Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Manti, Nan and Plov

Manti, Nan and Plov are the three principle characters in a deranged saturday morning kid's TV show. Manti, the lead character, is an undefinable creature of vaguely Bonobo origin. His naive sense of childlike wonder often gets the trio into mild scrapes involving magic umbrellas and other such devious plot devices. Manti's foil is Nan, a bossy female penguin who tries to keep the threesome on the straight and narrow but invariably gets drawn into the adventure. Her unrequited love for Manti doesn't go unnoticed by adult viewers, whose bored imagination occasionally leads them to feel slight unease at the prospect of a chimp-penguin union. Plov is a ponderous lump of a bear, who on the surface appears to be a total clunking doofus, but deep down he is the beating moral heart of the show.

This is what happens when I drink too much Vimto. I could go on for pages and pages, but let's face it, I'm not going to get into the Times Online's list of the World's Top 50 Best Food Blogs by rambling on about about chimps. No, in order to achieve that I shall have to adopt a self-effacing tone, punctuated by professional quality photography taken in my Martha Stewart kitchen in North America/Western Europe. Like some sort of commercial webshite, complete with books to sell and sponsored links to click. They'll be haunted by the ghost of Bill Hicks.

Manti, Nan and Plov.
I was warned not to expect too much from the food of Central Asia, particularly in the winter, so went with expectations lowered. In retrospect though, just because food doesn't come in the colours of the Italian flag, or with a whizz and a bang and a sizzle, doesn't mean to say it's any less interesting. Kyrgyz people I met were proud of their food, eager to share it, and in touch with the way it is produced. That is all it takes for me to admire it.

It seems Manti are popular across Central Asia and the Turkic regions (I spotted a variation of them being prepared in Istanbul recently). In Kyrgyzstan they resemble large dumplings, filled with meat, potatoes, the all important lump of fat, and if you're lucky, some bits of pumpkin. These parcels are steamed or boiled and served with more fat - butter - melted on top with a little fringe of dill. At one place I was offered a vinegary chilli-sauce accompaniment quite unlike any other I've tried on my travels, which added a little poke to the bland meatiness.

Accompanying Manti, and many other Kyrgyz dishes, are Nan breads. A cousin of the Naan breads found in India, and popular in Indian restaurants in the UK, nan is a soft disc of flat bread, usually made with white flour. In Kyrgyzstan they sometimes add a little smooth yoghurt to give the bread a little density. I looked forward to nan at mealtimes, usually tearing up a warm loaf roughly the size of a 7" record to dip into whatever juices I found leaking from my Manti.

Sadly my photographs of both manti and nan didn't turn out in the gloom of the Batken evenings. I did manage to capture a plate of Plov though:

Plov is the Turkic cousin of what most people recognise as pilau, or pilaf (I'm happy to be corrected on this though, my sources are a bit mixed). A simple rice dish cooked in a stock. Pretty much every culture has something similar (risotto, paella, nasi goreng - even jollof rice in West Africa) to plov, which is regarded as something of a national dish. Generally made with Kyrgyz long grain rice, with various vegetables and fruits thrown in according to season. The dish in the photograph contained mutton and what was described to me as 'yellow carrot' - a new one on me. According to my translator, the best version of this dish is made in Osh. She is from Osh by the way.

Of course Kyrgyz cuisine stretches further than manti, nan, and plov. How about dried apricots as bright as jewels, or rice pudding with baked pumpkins for breakfast? I'll be lifting my expecations when I return in the summer.

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