I Ate Dinner in a Tajik Hellhole
Ask the average Westerner what they know about Tajikistan, and they'll probably draw a blank. (Is it a country? Isn’t there a war going on there?) Which made finding out more about qurutob, its national dish, even more interesting.
Shaftoluzor restaurant in Dushanbe. Photos by Florian Pinel.
At the mention of Tajikistan, most people draw a blank. Is it a country? How do you spell it? Isn't there a war going on there? Its -stan suffix, vastly considered pejorative in Western mentalities, doesn't inspire confidence. Among the few who've heard of it, the country's mostly famous for being Central Asia's drug trafficking hub—not for its food. Add to that the threats of typhoid fever, dysentery, and other stomach viruses, and traveling to Tajikistan might be an experience that your stomach won't forget any time soon.
A traditional Tajik cuisine exists, of course, but there aren't a lot of cookbooks out there that cover the subject. My own search only produced a 1969 booklet titled National Tajik Sweets. Its authors explain how the triumph of socialism brought to the good people of Central Asia mechanized agriculture, a booming industry, increased living standards, and—you guessed it—a wide selection of confections. Wikipedia mentions a couple of opuscula that must have been published in Dushanbe with very small circulations in the early 1990s, but I wasn't able to get hold of any of them. Even Pokhlyobkin, author of the essential Cookbook of the Soviet Peoples, doesn't opine much on Tajik cuisine, listing only a few dishes and often mentioning their similarity to Uzbek food. In a country that's one of the poorest in the world, freshly emerging from many years of civil war, Tajiks haven't had much opportunity to entertain such recreational endeavors as writing cookbooks. Neither do they routinely share snapshots of their meals with their smartphones on Instagram.
So what's the food like? Many of Tajikistan's dishes are variations on specialties from neighboring Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. These include laghmon (a noodle soup with meat and vegetables), manti (steamed meat dumplings), sombusa (a kind of samosa most often filled with meat and onion), or osh (the counterpart of Uzbek plov, a rice dish typically made with lamb, carrots, and onions). And of course, there are always kebabs, and fresh vegetables for the daring.
But there is one specialty that's truly Tajik: qurutob, the country's national dish. The name qurutob comes from qurut (a ball of dried, salted cheese that will take you by surprise if you try one at the market thinking it's a kind of sweet), and ob (water, somewhat cynically called Tajikistan's greatest resource). By putting the two together, you get a sauce, to which you add pieces of fatir (a flaky flatbread made with butter or tallow), some vegetables (such as onions, carrots, and tomatoes), and optional lamb meat. The result is traditionally served in a large bowl and eaten with one's hands. A very rustic dish indeed.
If you want to see what qurutob is really like, you'll have to brave corrupt customs officers, aggravatingly ignorant taxi drivers, and dilapidated roads by actually going to Tajikistan, like I did. As is often true, the dish can best be appreciated when eaten in context. But finding qurutob in Dushanbe isn't as straightforward as one might imagine. First, there's the general problem of orientation in a city (and country) where people don't know any street names, don't know any landmarks save for the beer factory, and function on the naïve assumption that if they keep going straight long enough, they'll find what they're looking for sooner or later. Next, locals who can afford to go to restaurants tend to have a preference for more exotic fare, whether French, Italian, Indian, or American. Look hard enough and you'll even find pork on the menu.
The only joints in Dushanbe that serve genuinely Tajik food are cheap affairs, to say the least. Shaftoluzor is one of them, and the only one to have gained the favors of my travel guide for some reason. Equipped with the tool that locals so desperately lack—a map—I found the place without too much trouble. This "restaurant," located in a building that looked like an abandoned construction site, made me hesitate for a moment. Were people really serving food in that concrete shell? Was I going to have to make my second trip to a Tajik hospital, where janitors poured the dirty cleaning water into the fish tank, the floor was strewn with discarded razor blades, and triage was supervised by a character straight out of a David Lynch movie?
Reality proved to be slightly less scary after all. The restaurant was open. Qurutob was indeed on the short menu, next to kebabs, osh, and soups, and was even available with or without meat. After I took a seat at one of the plastic garden tables and placed my order, something that passed for vodka (but was more realistically meant to punish the infidels) was brought in a tea pot. The food arrived shortly after; a simple, quotidian meal. This goes a long way towards explaining why Tajik food isn't so widespread in the capital, let alone across the borders: This is tasty, hearty, but unsophisticated cooking, made with what's on hand. The pieces of fatir torn into the thin qurut sauce must be commended for their filling power, and everything else in the qurutob is flexible or optional—I was barely hungry for the accompanying lamb and onions.
Recreating a somewhat authentic qurutob at home isn't very easy. In Tajikistan, people can buy their fatir bread and qurut cheese at the market and simply need to sauté a few vegetables, but we Westerners have to make everything from scratch. It's not particularly difficult, but it is significantly more time-consuming than making scrambled eggs. The recipe I've created is a kind of rich man's qurutob. Compared to my experience in Dushanbe, it is lighter on the bread and more generous on the lamb. Plus, you can enjoy it with the near-certainty that you won't have to rush to the ER with a bad case of diarrhea the next day. Especially not with a driver who doesn't know where he's going unless it's near the beer factory.