Location: Central Asia
Population: 8.7 million
Geography: Landlocked and mountainous
Signature flavours: Dairy, wheat, lamb, onion, apricot, mulberry, rhubarb, pumpkin
Ah, Toronto, you continue to surprise us with your bounty of international resources, edible and otherwise. I found a Tajik cookbook in the Toronto Public Library system: With Our Own Hands. It took quite a while to get to my local branch, and when I went to pick it up, I was astonished at the size of this tome. Written in three alphabets (Cyrillic, Arabic, and Roman), it spans nearly 700 pages and weighs as much as all the cookbooks I have ever read in my life combined.
It’s a beautiful book, full of stories of life in the Pamir Mountains, which cover most of Tajikistan. Sprinkled with recipes, the most remarkable message the book delivers is what food means in Tajikistan.
Qurutob: The national dish of Tajikistan, this is a mix of fried onions, chilli pepper, bell pepper, roasted tomatoes, fatir, and crumbled qurut, topped with fresh basil and parsley. This is traditionally eaten with your hands, so that’s what we did.
Prep and cooking time (not including time for fatir and qurut): 30 min
Fatir: A buttery bread baked into a spiral, broken into pieces and mixed into the qurutob. Bread has a special place in the hearts of Tajik people — With Our Own Hands says that in the Pamir Mountains, “not being grateful for bread is considered disrespectful to God.” Flour-based foods (bread, noodles, porridge, etc.) form the foundation of Tajik cuisine.
Prep and cooking time: 2.5 hours
Qurut: Feta-like cheese made from strained yoghurt and salt.
Prep and cooking time: 2.5 hours
Osh: The other national dish — an onion-based soup featuring hand-cut wheat noodles, hot peppers, and fresh greens.
Prep and cooking time: 1 hour
Shirchoy: A salted black tea with milk and butter, widely enjoyed by Tajiks as a morning caffeine boost.
Prep and cooking time: 10 min
The Shopping List
Most everything was available at our great local supermarket with its comprehensive international section. I did journey to Kensington Market for dried hot peppers that I found by the basketful at Perola’s Supermarket. The fresh herbs for the qurutob came straight out of our garden.
I started cooking the day before our meal, preparing the qurut cheese that forms the base of the qurutob. Baked for an hour and a half, then strained, salted, and baked again, the Greek yoghurt I started with became like a crumbly feta. Success! I had made my own cheese.
The second step for the qurutob was to bake the fatir bread that accounts for the bulk of the dish. The process was not especially difficult, but had a number of steps: 1) Make dough and let rest; 2) Roll out dough, cut into two strips, slather with butter, roll into a spiral, and then chill (me and the bread both); 3) Press spiral flat and sprinkle with sesame seeds; 4) Bake. After all that work, a beautiful bread emerged. Step five was to rip my lovely fatir into pieces for the qurutob.
Finally, I roasted some tomatoes, fried up some onions, and mixed everything together. Voila — qurutob! I gave this dish a 5/5 for difficulty for the sheer scale of the undertaking. Using pre-made cheese and bread would take this down to a 3/5.
Osh has a lore all its own in the Pamir Mountains, where it has a long history as a staple dish. Osh noodles are notoriously difficult to make, since their dough is very crumbly. Like the qurutob, the soup was not light on steps, between making the noodles and prepping the broth. My noodle dough was very tough to roll out, but the noodles came out nice and uniform, with an al dente texture when cooked. The broth was very spicy. I guess I should have reduced the number of hot peppers I boiled along with the onions. Live and learn.
Shirchoy was an unusual taste. The highly steeped tea was diluted with milk, and the saltiness wasn’t overpowering. We dipped what remained of the fatir into our tea, as many Tajiks like to do.
“How many people in Toronto do you think ate Tajik food tonight?” Eric asked me later. “Twenty?”
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.