Friday, May 30, 2008

Kazakh Cooking Experiment #3: Plov

I can't really claim plov as an experiment, since I've been working on getting it right for almost a year. Plov/pilaf/pilau is a rice-and-stuff dish with variations from Asia to South America. I have seen several Central Asian recipes -- fancy dishes with cumin (Uzbek) or apples or dried fruit (wedding plov?) -- but nothing that approximates the plov greatly anticipated and often served at local Kazakhstani expat gatherings. We have 'everyday plov,' a basic dish even my meat-and-potatoes father likes, of carrots, onions, rice & meat, with garlic flavoring. The original one-pot meal.

KZ folk are die-hard 'know it when you see it' cooks -- a handful of this, some of that, add until you have enough. If you don't have a KZ mom to guide you, it can be hard to get it right. Last summer, Kazakh cooks extraordinaire Yuriy and Tatiana (of Russian extraction) kindly wrote down for me a plov recipe with more-or-less proportions of ingredients. I've made, watched and adjusted it enough times to finally satisfy myself and the family, and now to share it with the world.

For me, the two main tricks are getting the meat tender and the carrots sweet (instead of tasting like boiled carrots). Don't skimp on the times. Plov takes a while, but needs relatively little tending. Though traditional KZ plov is made with mutton or lamb, I use beef-- if you've read my recipes before you know that neither Gulnara nor I like lamb (for the record, I think it tastes like dirt) -- but you are welcome to substitute lamb or mutton if you prefer.

A note about the oil -- I've seen heated discussions about what's appropriate to use. Corn oil is a definite no-no. Cottonseed and sunflower are preferred vegetable oils, though we use canola without the world ending. Traditionally, the fat used to brown the meat would be a lump of fat from a sheep's tail, melted. Just so you know.

If you have a Kazakh (or Kazakhstani) parent, disregard all this and make it the way you learned. If you don't, give this a try.

Kazakh Plov
(these are party sized-proportions -- be hungry, have folks over or halve everything but the garlic!)

1 cup (or more) vegetable oil
2 big (fist sized) onions, chopped
2-3 lbs. beef (chuck, or stew meat), cut into 1/2" - 1” pieces
2 lb. carrots, quartered and chopped into 1” pieces
(quick American trick: get "baby carrots" in a bag and slice each one in half)
2 lb long grain rice ( approx. 4 cups; basmati or “Uncle Ben’s" -- heresy, but it works)
1 large head garlic

A pot with thick walls and a lid (kazan, dutch oven or heavy 8 qt. soup pot; 4 qt. to halve recipe)


Heat oil in kazan over medium-high heat. Fry several pieces of the onion until burned at edges; discard onion (this releases onion flavour into the oil).

Add the meat. Cook until well browned on all sides. Add 1/2 to 1 cup water (enough to completely cover the meat by at least 1/2"), cover, and cook for 30 mins. (This step allows the meat to cook in the lower layer of boiling water, while keeping the oil in the pot for sauteeing the onions and carrots later. Don't skimp on the time, or the meat won't be tender.)

Uncover the kazan, and increase heat. Cook until water evaporates.

Add carrots. Lower heat to medium. Cook 5 min.

Add onion. Stir, and cook until carrots begin to caramelize (maybe slightly burned at edges, definitely turning sweet), maybe 5 - 10 minutes.

Add salt and pepper to taste (you can always add more later). Cook 5-7 min.

When the carrots taste right, add the rice and water.
(For 1 part of rice add 2 parts of water)

So for 2 lbs of rice (around 4 cups), you'll need 8 cups of water. Enough to cover everything in the kazan plus an inch or so.

Cover, turn heat to high. When water boils, stir once, reduce heat to low, place whole head of garlic on top of everything, and cook until water is absorbed and rice is plump and tender throughout (around 20 minutes, as usual for rice).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Urker Releases New CD

This past Saturday (May 17), KZ "ethno-pop" trio Urker released Tolgau, their first album since 2004's Best of Urker. According to the press release on the group's website, the 11 new songs on the album, including the wholly instrumental title track, are the result of two years of work for songwriting duo Aidos Sagat (music) and Nurlan Alban (lyrics). In the meantime, Aidos has been busy with charitable work, teaching show business management at KIMEP and is also a member of the national Author's Copyright Council.

The band has been leading up to the album release with a series of live performances -- Urker's Nauryz concert was their first live outing in five years, and on May 8 they played at London's Ministry of Sound music club, their first time to play Britain (Tolgau was recorded & mixed in Almaty, but mastered in a London studio) and their only European date for all of 2008.

"Mature" is a word that the press release uses to describe this album, rightly so. The first 'single' from the CD is Asel, and it's pretty darn good. Oh, it definitely sounds like Urker, but the video and a something about the way it sounds make me think of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music -- or maybe it's just the skinny 1980s ties.

Urker played a hour-long CD release concert on Saturday at Almaty's new mega-mall (aptly named MEGA), outside the Meloman music shop. Mashenka of Getting Kazakhified was there, and says that performing live, the band rocked!, a lot harder than they do on CD. (Read about her interview with Roksonaki, too, while you're over at her site). According to the Urker website, the band is off to Shymkent (May 24) and Karaganda (June 18) for personal appearances, probably at Meloman stores in those cities.

The one thing I don't have is a source for getting the CD unless you're within driving/horseback/walking distance of a MEGA mall. When I find out how to get a copy, I'll let you know too.

Urker live at the 2008 Nauryz party in Almaty