Changing our instincts: Kyrgyz kuurdak and shirin paloo

One of the roles of a secondary school teacher is to take responsibility for a form group, which essentially involves taking the register twice a day, passing on messages and then keeping the students entertained until it’s time for them to head on to their timetabled lessons. Miranda had a year 11 form group this year and one of their favourite ways of being entertained was doing quizzes on Sporcle, which, if you’re not already aware of it, is a superb way to kill some time in any situation, not just the classroom.

To begin with, their favourite quiz topic was Geography; specifically, quizzes that involved naming countries on a map (like this one). In practice, this involved twenty 16-year-old shouting out names of countries while Miranda (manning the computer) frantically tried to type them as quickly as possible. Kyrgyzstan always slowed down the typing proceedings somewhat – and even after typing it many times whilst researching the country’s cuisine, it still takes a second to remember which comes first out of the S and the Z.

Something else that isn’t obvious to many of us is what the country is actually like – but we are here to help (a bit)! It is a mountainous region, Russian is the most widely-spoken language, and Islam is the dominant religion. Traditional Kyrgyz food largely revolves around mutton, horse meat and beef, as well as some dairy products, which reflects the historically nomadic way of life of the Kyrgyz people. Thus, we opted for kuurdak (a meat stew – we used beef but traditionally it would have been made with organ meat) and a rice dish called shirin paloo. This is the vegetarian version of paloo, where the typically-used meat is replaced with dried fruits, which made it work well as a side dish. We got our recipes from a website called The Kyrgyz Children’s Future, which supports disadvantaged children from Kyrgyzstan.

Kuurdak

Ingredients
1kg beef shin, cut into small chunks
4 onions, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 peppers (preferably green but doesn’t really matter), sliced (the ingredients list in the original recipe said julienned, the method said cut in circles, the accompany image showed them cut into chunks… feel free to do what you like!)
1 cup cabbage, julienned
1/2 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
2 bay leaves
2 cups water (approx.)
2 tbsp tomato purée

Method
1. In a large pot, fry the meat in the oil until browned. You will probably need to do this in batches.
2. Add everything else and simmer until the water is absorbed and the ingredients are soft – about an hour.
3. Remove bay leaves and serve hot.
Serves 4

673a Beef compressed

674a Starting paloo and kuurdak compressed

675a Start of kuurdak compressed

678a Kuurdak compressed

Shirin paloo

Ingredients
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4-5 carrots, peeled and julienned
3 onions, sliced
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup seedless golden raisins
1 cup prunes
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
5-6 cups water
2 cups rice

Method
1. Heat the oil in a medium-sized pan and fry the onions and carrots until softened (about 10 minutes).
2. Add the water and bring to the boil.
3. Add the rice in a flat layer and boil until the rice soaks up all the water (the water should be about 1/2 inch above the surface of the rice in the beginning).
4. Add the dried fruits and mix in. (The original recipe didn’t say when to add the salt and cinnamon. We realised this at this point and added it, but it could probably also go in when the rice does. Perhaps it actually should.)
5. Make a mound of rice in the centre of the pan, put on the lid and put on low heat for 15-20 minutes. Periodically, let out excess steam. It will probably form a crust on the bottom, but make sure it doesn’t burn.
Serves 5-6

676a Cooking paloo compressed

677a Paloo compressed

These were two very interesting recipes because they both required us to do things that went against our culinary instincts. For the kuurdak, the original recipe said to only cook the meat for 30-45 minutes, as did every other recipe we looked at. We’d have gone along with this in the name of authenticity, but we tasted it after that time had passed and decided that we weren’t willing to waste a kilo of beef by serving it up with the texture of leather – hence the extended cooking time in our recipe (although it still could have happily cooked for a while longer)! Aside from that, we enjoyed the kuurdak, which had a lot of flavour despite not having a lot of ingredients to provide said flavour.

As for the paloo, the recipe didn’t say to cut up the apricots or prunes, so we didn’t, even though we felt that it they would sit better alongside the raisins if they were cut into smaller pieces. In the end, we were proved half-right. We still think the apricots could have been smaller – even just cut in half – because they could be a bit overpowering left whole, but the prunes became rather deliciously melty and gooey so were fine just the way they are. Overall, we were divided on the rice: we both agreed that it was nice, but Miranda found it a bit too sweet and cloying, whereas Ash thought it went well alongside the beef.

679a Shirin paloo and kuurdak compressed

Stay tuned for our next Central Asian experiment, which takes the region’s cooking in a whole new direction!

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