Eating My Way Across Uzbekistan – Part 1

My first morning in Uzbekistan, and I’m exhausted. The journey here has taken days. I only fell asleep a few hours ago, but the morning sun is already burning through our hotel room windows.  Unable to sleep any longer, I decided to go for a walk.

Most of the city is still asleep, save for a few birds and the odd policeman. I wandered through the old covered bazaars and caravanserai, past the mosques and medressas that will be packed with tourists in a few hours, and started down one of Bukhara’s dusty back streets.

The conversation began, like so many others in this part of the world, “Hello mister, where are you from… “. My cynical brain is sure this is a trap. But it’s too late to get away. An outstretched hand can’t be ignored. Best case, he wants to sell me a rug. Worst case, I am the rug. A moment later and I’m being led by the arm into the stranger’s house.

We duck under a low doorway and round a corner into a room that somehow is even hotter and dustier than the desert air outside. I’m now standing just inches away from a fire burning so hot, my eyeballs may start sweating any moment. Two more men are waiting in the room to continue the interrogation.

I manage, in my heavily-accented, light-on-vocabulary Russian, to explain that I am a tourist from America. I show them my camera. One man pounds the table while another man asks the questions. He doesn’t wait for me to answer the first question before shouting the next one. He has to raise his voice for me to hear him over Michael Jacksons’ Smooth Criminal blaring from the radio.

Far from a scam or an assault, this was my first taste of Uzbekistan’s famous hospitality. The men, as far as I can tell, are father and sons. The woman, who was present in the room with us but never spoke, must be the mother. The family bakes Non bread out of their modest home in Bukhara.

One brother mixed the dough as the other formed it into balls and left it to rise. The father proudly displayed his collection of dough stamps, the round tools covered in spikes that they use to prevent the centers of the loaves from rising, giving Uzbek Non bread it’s distinctive form. The clay oven burned bright and hot, but they didn’t start actually baking any loaves before I left. Still I considered this a good omen for the rest of my trip.

In Samarkand, I struck gold. I followed a young boy pushing a cart down a small alley. He was heading the opposite direction from everyone else. Away from the main pedestrian street that connects the Bibi Khanum Mosque with the Registan.

His cart, like dozens of others I had seen in the bazaar, was a mutant. The chassis and wheels were from an ancient baby carriage, and on top, there was a round platform wrapped in old linens. Unlike the carts I’d seen in the bazaar which were piled high with bread for sale, the boy’s cart was empty.

Following the boy lead me straight to the source. Another family bakery. This time, I caught them in the middle of the day, just as they were pulling piping hot loaves of Non bread out of the oven.

There are very few pleasures in life that can compare to tearing into a freshly baked loaf of bread. Warm and pillowy soft inside, with just the right amount of crunch on the outside.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Anthony Bourdain. Today would have been his 63rd birthday.