The Pamirs are a mountain chain consisting of several of the world’s highest mountain peaks towering over 7,000 meters. They straddle the region between Tajikistan and Afghanistan joining the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan in the north. The region is one of the harshest to inhabit.
The Pamirs formed an important part of the old Silk Road trodden by many explorers. Marco Polo is believed to have travelled through these mountains on his way to China. One explorer who certainly did traverse through was Captain Francis Younghusband. In his address to the Royal British Geographical Society in February 1892 he describes the Pamirs as “lonely, desolate, and inhospitable as these mountains for most part are, one may still find secluded valleys cut deep down into the mountain masses where some hardy hill-men till the ground and form villages.”
The Pamirs also formed a majestic backdrop for ‘The Great Game’ played by the empires of British and Russia. Modern day perception of the region is one of radical Islamic powers spreading terror and oppression amongst the inhabitants of Pamirs.
Very little is known about the culture of people inhabiting these mountains, even less is known about the culinary traditions of the Pamiri people. With Our Own Hands is the winner of this year’s International Gourmand Cookbook Award (the most prestigious prize in the culinary calendar) and offers a glorious window to the unexplored world of Pamiri cuisine.
The cookbook is written by researchers Jamila Haider and Frederik van Oudenhoven. Jamila is currently a doctorate candidate at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden but was working for a development organisation based in Afghanistan. Frederik is an ethnobotanist working at the Rome-based International Plant Genetic Resources Institute.
Frederik was travelling through the Pamirs, collecting recipes from the region with a small, dedicated group of Pamiri women scientists. A chance encounter between the two, over a bowl of Pamiri apricot soup, led to the seeds for an idea of a book being sown.
One day, in the village of Mun in the Ghund valley of Tajikistan, an elderly grandmother was recollecting stories about the food she once used to eat. Very soon, a small crowd gathered to listen to her reminisce of the food no longer cooked in Pamiri kitchens. The brute force of development is rapidly gnawing away at old food growing practices. When the elderly lady had finished with her stories, she asked for her recipes to be written down. She meant to leave them as references for her grandchildren. She was afraid they would forget the old foods under the influence of modern packaged ones. This incident formed the trigger for the two researchers to realise what value a book containing recipes of Pamiri food would be for the locals.
The cookbook is the culmination of over four years of painstaking research. The researchers also feasted on all varieties of food that they would ask the Pamiris to cook for them. The book is a richly illustrated collection of over 100 recipes from the Pamir mountains. It is a heavy tome, nearly 700 pages. Its heft is due in part to the fact that it is written in three languages: English, Persian and Tajik. The book also contains spectacular images portraying different aspects of everyday life in the Pamirs. It captures in vivid detail, the large variety of food of the region, also people in their various moods and rituals that are intricately linked to the land they inhabit.
The Pamirs are thought to be the original place of rye. The mountains are also home to different varieties of walnuts, apples, pears, apricots, mulberries and over 150 kinds of wheat. Each recipe holds a historical record of the cultures, rituals, traditions of the Pamiri people, their landscapes, farming techniques and their ancient knowledge of biodiversity and ecology. There are recipes for special occasions like weddings, for festivals like Nawruz (the Persian New Year) and recipes for hospitality towards guests, something which is taken seriously by the Pamiris. Producing and preparing food at pastures over 4500 metres above sea level is not a piece of cake. Taming such a landscape requires 5,000 calories a day. The recipes in the book provide just that energy.
The book is divided into chapters consisting of grains and pulses, the breads which are the most important food item, the different fruits found in the region, the medicinal plants collected from the wild to be used as food and lastly, a section on milk, meat and cheese.
Grains and pulses are intricately woven into Pamiri life. They accompany most important events in people’s lives in these mountains — birth, death, marriage and the change of seasons. In Pamiri fields, unlike in other parts of the world, wheat, rye, barley are grown together with peas, faba beans and chickpeas. Pamiris believe the cold, thin mountainous air does something mysterious to their crops, making them more full of life.
Bread, in the Pamirs, is the foundation of life. It is considered a symbol of the benevolence of God for having granted food and survival from the scarce land people have available. Not being grateful for bread is considered disrespectful to God.
Recipe for barley bread (makes two large flatbreads):
Ingredients: 7 cups barley flour; 1 teaspoon yeast; 1 teaspoon salt; 2 cups lukewarm water
Method: Use hands to dissolve the yeast in the water. Combine flour and salt. Add water slowly till the dough is no longer sticky. Knead for 15 minutes. Cover and prove for 3-4 hours.
Knead the dough again and split into two halves. Prove for another 30 minutes. Roll using a rolling pin. Make holes using a fork in the centre of the bread to keep the middle from rising.
Bake for 20 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius, or until golden brown.
Poem on barley:
An honourable man would reap gold from the soil/ If he were to sow barley in the hills. Since the water of barley purifies the liver/ Nobody would ever suffer from tuberculosis.
Soups form the basis of Pamiri cooking. They not only provide nutrition in the long cold months when not much else grows but also keep Pamiris warm. Osh is a noodle soup of six or more grains milled together and the most popular dish in the Pamirs.
The book mentions some fascinating recipes and practices, like the baht, which is a sweet festive porridge of flour. This recipe is prepared only once a year and must be cooked only by men. On returning home with the cooked bath, the men greet the women on the house with words of “Shogun Bahor Muborak” meaning “May you have a happy Blossoming Day”.
Nowhere else in the world are fruits an important food source in harsh climatic regions, as in the Pamirs. Mulberries and apricots are absolutely revered. The humble mulberry is one that gave silk to the Silk Road and a legendary name. The people use the fruits to make varied items like flour from dried mulberries or pikht, brandy, soups and halwa from mulberries. Similarly, apricots and walnuts are widely used to extract oil from its kernels. Over 300 varieties of apricot are unique to the Pamirs.
Noshkhukhpa is a dried apricot soup famous throughout the Pamirs. It helps the immune system against cold and flu in the winter months.
Recipe for Noshkhukhpa:
Ingredients: 500 grams of dried apricot; 8 cups of water; 1 cup wheat flour; Sugar to taste
Method: Add apricots to the water and bring to a gentle boil. Cook until the fruits soak up the water and swell. Make a smooth paste with flour and water and add to the soup to thicken. Simmer for 10 more minutes. Serve hot.
No cuisine would be complete without describing the different kinds of meats. But surprisingly, in small villages in the Pamirs, meat is seldom eaten. In hostile terrains like the Pamirs, animals are extremely valuable, for their milk and wool. Only on extraordinary occasions like festivals, birth and death are animals sacrificed for meat.
A celebratory soup prepared with crushed wheat and meat is Boj-E-Khodoi.
Recipe for Boj-E-Khodoi:
Ingredients: 200 grams of crushed wheat; 1 kg of meat, preferably mutton; 5 tablespoons oil; Water and Salt according to measurement
Method: Crush wheat grains very coarsely. Soak them for 2-3 hours in water. Fry meat pieces in oil until seared from all sides. Add water and bring to boil. Add wheat grains and salt. Simmer for 2 hours until wheat is soft and has absorbed the taste of the meat.
Age old, simple sumptuous recipes like ones mentioned above are slowing dying out. The Pamirs are witnessing rapid changes to their once hard-toiled fields. New generations of Pamiri youth are leaving the mountains in search of greener pastures to cities like Moscow. The foods themselves are undergoing irrevocable changes.
With the region a hotbed of development activities, new hybrid varieties of seeds producing greater yields are prefered to the old, robust seeds. Ready-to-eat packaged food is replacing the time consuming traditions foods. Thus, With Our Own Hands is a priceless contribution to the world of a region where every valley resounds with different languages, cultures and foods.