The yellow rice, orange carrot and white quail egg look quite striking on the blue dish reminiscent of the tiles of a World Heritage mosque.

Top it with a garlic cooked whole, and voila, you get a plate of “plov.” It is a fare essential to festive occasions in Uzbekistan in Central Asia.

After Yuriko Aoki, a cooking expert on the world’s local dishes, encountered ancient dishes in Nara and became interested in the roots of Japanese cuisine, she took off on a trip to trace the food culture along the Silk Road that extends to Rome. Her travels took her to South Korea, Xian in China and Uzbekistan.

Images of Uzbekistan may not come to mind easily. It is a landlocked state with vast deserts where nomadic life has flourished since ancient times. The country has been a crossroads on the east-west trade route, and Samarkand and other oasis cities prospered. Perhaps these clues will spark your imagination?

In Uzbekistan, Aoki was struck by the diversity of the food. She saw the noodle-based “lag’man” that may have arrived from China; “manti,” or steamed gyoza-like dumplings, whose name is believed to originate in the Chinese “mantou.” Tomato-based thin pizza (“lahmacun”) and fried dough sweets (“boortsog”) have similarities with Turkish and Mongolian cuisine.

When she visited an established family in Samarkand, they served her as the main dish plov rich in carrots, a local specialty. It is a dish of rice cooked in stock that is eaten throughout Central Asia.

Sometimes, plov is cooked in a huge pot as wide as a person’s open arms for hundreds on weddings and other festive occasions. The ingredients and seasonings differ according to the region, and they say that a wide variety of plov recipes could fill a book.

Legend has it that the dish was served to a king who captured Samarkand during the era of Alexander the Great before Christ. Similar or derived dishes are are called “pilav” in Turkey, “polow” in Iran and pilaf in France.

The fragrant aroma of grilled lamb and spice tickles the nostril. But with the sweetness of the carrot and onion, the dish turns out unexpectedly mild. You may want to enjoy the dish with friends and family.

INGREDIENTS

(Serves four)

240 cc rice

1 medium-size onion

2 medium-size carrots

300 grams large cubes of lamb or beef

3 to 4 Tbsp oil

1 whole garlic

8 quail eggs (store-bought precooked ones may be used)

1 tsp cumin seeds

1.5 tsp turmeric powder

Some peppercorns

Salt

METHOD

Rinse rice and immerse in water for more than 30 minutes. Finely chop onion and cut carrot into fine strips. Wrap unpeeled garlic in plastic wrap and microwave at 600W for a minute and a half. Boil quail eggs and peel.

Heat oil in thick pot over medium heat and cook cumin until aroma rises. Add meat and cook over medium heat for 7 to 8 minutes until surface browns. Remove from pot.

Place onion in pot and sautee over medium heat for about 10 minutes until it colors slightly. Add turmeric, peppercorns, a little less than 1 Tbsp salt, carrot, cooked meat. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes.

Bring water to a boil in another pot, add 1 Tbsp salt and cook rice for about 6 minutes. Drain in a colander.

Remove half of meat and vegetables from the first pot and add rice instead. Bury garlic, top with removed meat and vegetables and pour 100 cc water. Place lid and cook for about 15 minutes, but do not let it burn. Once cooked, leave for about five minutes. Mix the entire contents gently, serve and garnish with quail eggs and garlic.

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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column