UZBEKISTAN: Tashkent Bazaars, Hard Goat Cheese Balls and a Mountain of Basil
About 15 hours after we landed in Tashkent, my husband and I and a friend who offered to show us around, emerged from the subway at the Chorsu bazaar, one of the oldest open air markets in the city. The sun beamed like a million watt bulb. The beautiful blue sky was cloudless and the street was uneven and dusty.
To the immense amusement of three Uzbek boys, who, without any hiding, watched our every move and hung on our lips for every English word uttered, we oriented ourselves and made our way to the vegetable and fruit section of the bazaar.
As we weaved among people, I heard a distinct singing, coming and going with the ripples of the wind. As we got closer, I saw a middle aged woman, guiding by the elbow about an 80-year-old lady in traditional Uzbek, flowy clothing, who was blind. The blind lady sang what I could only interpret as some kind of an Arabic or Far East song. As they passed us, my head swam with the eeriness of the time and place wormhole we went through less than 24 hours ago.
Armed with our school obtained knowledge of Russian, we plunged in, wanting to stock our pantry. After a couple transactions (peaches, lettuce, onions), it became clear that either our Russian sucked or everybody spoke Uzbek only. We kept getting quizzical looks, answers in Uzbek and had to resort to animated gesturing, pointing, and finger counting. I was fairly certain of what I was saying in Russian, so I contributed it all to the fact that we were possibly the only “westerners” in the market and that most merchants there were from Uzbekistan’s country side where Russian was spoken very sparsely. With sweat sliding down my back and jet lag telling me it was really only 3 AM, I started to feel deflated.
And then I saw the dedushka with his babushka who had a pile of dark blue blackberry looking berries on a wooden table, next to which stood an old timey metal juice press. She would grab a handful and throw it in, and he would catch the dark velvety liquid in a bottle. I mustered up my damaged Russian speaking ego and said, in Russian:
“Can I buy a bottle of this juice?”
And to my enormous joy, not only did dedushka understand, he replied, and I understood too! I bought the biggest bottle of juice he had (which was only about the size of a large Worcestershire sauce bottle) and we proceeded to have a conversation (!) about where I was from and when I arrived.
Before we left, we walked by two large tables, saddled with various sized, off-white, smooth, perfectly round balls. Four men stood behind the tables and as soon as my eyes wandered in the balls direction, they started gesturing and extending their hands with smaller balls in them, enticing me to come closer. As if by some magnetic force, I stepped up to the table and one of the men crushed one of the small balls between his fingers and handed it to me.
For a brief moment, I panicked, not knowing what to do. Was I supposed to smell it or eat it? Was this soap or cheese? Or was this something completely different? I took the crushed ball and brought it up to the area between the nose and the lips. I took a deep whiff. It was cheese. I put it in my mouth and tasted one of the best flavors in a long time. Four sets of dark eyes hung on my facial expression. I smiled. As soon as I did that, one of the men whipped out a clear plastic baggie and asked how many and which balls I wanted. I bought six grape sized balls. Everybody was happy.
Two weeks later, my husband and I alone, ventured to another bazaar in Tashkent. This one was called Oloy in Uzbek or Alayski in Russian. It was in a different part of town and also featured copious amounts of fruits and vegetables. When we arrived, we first did a fast walk through, trying to ignore all the calling and enticing.
Despite our pace, a teenage Gypsy girl approached us begging for money. She was very persistent and marched alongside us despite our attempts to shake her off by performing moves that any football player would be proud off. In the end she grabbed my arm and tried to pull me towards her. I whipped my arm out of her grasp and firmly said No in Russian. She took a few more steps with us and then gave up. Maybe I should have given her something, maybe not. But for some reason I got another eerie feeling, but not a good one this time.
We ended up buying 27 different items: onions, potatoes, spinach, basil, lettuce, radishes, garlic, lemons, limes, pomegranates, oranges, avocados, nectarines, bananas, apples, raspberries, strawberries, rosehips, honey with the comb still in the jar, red peppers, eggplant, arugula, beets, squash, saffron from Iraq, peppermint loose leaf tea and a spice wheel. All fresh, all organic, all tasting like heaven.
When we were getting the basil and spinach, we stood by a row of three different vendor ladies, each selling the same assortment of vegetables. We veered towards one, and as my husband was picking the basil bunches, the other ladies were calling me:
“Devushka! Devushka! Posmotri…” And pointed to the vegetables they had.
I felt bad and decided that we should split our purchases, Robin Hood style. So we ended up buying basil from one, spinach from the other and radishes from the third. Everybody was happy again.
When we got home, we spent several hours in the kitchen, peeling, cutting and preparing the loot for the freezer so we could enjoy all this beauty when the winter comes. I must have pinched of the biggest mountain of basil leaves in my life so far and we both tasted the best nectarines ever.
Every day now when I open our kitchen pantry cupboard, I smell the tea leaves and think of the Oloy bazaar.