Some may wonder, “What do you eat in Central Asia?” One of the tastiest treats you can find here is shashlik. It’s a meat shish kabob, carefully cooked over wood coals. You can also find vegetable shashlik, but the most common by far is meat of various kinds. The beauty of shashlik is that it’s marinated and therefore quite soft, in stark contrast to most meat here which is often tough. It’s also plentiful. There are, without exaggeration, six “shashlichnayas” (shashlik restaurants) within a block of our house.
Central Asians’ relationship with shashlik is similar to Americans’ relationship to grilling (or barbecuing if you are from the West Coast). Every guy has a secret recipe and families tote their shashlik-makers with them when they go camping, much the way the American great outdoors would not be complete without someone grilling a steak.
But it’s very hard to pin someone down on how exactly you season and marinate shashlik meat, which could be almost anything (mutton and chicken seem to be the most common). Our neighbor once called me over and opened a black trash bag to reveal a pile of raw meat and blood. He had gone hunting and killed a wild boar, and now he wanted to share some with us. I wasn’t quite sure that I had a good reason to say no, so I dragged home a wild boar leg.
We scratched our heads about what to do with it—the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook is a little thin on ways to prepare and serve boar, a huge oversight it seems. Since the meat was so tough, we thought maybe marinating it and cooking it shashlik-style would be just the thing. Getting someone to give us an actual recipe was tougher than the meat.
“Just add some onions.”
“A kilogram or two.”
So the recipe can vary by over two pounds of onions? Talk about a wide margin for error.
“And add some vinegar.”
“Not too much, not too little.”
Circuits in our American brains were blowing left and right. A recipe I just followed an hour ago specified quarter teaspoons, half teaspoons, etc. “Not too much, not too little” was too much culinary freedom for us.
In the end, the home-cooked boar shashlik didn’t turn out so well, so we went back to visiting shashlichnayas every four to six months. I say ever four to six months because that is the length of time it takes us to forget the digestive consequences. Maybe it’s the fat content, maybe is the spices, maybe it’s the onions…I don’t know. But shashlik can be hard on those with sensitive digestive systems. I’m blessed with a “stomach of steel” (as my wife calls it), so shashlik has only caught up to me once or twice in five years. Others, however, are less fortunate.
Shashlik amnesia, “Shashisia” as I am henceforth dubbing it, caught up to us a couple days ago and we partook again with predictable results. If you are ever in Central Asia, it is really worth a try. Hopefully, your stomach will enjoy it as much as your mouth. If your digestive system is less-than-happy, don’t worry. Give it four to six months and you’ll be back for more.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.