empty. That’s why thank God we had our orchards and we could plant everything or buy everything in the farmers markets and make a lot of preserves. That was the experience of the last generations. Now it is easier because you have new technology. 

My mother-in-law also made wonderful vinegars from grapes. She made a red vinegar from mature grapes and also a vinegar from immature, unripe grapes. This kind of vinegar is very, very good for digestion. Sometimes she used this vinegar as a remedy. She knew a lot of recipes that in Uzbek cuisine are used as a remedy for treating or for supporting the body. For me, it was very useful because I learned a lot from my mother-in-law and she shared with me a lot of her knowledge about life and Uzbek cuisine. I learned a lot from her. 

Credit: Courtesy: Damira Inatullaeva

It’s so special that you were able to learn so much from your mother-in-law. Was she the main person that taught you about Uzbek cuisine?   
I learned a lot from my mother and my grandmother as well. My siblings and I spent our vacations from school with my grandmother. In our country, usually children help their mothers or grandmothers in the kitchen. So all the time we helped my grandmother in her home. She had a big garden and she cooked for us and baked bread for us. She had 11 children and 33 grandchildren. It was a big team she needed to cook for and so of course we needed to help her. We learned everything from our mother, from our grandmothers, and from my mother-in-law. 

And also, in our country, our friends share their food and we learn from them. In Samarkand lived people of different ethnic groups, different religions, different nationalities. They have these special cuisines and shared their dishes with us and when we asked for their recipes they shared them. That’s why I now know recipes from Russian cuisine, from Georgian cuisine, from Jewish cuisine. I never thought it would be helpful for me to have this knowledge in my life, but you see, nobody knows what knowledge will be helpful or needed in the special part of their life. Now I am happy that I know this.

I can share a little bit more about Uzbek cuisine if you’d like? 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

Yes! Absolutely!  
The main features of Uzbek cuisine: First, the dishes are really delicious. Second, they have an incredible smell. And third, if you eat something from Uzbek cuisine, even if the dishes have a lot of ingredients, you can recognize exactly what is inside. 

There are two methods of cooking in Uzbek cuisine. The first method is without heat: pickling, souring, drying in the open sun, drying in the shade, preparing salads, and so on. 

The other method is with heat. With heat, we fry, of course. We have three techniques for frying. There is frying on the open fire with charcoal. This technique we use in making Uzbek shish kabobs named shashlik. Then there is frying with a big amount of oil. This technique we use for frying meat or frying pastries. Then there’s frying using a small amount of fat. We fry until the meat, for example, is golden and then we stew it with vegetables. 

Then there’s boiling. In Uzbek cuisine, for boiling we use water and in some recipes we use milk. There is also the technique of steaming, like for making the steamed dumplings named manti. The food you prepare by steaming is very healthy and very light and we have a lot of dishes using this technique. 

Another method is stewing. We have a lot of delicious dishes made using the stewing technique. We layer the vegetables and meat and add a little bit of water and cover firmly with the lid. During the stewing, the vegetables and sometimes fruits release their juices into the broth and it will be an incredible smell and really delicious. One of the dishes I teach in my class is named dimlama, where we use a little bit of meat and a lot of different kinds of vegetables. 

And then we bake. With baking, we bake bread and we bake a lot of sambusa, a famous Uzbek pastry. We also bake in a clay oven. For baking in Uzbekistan, we use not only traditional recipes, but equipment — the same we used to use hundreds of years ago. They made these clay ovens with clay that people took from a place named Konighil near Samarkand. There are vertical clay ovens or horizontal clay ovens. In horizontal clay ovens they make a delicious dish named tandir kabob. They cook lamb together with juniper branches and it is incredible. It is really delicious. They take the lamb and marinate it and I don’t know exactly the technique, but I know it is very delicious [laughs].

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

That sounds wonderful! What do you love most about cooking Uzbek food? 
For me, when people come to my home, cooking for them is one of my favorite parts. My grandmother said, “When you cook, you have to think good thoughts and you have to think with love about the people for whom you cook and they will feel your love when they eat and the energy after your food will be doubled.” I cook and imagine how they will be happy, how they will like this dish, and I just love to do it. 

Second part, I love to set everything on the table. I want everything to be beautiful on the table. And the third part, also my favorite, is when the people eat together and they start to talk.  Usually in our country, we do not just simply eat. Like everywhere, people do not just eat. They speak to each other and I love that and I love to talk with people. These are all my favorite parts of the cooking process. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

I love that sentiment from your Grandmother and that’s obviously something you’ve taken to heart because it’s clear how much you love cooking for others. You talked earlier about the special produce grown in the orchards. Can you tell us about any other ingredients unique or important to Uzbek cuisine? 
Yes. What is unique? First, bread. Traditionally, the tablecloth (called dastarkhān) is placed on the table and then the first thing we put on the table is bread. We can’t imagine any event without bread. It is Uzbek tradition to respect bread. Bread in Uzbekistan has a round shape, round like the sun. Uzbek people trust that the sun gives energy to everything on the Earth and our bread can give energy to us when we eat it. 

Different places, different cities in Uzbekistan have their own recipes for bread, their own decoration of bread, and different tastes. The decoration of bread we do with special equipment named chekich. It is a stamp that makes the decoration and this is the equipment that people used to use hundreds of years ago and they are still using them. Mostly in every mahalla we have a bakery. Bakers bake bread for the mahalla members and early in the morning you can go and buy fresh bread. 

There are many traditions associated with bread. If you are in Uzbekistan and are invited to somebody’s home, you should bring two pieces of bread to the host. It means you respect the people who invited you to their house. We use bread in many events. For example, in the wedding process during the engagement, the two families gather together and the elderly people (mostly men) will gather together. One man will break two pieces of bread at once. In our country, we will not cut bread. We break it with our hands. So they will break two big pieces of bread at once and then break it into many pieces and share it with all the people who sit around the table. What does it mean? It means now we eat one bread. Now we are one family. This is a part of the engagement and the start of the wedding process. Then, when a baby is born, the grandmother puts a piece of bread and one small knife under the pillow of the newborn baby. It means the bread will save the baby and means a happy future for the baby. Also, many years ago, the travelers in Uzbekistan took bread with them. They believed that the bread would save them not only from hunger, but that their way [of travel] would be safe. In the Second World War, fruits and vegetables and bread supported people and helped them to survive in those hard times. Uzbek people respect and love bread very much. 

The significance of bread to Uzbek culture is so interesting and beautiful. Aside from bread, are there any specific dishes that immediately come to mind when you think of Uzbek cuisine?
I have several favorite dishes. One of course is plov. Plov is the dish I mentioned earlier with rice, onion, carrot, and so on. There is a legend about plov:

In ancient times, troops of Alexander the Great came to the city of Samarkand. In that period, every city had walls and gates and Samarkand had underground routes that connected the city with the outside. When the gates were closed, the inhabitants of Samarkand could get food from outside through the underground routes. Also, it had a lot of connections with outside sources of water, so there was fresh water for a long time inside the city. The gates were closed and the troops of Alexander the Great couldn’t conquer Samarkand. Alexander asked his advisors what to do and they said, “We think that you can do only one thing: Go speak with the ruler of Samarkand and offer to marry the princess.” Alexander went and talked to the ruler of Samarkand and offered to marry his daughter. The ruler of Samarkand thought about this, gave his agreement, and they opened the gates. Then the troops of Alexander the Great went into the city, not as conquerors, but as friends. There was a big, big wedding party, maybe 40 days long, and a lot of food on the tables and everybody enjoyed themselves and the food. At this party was a dish named plov that was made from rice, carrot, meat, spices, and so on. That is why at every event in Uzbekistan, plov has to be on the table. Whether that was true or not, I don’t know, but that is the legend [laughs]. 

The other recipe, my favorite, is barak. The recipe I teach in my classes is my mom’s recipe. I love this dish very much, my children love this dish, I think all my friends love this dish, and I hope you will love this dish when you try it. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

I can’t wait to learn more about barak from you, but before we get into the recipe, I’d love to talk a little bit about representation in food. From your experience as a home cook, how do you feel Uzbek cuisine has been portrayed in food media?
Uzbek cuisine is pretty new in the U.S., but you know, this is the time of the internet. You can find a lot of information about Uzbek cuisine and about several dishes from a lot of bloggers who show how they cook this or that dish. I know in the U.S. you can also find books from famous chefs of Uzbekistan translated to English. I’m happy that I have the opportunity to share Uzbek cuisine, but again, I say that my recipes are family recipes and they can be different from the recipes of other people. 

I love Uzbekistan. I love Uzbek cuisine. I love the dishes of Uzbek cuisine and I know that they’re really delicious and really very good and when you know something good, you want to share and I want to share my knowledge about Uzbek cuisine, about Uzbek culture with the people of America because I love this country very much. I want to do something good for this country, too, and maybe this will be my contribution. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

It sounds like most of what you can find is from Uzbek people putting out the information themselves. I think you’re doing a really amazing job with the League of Kitchens in bringing more attention and a voice to Uzbek cooks and Uzbek cuisine on a larger scale. Moving forward, how would you like to see Uzbek food represented?
Uzbek people love to cook, to eat, and they cook with great pleasure for people. But, Uzbek cuisine is pretty new for American people [and so it’s not as well known]. I told you that American cuisine is big and a lot of cuisines make up American cuisine. I hope and dream that soon Uzbek cuisine will also be part of American cuisine. This is my dream.

So much of that will be thanks to you and the great work from the League of Kitchens. I believe that food represents such a great deal of our respective cultures. For example, it has helped me to connect to both my Vietnamese and Bangladeshi heritage. Has food affected your connection to your own ethnicity and culture in any way, especially now, living in the U.S.? 
You know, before my work in the League of Kitchens, I just cooked. I knew a lot of recipes. I knew a lot of techniques. But when I started to teach classes, I wanted to tell more to my students and I started to read more about Uzbek cuisine, about the ingredients, about the spices, about everything and how it was used many years ago and how people use it now, and about how they cooked the dishes many years ago and how they cook it now. 

In my classes, I usually wear my ethnic dress and hat because when my students come to my class I want them to dip into Uzbek culture. When I go to Uzbekistan, I look for some new stuff I can buy there and bring here and use in my classes and that’ll be very helpful to better understand the culture of Uzbek people. But my connection with my country was never lost and my connection will never, never break because Uzbekistan is my homeland. The United States, this is my new home and I love this home too, and I wish a lot of happiness to American people. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

It’s been such a pleasure to learn more about Uzbek culture and cuisine from you. The recipe you’re sharing today with our readers is for barak, which you mentioned earlier. I know this recipe is very special to you and I’d love it if you could tell us a little bit about the dish.
Barak are Uzbek dumplings. Barak is the name of the Samarkandian version of Uzbek dumplings. In different parts of Uzbekistan, this dish has different names. In Tashkent the name of this dish is chuchvara, in Bukhara the name of this dish is dushpara, and in Samarkand the name is barak. Barak means prosperity. Barak means blessing. 

We have two ways of cooking folded barak — frying or boiling. Fried barak we serve as an appetizer. In the East, everything has its meaning. At weddings, they serve [fried] barak sprinkled with the sugar, which means, “to wish a happy life to the young couple.” The other way of cooking barak is boiling it. 

Boiled barak is served as a main dish. When we boil it, we serve it with butter, as I do in my classes, or if you don’t like butter you can use a little bit of oil. There are several ways to top boiled barak. You can serve it with fried onion on top and sprinkle it with ground black pepper or cayenne pepper (up to your taste). You can serve it with tomato-onion sauce and again sprinkle it with ground black pepper. You can serve it with chaka, which is a kind of labneh, or you can serve it with sour cream like I do and like we do in my mom’s family. This is my mom’s recipe and so I cook everything according to the way she did it. In the family of my husband, my mother-in-law usually served barak with chaka and tomato-onion sauce and then sprinkled everything with ground black pepper. There are different ways to eat barak and you can try all the ways and everything is up to you.

We have different kinds of barak and the shape of the barak depends on the filling that you use. The barak that we do in my classes is regular style (with meat and onion) and the name is simply barak. If the filling is butternut squash or pumpkin with onion, it will be kadubarak and the shape will be different. If you fill the barak with greens, it will be baraki alafi. If you add a lot of mint to the meat filling, it will be pudina barak. People usually cook this kind of barak in the springtime. If you make the filling with eggs, it will be tukhum barak. Now, modern people also make barak with dried tomatoes and with mashed potato mixed with onion. There are lots of different kinds of barak you can try. 

I think almost all women or girls in our country can make and roll out the dough very well because they learn it from childhood. I learned from my mom. My mom was such a beautiful woman. She was a very kind woman, very brave. She was a doctor as I was. She was an allergist. She had a PhD and was famous in Uzbekistan and saved a lot of lives. She helped a lot of people. She was very busy all the time, but when she was home, there was an incredible smell everywhere and we knew we would have something delicious in the evening. I think that in almost every family in Uzbekistan, they have their own recipe for the barak dough and filling and this is exactly the recipe of my mom. It is very simple and it is very delicious. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

Barak sounds and looks so delicious! The way you fold them is so unique, almost mesmerizing to watch. It must take a lot of time to make them.
Years ago, barak was not an everyday dish. It was a dish for the holidays because during that period, Uzbek families were big. It was not only the father, mother, and children living in one house. It was also the grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles. And to feed this big crowd of people you needed a lot of time. That’s why it was made for special occasions. 

In that period, there was also no gas or water in the house. That’s why preparation for cooking was divided between the family members. One of the family members prepared the firewood. Mostly they used the firewood from the fruit trees. Why fruit trees? I said to you that everything has its meaning. People believed that if you cook on the firewood from fruit tree branches, the food will be tastier and like fruit trees give you a lot of fruit, cooking on the firewood of the fruit tree will give you more blessings, more prosperity. 

Other family members brought water they got from wells or from springs or from rivers. Others made the filling for the dumplings. Filling usually, in that period, was made using special equipment, like a cutting board called gusht tahta, which is made from the trunks of hard trees, like elm trees and mulberry trees, and a knife named kordi osh that is like a machete. They put pieces of meat and onion and chopped this together and then added spices and salt and chopped everything together. When I was a kid, I watched how my grandmother did it and I remember the taste of these dumplings. It was different because the filling made on this kind of cutting board was really different from the filling that we do now using modern techniques [and tools]. Of course we now use tools like food processors and so on. 

One of the family members, like the grandmother or mother, would make the dough. Then, when everything was ready, they gathered around the table. This is the Uzbek tradition to gather the family members together and cook without any rush. We enjoy cooking and the cooking in Uzbekistan is not simply cooking the food. It is a way of socializing and a way of relaxing. During this period when all the family members were together, they socialized with each other. The elder family members told their stories to the young family members — funny stories, fairy tales, the experiences of their life. The young family members not only learned how to cook this dish, but also learned about life. It was a kind of education for young family members. All together they folded barak, then cooked barak, put dastarkhān [the tablecloth] on the table, then bread and dishes, and served the barak.

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

That’s quite a special way to bring the whole family together. I know in your classes the students are instructed on how to roll out the dough with an American rolling pin, but you have a special rolling pin you use, right? 
Yes, I had a special rolling pin in Uzbekistan and the name of the rolling pin is oklau. With this rolling pin you can make a lot of pieces of dumplings or pastry very fast because the rolling pin is very long and you can roll out the dough very fast. 

One day [after we had moved to the United States], my son asked me to prepare Uzbek dumplings and I said to him, “But I have no rolling pin.”  He said, “Okay mom, we will go and buy it.” So we went together to buy a rolling pin and I thought he would bring me to the store where there is different stuff for the kitchen, but he brought me to Home Depot and I was puzzled. He then showed me the big dowels and said to me, “It looks like your rolling pin, right?” I said, “Yes, this is even better than mine in Uzbekistan!” We bought this dowel and it really looks like the rolling pins in Uzbekistan [laughs]. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

How innovative! [laughs] Do you have a favorite between fried and boiled barak?
You know, I love both methods because they both are really delicious. When my kids were small we also gathered around the table and they folded barak and they were not so beautiful, but it did not matter. I told them the same thing I tell my students — it does not matter if they’re not as beautiful as mine, they will be tasty! Trust me! In my classes I divide it into two parts. [When we were in person] first, I would fry the barak and give it to them right from the frying pan and it was fresh and very tasty and crispy and they were very happy about it. Then, I would boil and we would have it for dinner. I love both. I can’t decide what is better for me because I just love barak. I am a barak fan.

It’s easy to see why you’re a fan because they look so scrumptious. I want to thank you again for sharing so much wonderful insight with all of us today. To close out, I’d love to know what sharing this recipe with me and with readers means to you.
I told you that this is a recipe from my mom. In my classes I usually talk a little bit about her. Unfortunately, she passed away last year and this is in memory of my mom first and most importantly. 

Second, what it means to me — I really believe that when people learn something new, it makes them become more rich. They become more rich in knowledge and it will be very useful for life and every day we can learn something new. This is a very great opportunity to learn the culture of the people through the cuisine and through the dishes of the cuisine. Cuisine is not simply the food or the fuel for our body. There is more to learn. 

Through this knowledge of eating together and cooking together, it brings people closer to each other. It means that people can better understand each other. It means more friendship between the people of different ethnic groups. One of my students said, “Nothing brings people together like eating together,” and I can add one more thing — nothing brings people together like cooking together and eating together. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

Ready to make your own barak? Whether you want to try them boiled or fried — or both — you can find Damira’s recipe here.