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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WHAT IS IT? : Cult of Plov Still Has Loyal Fans




There are those who insist that a hearty meat and rice plov can be made only by men, and only after learning its secrets by cooking at the side of a master.


And then there are those, Kazakh performance artist Kanat Ibragimov among them, who believe that plov cooks are merely trying to add a touch of mystery to their art.


Known for a performance last fall at the Central House of Artists, during which he cut a sheep's throat and then foundhimself scuffling with a group of German animal rights activists, Ibragimov spent a more peaceful evening recently in a friend's kitchen, sauteing lamb's ribs and philosophizing about the cult of plov.


Originating in Uzbekistan, plov, or pilaf, was invented in the 14th century to satisfy Tamerlane's order for a fast-cooking, filling meal for his hungry hordes on their way to invade India and Iran.


In Central Asia, where it is a staple food, plov is cooked on the streets over roaring fires and served from a large, deep cast-iron pot called a kazan. It's also offered in Central Asian restaurants.


"It has to be meat on a bone -- otherwise it reminds [an diner] of McDonald's," said Ibragimov, complaining about cooking plov on a gas stove rather than over a wood fire, which gives the meat a delicious flavor.


When the ribs were half-done, Ibragimov stirred in a plateful of chopped onions and, a bit later, a pile of chopped carrots. These vegetables -- sometimes with chopped tomatoes -- are sauteed with the meat and dried fruit in a generous amount of oil and lard. This is the succulent base, or zirvak, on top of which the rice is spread.


There is no invariable plov recipe, explained Ibragimov, who has eaten it since childhood and cooks it often.


For meat, mostly lamb is used. But some people use chicken, beef, turkey or even sturgeon. Rice is most commonly cooked with it. But corn, wheat or dried peas can be used instead.


Some cooks add dried apricots, prunes and raisins. Ingredients are typically measured na glaz, or approximately, but the ideal is probably to take equal parts of vegetables, meat, rice and fruit. Plov can be savory or sweet.


But the rule for the rice is quite strict: It should never be sticky; each grain should be distinct.


When the vegetables turned golden, Ibragimov topped the zirvak with uncooked rice -- about twice the amount of zirvak -- and then poured on enough water to completely cover the rice. He added a cup of raisins and stuck four big heads of garlic deep into the rice. Unfortunately, there was no saffron, which gives the dish a lovely color. He bore several holes in the rice with a knife and turned the heat up, leaving the pot uncovered.


His sleeves rolled up and cheeks turning red from heat and attention, Ibragimov worked without pause. A delightful smell filled the small kitchen. When the water evaporated he lowered the heat, covered the pot and sat down to relax.


In Kazakhstan, the Russian population nicknamed plov bishbarmak, which means "the five fingers" in Kazakh. It received the name because the Central Asians often eat it with their fingers. "Everything tastes better when you eat with your hands," Ibragimov said.


Twenty minutes later, he turned off the heat, wrapped the pot with a towel, retrieved the garlic heads and mixed the plov thoroughly. He served a mound of plov on a large flat plate, decorated with dried fruits and the garlic. My favorite part -- which is the gimmick of plov, I think -- was the garlic. Baked with the plov, it gives its sharp flavor to the rice and tastes mild and delicious when you suck the paste from its covering.


In Central Asia, plov is served with unleavened bread and fresh raw vegetables such as onion greens, garlic and cucumbers, and washed down with a piala -- a cup without handles -- of green tea.


And not only tea, according to Ibragimov. Some people in Kazakhstan drink a strange mix of vodka and kumys, slightly fermented mare's milk that doesn't curdle in alcohol. "They pretend to drink [only] kumys so that their wives don't scold them," added the artist with a smirk.


If you are puzzled over certain food items found in Russia, please e-mail Julia Solovyova at: solovyova@imedia.ru.