The pleasant smell of boiling meat wafted through my nostrils the minute I stepped inside our school’s dining hall. The kitchen light was on, and I found myself immediately lured to it as if the ambrosial odor had a gigantic magnet that drew in hungry twenty-something travelers.
The tiny pantry was humming with the sound of knives melodically hitting wooden chopping boards, bubbling water in metal pots and hissing gas stove cooktops warming the charred bottom of cauldrons. Fragrant basmati rice was cooking on one enormous pot while slices of crisp cucumbers and juicy tomatoes were being thrown in bright plastic salad bowls. A vibrant pile of shredded carrots sat on one corner like a tiny mound of thin, elongated autumn leaves, and the boiling beef was starting to turn into an earthy brown shade as its taut fibres loosened and became more tender.
Three of my female colleagues, Samara and Kanykey and our school cook, Kanymgul, were rotating between the stoves, tabletops and counters, their scarf-clad heads becoming a pinwheel of colors and patterns as they went about the kitchen. Our cleaning lady, Cholpon, was present too. She was talking to my friend, Barchinay, as they peeled and chopped potatoes.
The warm bodies in the kitchen spoke amongst themselves in hushed tones that were easily overpowered by the kitchenware orchestra accompanied by the passing cars on the street below. When they turned and saw me watching from the door frame, Kanykey said, “Today we’re having maqluba. Do you know it?”
I shook my head, telling her I’ve never had maqluba my entire life, but since it primarily involved rice—a true Filipino staple—I assumed it was both filling and delicious.
“You’ll see,” Samara said with a cheeky smile. “It’s very tasty.”
In our mess hall, the male teachers were busy bringing in more chairs, arranging seats and putting tables together to form two long rows on one side of the room. Zairbek, our school’s administrator, was setting up a projector in front of the tables as his children, Ali and Usman, ran around him. Their mother, Rysbubu, was trying her best to keep them away from their father, but she was no match for the two rowdy boys who screamed “Ata (Father)!” as they playfully circled around her husband.
My student and assistant, Diyor, greeted me as he entered the hall. Carrying a wooden chair, he said, “Teacher, today, we will have iftar.”
“Yeah, I see. Everyone’s busy preparing. How can I help?” I asked.
“No need. You’re our guest here. Just watch,” he answered.
“Can I help you with the chairs at least?”
“No need, teacher. Our agays (male teachers) are strong.”
“But I can be as strong as they are too!” I bantered. Eyebrows raised and flashing a cocky grin, I added “Even stronger.”
Diyor laughed at my statement and set down the chair he was carrying next to the conjoined tables. The shrill screech of wood scraping against the ivory-colored tile floors punctured my ears as the men continued to shove. Searching for something to do with my hands, I returned to the busy kitchen, but there wasn’t any vacant task for me to do anymore, so I just opted to sit and wait by the windows, feeling May’s gentle spring breeze blowing against my skin and looking over the historical Sulayman-Too which was already encased in an inky blanket.
The minutes passed and the air was filled with the too-familiar sweet aromatic scent of browning meat and onions. The satisfying sizzling sound of hot oil on a pan filled the air and intensified as it came into contact with the sliced carrots and potatoes—common Central Asian vegetables. The men had already deserted the dining hall, leaving the women with kitchen preparations. In their customs, it was not their place, after all.
An hour or so later, I came back to check on the cookery. A huge silver platter decorated with central carvings was spread over the colorful linoleum-coated tabletop. On top of it was a worn-out steel cauldron that was perilously positioned upside down. Kanykey was carefully lifting it from the platter with a washcloth and a kitchen knife to make sure that the dome of rice it was housing would not scatter into tiny bricks of grain. Samara stood by her side, wooden spatula in hand as she peered over Kanykey’s shoulder.
The cauldron came off. The rice dome stood firmly on the center of the platter, starchy steam billowing from its surface, which was encrusted with beef and carrots. Its foundation was a mosaic of meat and chunks of potatoes, and it emitted the redolent scent of bay leaf and cumin—usual Central Asian spices. The maqluba was a huge dish fit for a crowd, and looking at it made my mouth water. Maybe it was the perpetual rice-lover in me, but I was absolutely excited to take a bite.
With her right hand, Samara began to scoop out the vegetable salads from the colorful plastic bowls, putting them around the rice dome. There were two variants: a cucumber-tomato mix with dill and cilantro and morkovcha, Russian-style Korean salad.
In between the salads, Kanykey laid out little bowls of ayran, a Turkish yoghurt drink that was enough to make you slightly pucker up from the first sip. Kyrgyz people adore it, and if it weren’t for kymyz (horse milk) from the jailoos (summer pastures), it would probably be their favorite drink. My co-teachers told me that it was the best beverage for filling meat-based dishes and for scorching summer days. Ayran was everywhere in Osh and the rest of Central Asia, and although to me the taste was strange at first, I have learned to appreciate the commonly spotted salty-sour refreshment.
As she set the bowls on the platter, Samara crowned the maqluba with more beef and carrot slices. The dish was almost too regal compared to our school’s Friday plovs and Wednesday mastavas, but at this point, I wouldn’t dare complain about the feast for the senses unfurling before my eyes.
It took four ejekes (female teachers) to carry the maqluba to the mess hall. Of course, they laid the first serving on the men’s table, even though the women prepared the dish themselves. The males had gone for isha, the day’s final prayer, and the females would follow once the iftar preparations were settled.
Another silver platter was being brought out from the kitchen and carried towards the long table by the window where some of the school’s other employees were already waiting. Sumaya was with her little boys, Danil and Muhammadamin, the latter staring at the biscuits on the dinner spread with his brown doe eyes. His mouth was agape and watering, surrounded by two pale fluffy clouds that turned beet red whenever the weather was cold. Meanwhile, our learning center’s receptionists, Elvira and Aijamal, were seated on one side of the table and engaging in a discussion I couldn’t hear.
The women went as soon as the men finished their prayers, leaving me with their youngsters. Samara’s younger sister, Anara, was also present for the gathering. She stayed with me to watch over her nieces, Rahima and Bermet. We talked as she carried plump Rahima in her arms, bouncing her up and down.
The maqluba was invitingly placed on the center of our table. Surrounding it were piles of kyzyl naan (red bread), leavened golden brown bread cooked in a clay oven. Their freshly baked scent gracefully accompanied the maqluba’s aromatic amalgamation of spices. No Kyrgyz meal was complete without naan. When I first arrived in Osh, I remembered skipping the bread often during my lunch breaks with my co-teachers. My colleagues found it odd, and they would always insist that I pair the bread with my meal. They broke bread and offered it to me, placing it next to my bowl before breaking bread for another co-teacher. Most of the time, I would refuse and return it to the rattan basket when I finished eating. In the rare days where I accepted it, I ate very little, and my Kyrgyz friends would always encourage me to eat more. Whenever we would have tea breaks, the woven staple would always be present next to the ceramic teapot that fueled our brief afternoon chats. In these moments, my co-teachers would still offer me bread as if the filling carbohydrate-heavy lunch we had two hours ago was not enough.
Besides the bread, the table was also filled with boxes of juice, various local biscuits and a two bottles of homemade apricot kompot that Kanykey shared with us.
Everybody was eager to break the fast the minute our female employees returned from isha. Samara was giddily walking towards our dining table, an animated expression painted across her gentle moon face. She looked at the food once… or twice before turning to Anara and taking Rahima, who was delighted to be back in her mother’s arms.
Sumaya cupped her hands together, palms faced to the sky. All the others followed suit, and although I didn’t share the same faith, I copied her gesture and put my hands together in supplication. Murmured entreaties wandered from her lips as she began to utter the name of each person on the table. Rysbubu. Cholpon. Elvira. Kanykey. Samara. Anara. Ten. To me, the vibrations and harmonies of the oddly soft yet hard-bitten tongue were almost impossible to decipher, yet in the tranquil atmosphere of prayer that strung different individuals together, I knew what they whispered to their god. It was the same things that we whispered to ours.
We wiped our faces with our hands and exchanged smiles as we handed out plates and spoons to everyone gathered on the table.
“This is the biggest dish that I have ever seen in my life, ever!” I exclaimed as I waited my turn. My co-teachers laughed. I scooped a generous serving of basmati on my plate and topped it with meat and carrots. I took some salads too and politely declined the ever-present kyzyl naan offer.
Everyone was crowded around the silver platters and taking huge amounts of rice, beef and vegetables. The sixteen-hour fast and the day’s workload starved the snow leopards in their bellies who were now prepared to feast. I took my first bite of maqluba, tasting the mild nutty flavor of rice embellished with earthy hints of cumin. I bit into the fully cooked beef, little grease smearing on my lips as it came in contact with the tiny tender slice. I shoved a spoonful of cucumbers and tomatoes in my mouth, teeth sinking into the crisp, watery green slices and taste buds relishing the latter’s slightly sweet juice. The flavors brought me memories of sunny summer days back home where we made refreshing salads by the beach to accompany our grilled fish. I took another helping of rice from my plate and paired it with the carrot salad, its zest kicking up the slight flavor of the soft grains as I picked up tart hints of cayenne and garlic, which made me miss those hot and humid days a little bit more.
It was wonderful, and even more wonderful with the company of strangers-turned-friends.
I looked at their faces, their sharp cheekbones highlighted by the titian glow of our dining hall’s lights. Their eyes sparkled as they talked about anything under the sun between savory bites of maqluba. The men spoke quietly, the women even quieter and the children, unleashing fury as they relentlessly chased after one other, snaking between the hall’s wooden chairs as a Russian kids’ song about different-colored tractors transporting animals flashed on the projector.
Just as the evening was winding down, Samara shamelessly took another helping of the maqluba. Chuckling, I asked, “Oh my god, Eje (sister). How many more plates are you going to finish?”
“This is the last one,” she said, wiping the corner of her lips with a finger before taking another bite.
“I remember when you told me that you could finish two plates of plov by yourself,” I recalled, chuckling as she nodded while chewing.
“Wrong! She lied to you!” Anara exclaimed. “She can finish four!”
I stared at Samara in shock, grinning widely and shaking my head as she shrugged her shoulders and abandoned all defenses against her younger sister. I joined her ranks and helped myself to more maqluba.
Altogether, we capped the night with bellyaches from too much food and more importantly, too much laughter.