Tashkent: Surprising street food and underground art in the Uzbek capital

Tashkent, Uzbekistan (CNN) — It’s a bit unusual these days to visit places that very few Westerners know about. Uzbekistan and its capital Tashkent seem to belong to this category.

Located in Central Asia, it was part of the Soviet Union until its independence 30 years ago. In recent years, a rapidly growing population and an increasingly diversified economy have seen Uzbekistan experience something of a boom. At the heart of this is Tashkent, which has a population of around 2.5 million.

Most visitors to Uzbekistan tend to skip Tashkent and head to ancient cities such as Samarkand and Bukhara, famous for being part of the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that linked China and India to the Mediterranean. But as the capital continues to grow, it seems increasingly likely that it will become a destination in its own right.

Tashkent International Airport is located, somewhat surprisingly, roughly in the middle of the city. When you leave it, the first thing you notice is how clean the streets and sidewalks are. This is due, in large part, to the vast army of high-visibility-clad cleaners who seem to congregate around every corner. If you look closely, you’ll also notice that the cars all look alike. Until recently, more than 90% of cars sold in Uzbekistan were Chevrolets.

The Plov center

An easy way to experience some of a city’s culture is through its food and a first stop for most visitors wanting an authentic – albeit much-photographed – experience is the Plov Center (also known as of Pilaf Center).

The center, which looks like a huge gym, is the perfect place to try pilaf, which is consumed by Uzbeks from the moment they wake up until lunch. Don’t try to order it after lunch, it shouldn’t be available.

Here, the dish is prepared in a giant cauldron. Rice, carrots, lamb and various spices are part of the mix. Grab a table, place your order (boiled eggs and horse sausage come extra) and wait for your food. It is often served with a sweet tea.

Preparation of pilaf at the Center of Plov.

James Stacey/CNN

Chorsu street food market

Another must-visit culinary destination in the capital is the Chorsu street food market. In the covered market there are rows of stalls selling everything from meat to soft cheese (a very popular ingredient in Uzbekistan).

There are also a large number of stalls selling kimchi and other Korean delicacies. It may seem out of place among traditional offerings, but the relationship between Uzbekistan and Korea is old. Koreans began to settle in Russia from the middle of the 19th century. In 1937, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, fearing that the Korean community would allow Japan to infiltrate the country, ordered the mass deportation of the Korean people.

Many ended up in Uzbekistan where they thrived – hence the large number of Korean food stalls.

Street food is very popular – the most requested dishes being meat on a skewer cooked over an open flame. It’s perhaps a little ironic that this most traditional way of preparing and serving food is now replicated in trendy food markets everywhere from London to Los Angeles.

A woman selling pickled vegetables at the street food market in Chorsu.

A woman selling pickled vegetables at the street food market in Chorsu.

Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images

If street food and communal dining aren’t your thing, there are of course plenty of other conventional dining experiences, including Italian, Georgian and, naturally, Korean restaurants.

Go underground and grow

An unexpected but unmissable tourist attraction are the city’s metro stations. Around the world, underground systems are usually functional at best, but rarely beautiful. In Tashkent, which has the oldest underground system in Central Asia, the stations – which opened in the 1970s and were intended to serve as nuclear bomb shelters – look like galleries. Artwork, murals and mosaics honor the country’s cultural icons.

Apart from the beautiful underground, Tashkent is a city where it is good to walk around. From the ground, you can see a skyline full of cranes and buildings surrounded by scaffolding. It’s a place that seems in a hurry to grow. But among the new malls and high-rise buildings, there are occasional reminders of what the city used to be.

Mosques and madrasas are everywhere. In the Hast-Imam library is the Kufic Quran of Samarkand which many experts consider to be the oldest Quran in the world. While Uzbekistan has been a secular state since independence, around 80% of the country’s population is Muslim.

As Tashkent opens up to a whole new group of visitors, this blend of tradition and modernity means it could soon become a must-visit destination for people wanting to experience something different.

Bonny J. Streater