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Tajikistan's Qurutob: ‘Food for the Poor'?

Qurutob, also spelled Kurutob. Creative commons.

Qurutob, also spelled Kurutob. Creative commons.

Qurutob, a food that was traditionally popular in the south of the ex-Soviet country of Tajikistan, has rapidly conquered other parts of the country in recent years, with some members of the Tajik chattering classes born and raised in the north linking this fact to a deep economic and cultural malaise in the republic.

What is qurutob?

To make basic qurutob you do not have to be rich, and that the meal was never historically considered for the supper table of the Central Asian republic's local elite. The standard recipe sees milk balls smashed into salt and water and poured onto a mess of torn up bread and well-cooked onion.

Those who are better off can then add vegetables, tomatoes, and even meat, although the historical recipe is a rare vegetarian outlier in the pantheon of Tajik cuisine.

The following two-minute video shows you how to prepare qurutob:

Tajikistan's south as the ‘poor relation’ of the north

Southern Tajikistan, despite its huge population, has historically been the country's political and economic backwater; barely surviving, it was largely neglected by key decision-makers in the Bukhara Emirate, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union all the way up to the country's independence in 1991.

That situation changed somewhat when Russia and Uzbekistan, two of the main supporters of the government during the bitter civil war that raged in Tajikistan during the 1990s, threw their weight behind southern-born Emomali Rakhmon in 1992.

Some 24 years later, Rakhmon is no longer the interim chief of a war-torn country but the constitutionally-acknowledged “Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation” whose close relatives and southern kinfolk hold top positions in Tajikistan's government.

As a result, whereas once ideas of Tajik statehood were inextricably tied to the Tajik-speaking populations of northern cities like Khujand, which was the hub of the national elite during Soviet times, and the Tajik-speaking Silk Road cities Bukhara and Samarkand (based in modern-day Uzbekistan), now southern cuisine, music and dance all play a central role in state propaganda.

What’s the current take on qurutob?

In recent years, the number of qurutob-offering eateries (qurutobkhona in Tajik) in the capital Dushanbe has shot up notably, and a qurutob lunch costs no more than $2-3.

This has fuelled a spontaneous discussion online.

Tajik journalist Aziz Karim described the qurutobkhona as “a mirror” for a country whose struggling economy has experienced tremendous blowback from the recession in Russia, where over a million Tajik labour migrants toil.

“Ин бор аз он намегуям, ки орзуи бархе аз хамватанон як табак курутоб ва ифтихорашон хам ба хамин намуди хурок ва табакаш хулоса мегардад. Ва низ аз он, ки табаки чубин хоси рестурону ошхонахои шахр несту чавобгуи меъёрхои бехдошти буда хам наметавонад ва ин намуди зарфро хеч як моеъи зарфшуи аз микробу бактерия пок намегардонад. Балки, манзурам посух ёфтан ба он аст, ки чаро дар Душанбе пойтахти Точикистон микдори Курутобхонахо руз аз руз бештар мегардад.[….]

Фикр намекунед, ки сабаби ин факру нодори аст? Бубинед, агар дар як ошхонаи маъмули ё рестурон барои як нафар 25-40 сомони сарф шавад, дар Курутобхона муштари бо 10 сомони сер мегардад”.

This time I won’t talk about why some of our fellow citizens dream only of a plate of qurutob and are proud of this food and its wooden plate. I also won’t talk about this wooden plate, which should have no place in the city’s restaurants and eateries, as it does not meet sanitary requirements. My concern is rather why the number of qurutobkhonas is spiking in Dushanbe? […]

Don’t you think that the reason is poverty and financial stress? If a modest lunch costs $3-5 in a normal eatery, you can fill your boots for just $1.50 in a qurutobkhona.

Famous independent Tajik journalist Rajab Mirzo disagrees, however:

дар Душанбе умуман чизе монанд ба курутоби асли вучуд надорад. Курутоби аслиро х, ар кас имкони тайер кардан надошт, зеро бисер гарон меафтид….пас гуфтан, ки курутоб моли мардуми камбагал аст, бисер машкук ба назар мерасад.”

There is no real qurutob in Dushanbe. Not everyone can afford real qurutob, because it is actually fairly expensive. It is simply not right to say that qurutob is a food of the poor.

Cultural downfall?

Tajik writer Abduqodir Rustam, who has lived in Kyrgyzstan since the outbreak of the five-year Tajik civil war that concluded in 1997, moved the discussion away from economics and onto culture:

Аз масъалаи иктисодиаш хам ки бигзарем, афзоиши курутобхонаю курутобхури ба маънии тасаллути фарханги кишлоки бар фарханги шахри ва нишонаи таназзул аст!

Even if to leave the economic factor aside, the rise of qurutobkhonas means the domination of rural culture over urban culture and is therefore a sign of downfall.

Some of the alarm over qurutob might be explained by northern snobbery and paranoia. It is also over-egged. While qurutob's influence is growing, palav (also plov and pilau), an oily meat, rice and carrot dish popular across Central Asia, is still the dish that most people aspire to.

Combined with a pot of hot tea, palav still dominates weddings in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and remains the most common point of entry into the region's rich hospitality for a foreign guest. In this sense qurutob, has remained its ‘poor relation’, despite a search of qurutob-related tweets showing Dushanbe expats are increasingly aware of the dish.

In defence of eating from the same plate

In addition to debates about economics and culture, the hubub over rough-and-ready qurutob in recent times has raised broader questions about Central Asian eating habits.

Facebook user Mirzoi Hojimuhammad recently defended the culture of eating from the same plate, for instance:

Фарханги дар зарфхои алохида гизо хурдан моли мо нест ва чои фахр зам надорад. Бахилу хасису тангназарон ин урфашонро роич кардаанд. Фарханги мусалмон- харчи бештар нафарон аз як табак газо хурдан аст. Шумо магар оши палавро хам дар косаи алохида истеъмол мекунед Бурхониддин? Мо ба кудакони хурдсол, ки одоби гизохуриро наомухтаанд дар косаи алохида ош медихем… Таи хазорсолахо касе то имруз собит накардааст, ки бо чурми бо даст гизо хурдан ё чанд нафар аз як табак гизо хурдан ягон беморй пахн шуда бошад. Агар инсон бефархангу чиркин бошад бо кошуки тилло ва дар щарфи нукра алохида хам гизо хурад гирифтори исхол ё бемории дигар мешавад.

The culture of eating from separate plates does not belong to us and there is nothing to be proud of in it. Greedy people do that. The culture of Muslims is when as many people as possible eat from a single plate. We give separate plates to children, who have not yet learned the rules of eating.

No one has proved yet that you can get diseases from eating with your hand or from eating from one plate with several other people. If a person is dirty, he will get diarrhoea eating with a golden spoon from a silver plate.

Whatever the science of eating from the same plate, sanitation is a problem in Tajikistan. Diarrhoeal diseases were listed as the sixth top cause of death in Tajikistan in 2012, according to the WHO, resulting in 3.7% of all deaths. Significant volumes of international aid have been devoted to this problem in terms of building more restrooms, providing safer water to the population, and informing people of the importance of washing their hands with soap.

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