Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Judicium Dei

I'm always on the look-out for ways to spice up my home life with Madame Boyo, so it was only a matter of time before I investigated witch trials and their possible rendering in a suburban setting.

We have a pond and plenty of kindling nearby, but my eye was caught by the African tradition of ordeal by poison.

From the steaming Casamance basin to the lung-clutching Malagasy highlands, suspected necromancers, Lutherans and those with fancy ways are presented with various lurid gourds and chrisms to consume before crowds of bat-eared loafers, schoolchildren and passing camera crews.

If you disgorge tooth-flecked tapioca all over the rapt onlookers you're free to go, as your innocent gullet would not suffer the tainted tuber to pass. If you die in pus-gummed convulsions, God's Justice has been served. Everyone is happy, and not a barrister in sight.

I have no intention of offering Madame Boyo calabar beans on toast or a buta-buta nut cutlet. She is Ukrainian, and can therefore eat the following with no ill effects:

  • Salo - fatback rind stuffed in the communal kippering shed since the war. Best taken with horseradish moonshine and a riding crop.
  • Kovbyk - pigface in vinegar jelly. Tastes better on the way back up than on the way down, so make sure your bucket is handy.
  • Varenyky - dough balls moulded round a cabbage and the pieces of pig left over from the above. Sometimes cooked, but it's hard to tell. Crimean Tatars use them in Sharia executions.
  • Kholodnyk - take your kitchen composting bin, pour week-old milk on the contents and serve. Best arm yourself before offering it to strangers. And
  • Bihos - fill a hollow loaf of bread with three different types of rotting cabbage, add plums and any remaining pig. Place under your grandmother's bed. When it's ready she'll let you know, from one end or the other.
So Gambian mambo beans are only likely to make Madame Boyo angry.

There's a lot to be said for this direct African approach to rooting out deviants. Decades may have passed, but only now do I realise that the hospitality rained on me during my sojourn in Central Asia was a similar and rigorous rite of passage, a testing of my masticatory mettle. But, as is the way of the East, it was done subtly.

Food is central to the Uzbek way of life, which ideally consists of sitting on a dais while your extended family rush around killing, cooking, skewering and serving up sheep in a variety of rice-based guises.

Unlike their White Sheep Turcoman and Black Eye Kirghiz neighbours, the Uzbeks had enjoyed the use of houses, pots and tables long before the Russians turned up, and so developed a cuisine more complex than eating whatever you'd been riding lately.

So literally all-consuming is their gourmanderie that Uzbeks looked at a pair of sinuous Arabo-Persian words meaning "food", blinked slowly, then slapped them together like a pair of hams to emphasise how much they like dinner ("oziq-ovqat").

And so highly do Uzbeks revere mutton pilaf that they refer to it simply as "osh" - "food". Like the ethereal beings in Calvino's "Invisible Cities" who will not place profane foot on the hallowed avenues of their citadels, the Uzbeks don't bid friends to eat the pilaf without any ceremony, but rather first invite them to admire its gleaming perfection - "oshga qarang!"

A visitor can aspire to the status of "guest" only if he honours the pilaf.

  • He must eat it with the right hand in an elegant scooping motion, having first allowed the host's eldest son to bejewel the dish with gouts of choicest mutton fat.
  • He must sip the green tea steadily, but never drain the dainty bowl.
  • He must eat heartily, but not clear the plate.

Once the meal is over, a few questions about the particular variety of pilaf marks the guest out as an acolyte of the "oshpaz" (pilaf chef) and allows access to the back table at the teahouse - the one near the door to the opium den. And to pass through that particular portal takes another half-century or so of bobbing and blinking over mounds of foggy, foggy stew.

Myself, I was happy to rest right there on the pilgrim path and savour the unique harmony with inertia that comes from being an Uzbek. Freud never travelled to the Oxus, which is a shame, as the locals provide ample evidence for his oft-derided concept of Nirvana:

They seek a steady state of contentment rather than stimulation, in common with nuns and yokels, but manage to achieve it without abandoning the pleasures of the marital bed or teeth. Theirs is truly the Golden Section of the Silk Road.

Old Soviet Hands weep with gratitude on encountering the Uzbeks' transcendent indifference to all things beyond their idle oases. No demands to know how much a St Albans taxi-driver earns, no speeches about "Misty Albion", no suggestions that you marry their daughters - merely a polite enquiry about your hometown and whether you have pilaf there too, then off to lunch.

This would apply to any Martian who landed on the banks of the Jaxartes as much as to the passing Welshman. "So you don't have a mouth as such, Fleet Commadore Qʈħätɬʼɯŋ? Well that's fine, you can just admire the pilaf!"

And sad to say that's as far as I got, thanks to an ill-considered attempt to adapt the Uzbek culinary code to interior design.

I used to rent a flat in Tashkent, the country's patchwork capital. My landlord, Big Rustam the Unreliable Attorney, would often drop by for a chat, and I began to spot signs that I might be invited to join the lotus-eaters at the back of the chaikhana. Just the odd hint, but full of dusty promise - "Boyo-jon, there are some people I would like you to meet." "What do these people do?" "They do nothing, and they do it slowly."

Hubris drove me down to the gentleman's outfitters at the racetrack to get cloaked, skullcapped and belted like a Bokharan Beau Brummell. But no aspirant to "O'zbekchilik" can approach the Wispy Beard of Wisdom without at least a couple of dishes of "kishmish" - mixed nuts, raisins and sultanas - to welcome guests to his table.

I'd had a heavy evening swapping Tajik jokes with Big Rustam ("Have you seen the second wife of Blind Sobir, the Blind Sage of Soghd? No? Well, neither has he!"), and noticed a tart tang of tobacco and mutton on the morning air. Mrs Rustam was due to drop round that afternoon to count the dozens of lumpy quilts that made up her daughter's dowry, and I needed to freshen things up a bit.

I set off for the Turkish supermarket on Atatürk Street. Apart from Barf washing powder and Pif Paf cockroach killer, this teetering outpost of the market economy stocked delicate rosewater potpourri for the homesick Anatolian Hausfrau. I grabbed a bag and planted it in a bowl on the living-room table, before setting off on the monthly bribe run.

That evening Big Rustam dropped by as usual. Now when it comes to sang froid, Uzbeks can rival any Victorian fusilier facing impalement by impi. A local colleague once dismissed the Kazakh nation with a cursory "you can tell what they're thinking", so it takes some tuning to tease out what's made a Toshkentchi tetchy. But I noticed the omens - he paused for a second before returning my greeting, and the vodka bottle in his hand was Russian.

We sat down and weighed out the usual exchanges before Big Rustam asked "That bowl in your living room, what were you kind enough to put in it?"

"Potpourri," I replied. "It is a Frankish frippery that may lend a room the perfumes of Paradise, if He wills it."

"By the Merciful One, it is truly fragrant," Big Rustam noted, "But how would you go about eating it, by the grace of the All-Bountiful?"

"In truth, only a beaver with the morning breath of a Khujandi catamite would relish such a dish," I continued, seeking to return last night's mirth with a jibe at our Tajik neighbours, their fey ways and fondness for trees. "For it is made of wood shavings soaked in bath oils".

Big Rustam nodded, and the conversation turned to how his latest client had managed to garrotte himself with his own scrotum in the back of a police van, among other refinements of the Uzbek penal system. He would still drop round from time to time, but the visits became briefer and rarer, and the call to carouse at the back table never came.

I accepted this with near-native nobility, but often wondered what unwritten law had I broken. Had I touched a flatbread with my knife? Had I passed something with my left hand? Had I forgotten to pour the tea back into the pot twice before serving? I could not say.

Then one day I came home early to find Mrs Rustam, suitably chaperoned by her third son, sorting a sack of sheets in the spare room. I helped her haul a haversack of silks from atop the cupboard.

She whispered a word of thanks, and her lips were red with rosewood.


M C Ward said...

Fascinating as ever, Boyo. Uzbekistan is somewhere I shall probably never visit, but reading this will stand me in good stead should the need arise, for tax purposes or otherwise.

No Good Boyo said...

Indeed, Matt. I would also recommend my previous posts on Uzbekistan for further guidance, especially the one on the language:

My neighbour in Tashkent was a retired KGB officer who had moved into property development - mainly that of political prisoners, from what I could see. Over arack and Bulgarian cigarettes one evening I asked him how to go about learning his native Uzbek - a tricky tongue that 18th century Turkish nomads developed to help speed purloined Persians through their eunuch training courses.
"Throw away your text books, son," he drawled. "This is all you need - indeed, all you can get away with - in the knife-happy defile that is Uzbek society. When you meet someone, say 'assalamu aleikum' before they do. They'll like that. When they ask you how you are - 'yaxshimisiz?' - say 'juda yaxshi, rahmat' - very well, thank you'. They may ask how your family is - 'uydaghilar tinchmi?' - they are also 'juda yaxshi' whether they exist or not as far as we are concerned. 'Man Angliadan' - 'I am from England' - will clear up any other conversation. Attempts at asking Uzbeks anything else could get you thrown from a minaret in a sack full of cats. Cheers!"

He was right. I spent three years as the lion of the pilau-circuit due to my wondrous ability to say my spectral wife and kids were from England and doing ok, thanks.

Gorilla Bananas said...

So the Uzbeks use a finger of the left hand to purge the poo-hole as well? The Arabs must have spread it with their religion. I wonder if the douche will ever render this practice obsolete.

No Good Boyo said...

Think sand, GB. There's lots of it out there.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Yeah, you may have inadvertently committed a worse offense, like using your left hand for pilaff. And becoming an ingredient of the next pilaff.

As for varenyky and other delights of Ukrainian kitchen, please convey to Madame Boyo my condolences with having an uncouth spouse without a smidgen of understanding these fares.

Ach, what would I not give for a dose of sour cherry varenyky done Ukrainian style...

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

Ukrainian food sounds quite like Polish. The Poles think it is a mark of refinement to put a bowl of dripping on the table for you to slather on a chunk of black bread while you're waiting for your whole braised ham to arrive. That said, I do sneak into Polski sklepy sometimes and stock up on kabanosy and ogorki.

Mrs Boyo said...

Snoopy, I concur. The exquisite combination of dough and bitter fruit in schmaltz is wasted on the Welsh, to whom the pig is more of an alternative path of evolution than a beast of the table.

Daphne, our Polish neighbours often better our cuisine, having learned much from their Teutonic masters in the way of presentation.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ahhh yes, I've also had the how much does a St Albans taxi-driver earn conversation as well. "Your mother she have house, yes? Is London, or in Oxbridge? We not stay long. Wife need get back at least once a year to show off new iPhone to neighbours." Etc, etc....

No Good Boyo said...

True. Gadj. I've had some heartbreaking conversations about Britain's lack of demand for Goat-Meat Technicians Grade II, tellers of Armenian jokes and hadstand monitors. As for SAS fantasists, we grow our own.

wilczek said...

Re Poles and their 'Teutonic masters'. I say, steady on Boyo! That might be appropriate for a small few confused souls in deepest Silesia.

In my experience of the Polish Kitchen for several years of this century, I had liked to think of their cuisine as, to a modest degree at least, a fairly propitious commingling of influences from points West and the East.

Also, apart from Kefir which is ubiquitous, I have affectionate memory of certain Ukranian health or soft drinks which can be bought from supermarkets as far West as Krakow: like the mysterious milky Birch bark water, and a delicious sort of root beer made from 'bread acid'.

I do though enjoy your ornamented recounting of adventures from lands, as a Pole might say, 'the wrong side of the Bug!

No Good Boyo said...

Vitayemo, Wilczeku! The bread acid is probably kvass, a mighty potation, and birch bark water is certainly one of the Kresy's most mysterious mouthwashes.

This blog loves all things quadrant-hatted and Polish. Allow me to nudge you towards my most recent propagandising of your ever-molile homeland:

Poland - land of best drunken pilots:

Anonymous said...

In a very sensual way, I enjoy having to read your posts very slowly. I like the words, I like their sounds, and I like that you make me laugh.

No Good Boyo said...

Thanks Looby, being a Welsh I write them out loud.

Gyppo Byard said...

As I have let slip before, one of the most memorable meals of my life consisted of plov eaten in a Tashkent courtyard caravanserai, which was punctuated by my Khwarazmian colleague (who had ordered for me) asking "So tell me - do you like horses?"

Unsure where this was going, I gave a non-committal answer along the lines of "I quite like them, I suppose. Why do you ask?"

"Because you have not yet asked what it is you are eating."

No Good Boyo said...

Ah, horsemeat - the Central Asia viagra. Count the dents on of foreheads of its adepts and you'll know it's true.

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