Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Traditional Osh Chaikhana

I’m in this difficult period, just over two weeks before leaving, when I still have a lot to do, but I’m realizing that each sight and each experience could be the last of its kind. Yesterday was probably the last time that I’ll see an airplane passenger with bottles of koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) under her seat, the brown globs of fat shaking in flight. This morning might be the last time I hear the call of fresh milk from a door-to-door vendor on a Saturday morning. It’s likely the last time I’ll see a well-dressed woman put two fingers to her nose, bend over the gutter, and let snot fly.

I just got back from what will likely be my last trip to Osh. There is this urge I feel upon moving from somewhere where I’ve spent a lot of time, and am unlikely to do so again, to try to see and do everything one last time, to pack in as many sights, smells, sounds, and memories as possible. But that pressure just adds to the stress.

During the evening in Osh, my colleagues and my family gathered at a traditional chaikhana or teahouse. I’d never been to one before because Shavkat told me only men were allowed there. He promised to get me permission some time to attend, but never did. It turns out he was wrong. That while the majority of clients were men, women were definitely there as well.

The building is an open square, built around a courtyard in the traditional Uzbek style. You have to call ahead to reserve a room and say how many kilograms of plov (fried red rice with lamb’s fat, lamb, carrots and spices) you want, and make a deposit. Each group eats in a private room, cut off from the others. And the chaikhana serves nothing but plov and tea. If you want anything else – juice, water, beer, salads, fruit – you have to bring it yourself.

Nevertheless, they do a very good business. This particular chaikhana had recently taken a $20,000 loan to expand their building. When I walked around and peeped into the windows of the other rooms, I saw groups of men, a group of soldiers, a group of several, middle-aged couples. Most of them sat on the floor, on cushions and pillows cupping round bowls of tea and eating the fatty plov from communal dishes. Our room, the largest, had a long table with chairs. I wandered into the preparation room, where an old man in an Uzbek cap chopped meat, heavyset men managed the plov in giant iron bowls, and red-cheeked women carried the plates of steaming plov to the customers.

“They say that only men are able to successfully make this plov,” Nigora said. “When a woman makes it, it just doesn’t turn out.”

I told her that I liked her plov better.

“My plov is a baby version,” she said. “Since most of our foreign guests don’t
like a lot of fat, we’ve adapted it. But this is the real thing.”

“I’ll be gathering my friends here soon,” Shavkat said. “I have to treat them because I’ve found a job.”

He was recently offered a job to run a tourist camp in the mountains. It’s the perfect job for him, given his love of the mountains, and it seems to have pulled him out of his depression and apathy he’d been in while unemployed. He has already recruited his sons to be his assistants during the summer.

“What about the market stall?” I asked. The two older boys mostly manage the stall, where they sell Chinese and Uzbek dishes.

“This work is much more important,” Nigora said. “The boys should help their father. And I will take care of the stall.”

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