Murtaza Firdawsi (right), his brother Izatullah Noorullah (left) and three children Fairuz, Nekruz and Munis prepare for iftar at their residence in Al Ta’awun, Sharjah. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Sharjah: Iftar at the house of Firdous Murtaza, a Tajik resident of Sharjah, is steeped in the cultural traditions of his native country. It is a sumptuous spread comprising fruits, nuts, salads, baked samosas, a sweet dish that is only made in Ramadan, a traditional fruit drink and a rice dish that is Tajikistan’s national dish.

And like most Tajik families in the UAE (a few hundreds of them call the UAE their second home), the Murtazas pull out all stops to keep the tradition alive so far away from home.

Murtaza says that Tajik iftar is as much about food as it is about the getting together of friends and families.

“Traditionally, we don’t eat alone at iftar — we either invite others or we are invited. This practice increases towards the last 10 days of the month, when every house has an iftar party,” said 40-year-old Murtaza, who has been living in the UAE for the last three years.

Tajiks, he said, love to make time for each other and gather at home or outdoors and no gathering happens without a meal.

Murtaza and his boys share the Osh pulav, Tajikistan’s national dish. Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

According to Murtaza’s younger brother, Izatullah Nurullah, no dish symbolises their spirit of togetherness and generosity better than Osh Pulav.

“No Tajik gathering is complete without Osh,” said Nurullah. “Osh is served on every occasion and there is no bigger occasion than iftar,” said Nurullah, who has been living in the UAE for almost a decade.

Also known as the ‘King of Meals,’ Osh has been added by Unesco in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Traditionally, Tajiks eat sitting on the floor on cushions arranged around a rectangular spread.

“All members of the family mostly eat Osh from a single platter. If the gathering is big, then a number of platters are served and the guests split into different groups to eat from each platter,” added Nurullah.

However, if the members of the gathering are other than immediate family members, men and women sit around separate spreads of dishes in different rooms, which was the reason why women were missing from the gathering we attended.

Surprisingly, unlike most Muslim cultures, Tajiks don’t break the fast with dates.

“Dates are not easily available to people of Tajikistan, since it is not grown there. It is imported and most people cannot afford it, so people usually break the fast with water or home-made juice, followed by salad, fruits, samosa and Osh,” said Murtaza, as he generously served us.

Like many Muslim cultures, samosa or sambusa is an integral part of Tajik iftar menu, but unlike others samosas which are usually fried, Tajik samosa is baked.

“We have a variety of sambusas, stuffed with different ingredients like minced meat, dried fruits and vegetables, all baked and the sizes are usually bigger than the sambusas found in other places,” added Nurullah, who operates a tourism business in Dubai.

Apart from Osh and sambusa, another feature of Tajik iftar is a sweet dish called Nishallo, a creamy mass made of sugar, whipped egg whites, cream and soaproot, which is usually used as a dip for bread.

Nishallo, a sweet dish also used as a dip

“Nishallo is a standard feature of iftar in every Tajik household and it is only made in Ramadan. It has been a tradition for hundreds of years,” said Murtaza, who runs a dry fruits business in Dubai, importing them from Tajikistan.

Another Tajik tradition is to prepare every iftar item fresh, including the fruit juices or kampot.

“We don’t order anything from outside, not even the juices. We make kampot at home by soaking fruits in water. It is very healthy and natural,” said Murtaza, as he served us glasses of cherry-flavoured kampot.

Cherry-flavoured kampot

Like most Asian cultures, no Tajik meal is complete without tea, which, however, is not served in cups, but in small colourful bowls.

Memorable as the food was, what stood out equally at the Tajik iftar was the hospitality and generosity of our hosts, a characteristic common to all Tajik people.

If you are invited to a Tajik household, be assured that you will be treated with great warmth and generosity and also make sure to work up your appetite.

“In our culture, we expect the guests to finish everything that is served at the table. If people don’t finish it, then we feel like the food is not good enough or that we were not hospitable enough and it is rather distressing for us, especially for our ladies.”

Star Dish: Osh Pulav

Osh Pulav is a Tajik dish of rice, vegetables and meat. There seem to be more than 200 varieties of this Tajik national dish. Here is a recipe for the most popular or standard version of the dish:

2 cups rice
600gm lamb shoulder cubes, boneless or with bone
6 tablespoons of vegetable oil
3 medium onions
4 carrots
4 garlic cloves, chopped
Handful of raisins
1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon of cumin
1 teaspoon of coriander
1 teaspoon of pepper
1 teaspoon of salt

Wash the rice and soak it in salted water for 30 minutes. Tajiks usually use a Tajikistan variety of rice, but Thai or Egyptian rice could be used for Osh.

Slice the onions thinly and cut the carrots into strips. Osh is usually cooked with approximately equal amounts of carrots, onions, and meat, but you can vary the quantities if you wish.

Heat a large pot with vegetable oil and sauté the onions until golden brown.

Add chopped garlic and fry until it turns light brown. Alternatively, whole garlic cloves can also be added when the rice is cooked.

Add lamb cubes and fry until they turn light brown.

Add carrots, salt, pepper, all spices (according to your taste), and two cups of water.

Lower the flame, mix well, and cover for 5 minutes to allow carrots to soften.

This completes the first step called ‘zirvak.’

The second step involves cooking the rice.

Drain the rice.

Push the ingredients in the pot to the edge and create space in the centre for the rice.

Carefully add rice to this space and try to fit most of it in the centre only. Take care to not mix the rice with the rest of the ingredients.

Add another 1.5 cups of water, cover the pot and allow it to simmer until the rice is cooked and water dries up. This will take approximately 30 minutes.

Now, stir the entire mixture well so the rice, meat and vegetables are no longer separate and serve on a big platter or in a bowl. Top it up with spring onions.

Osh goes well with salads, tomatoes, olives and bread. Naan or any type of flat bread is the best.