Written by Asher Dayanim
For the summer of 2023, I have been working as a growth intern for zypl.ai, an AI start-up in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
I am also teaching local students about economics with a partner NGO Tajrupt.
Tajikistan is surrounded by China, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The language and cultures of Tajikistan and Iran are closely linked. They venerate Iranian poets. There are numerous monuments honoring such poets as Saadi, Omar Khayam and Ferdowsi.
Although my father was born in Iran, and I am often surrounded by Iranian family, I have never visited Iran. I studied Persian for two years through a joint program with Columbia University and Tel Aviv University. Being able to hear and speak a dialect of Persian in Tajikistan has been a great experience. I am also learning about economic development and exploring a beautiful country.
With every moment of free time I can gather, I have been exploring the city, talking with locals, making new friends, and hiking through the movie-esque mountains.
At my internship, my coworkers and l always go to restaurants during our lunch break. While they are most comfortable in Russian, they graciously choose to speak in English and some Tajiki Persian to involve me in the conversation. Many of them are ML (machine learning) engineers, and watching them bring a developing country into the global technological fold has been amazing to see. Here is a story from my first week interning at zypl.ai and encountering Tajikistan’s national food, Qurutob:
I sat at the restaurant staring at the wooden bowl in front of me. It was filled with a thick white substance, with bits of brown and black things scattered throughout. Topped with carrots and peppers, the familiar vegetables acted as an illusion to the otherwise alien bed they rested upon. I didn’t know if it was hot or cold, salty or sweet, creamy or liquidy. All I knew was that I had to eat it soon, or else my coworkers would suffer from hunger. In Tajikistan, it is impolite to begin eating before your mehmon, or guest. As an American, I was an eternal guest, always to be respected and shown the beautiful hospitality of the country. In this case, being a mehmon meant that I was also the first to take this leap of faith.
My Tajik friend explained to me how the dish was made, mostly to quell my fears. The base of the dish is Qurut, salty fermented milk or yogurt balls that are heated for several hours and then dried.
These yoghurt balls are then diluted with water to make the base of the meal. Hiding within the Qurutob is crumbled Fatir bread, a layered flaky bread baked fresh in the ovens of Tajik homes. Atop was some oil, vegetables, and pepper for spice. That was it! After my friend described it, the image of nachos came to mind and my fears were settled. I quickly grabbed my spoon to dig into the Qurutob.
My Tajik friend latched onto my arm to stop me and motioned to my hand. It is traditional to eat Tajik national food with your Dast, or hand, and the messy Qurutob was no exception. Again, I had to channel my bravery to reach my hand into the white liquid and dig out some bread. I grabbed some flaky Fatir with white clumps around it and shoved it into my mouth, making a mess all over my face. I was shocked by its pleasant taste. The dish had a delicious milky and salty flavor combined with rich bread that dissolved into my mouth. The vegetables added crunch and freshness while the peppers gave it a sting to the taste buds. Using my hands, the experience felt exciting and intimate - each handful a sensation in both touch and taste.
To the side of the dish was a red pitcher of Kampot, a Russian drink made of cooked fruits. In the summer, the fruits of Tajikistan are aromatic and delicious. Farmers from nearby the capital city drive in every day to deliver seasonal fruit.
In June, cherries, apricots, plums, and kharbozeh (watermelons with yellow flesh) are offered at every store. These fruits act as the perfect sweet dessert, refreshing and juicy under the roaring Tajik sun. The Kampot before me was made with these fresh fruits and offered a counter taste to the salty, dairy dish. The table also contained a bowl for Tajik non, or circular bread with a flat middle. Usually, non has intricate designs shown lightly on its fluffy crusts. If homemade and fresh, the flavor and softness is addicting. After many minutes of intense scooping, I finally finished the meal. I enjoyed every second of it, grabbing more non to clear the bowl of its whiteness.
My Tajik friends looked amazed, saying that they had not cleared a Qurutob bowl all summer. They offered to order me more, but my stomach at that point was full to the brim and rumbled a bit. I quickly understood why Qurutob was only eaten at lunch and never at dinner.
As we left the restaurant, I kept asking my friends about the price, handing over money to each one. They all refused to acknowledge me. “Mehmon,” they said. I would have to get used to being assertive and sneaky, or else I would be treated to every meal during my three-month stay.
Experiencing the national food of Tajikistan that day was an experience I will never forget. I am indebted to my Tajik friends not only for the price of the delicious food, but also for the lesson in the country's rich culture and tradition. In a mountainous land on the crossroads of the ancient silk road, blended with Persian, Russian, and Central Asian influences, Tajikistan contains many unique traditions and foods. My experience with Quruton was a leap of faith into the culinary culture of this nation.
Easy Qurutob recipe:
1. Soak 12 Qurut balls in 2 cups water, let them soak for about an hour, then mix until the balls fall apart OR use 3 cups of plain whole milk yogurt. A variation of Qurut might be found at Persian grocery stores. It is called Kashk. Kashk is often salted. If not, add about 2 teaspoons of salt to the mixture.
2. Over medium heat, stir the mixture until creamy (20-30 min).
3. Sauté one sliced large onion for about 5 min.
4. It is time now to create the dish. Home-made Fatir bread is often used for this recipe, but you may use Barbari bread (also available in Iranian grocery stores). Cover the bottom of a large serving dish with broken Barbari bread. Then pour the yogurt mixture on top. Add the caramelized onions, shredded carrots (1/4 cup), chopped green onions and cilantro (1/4 cup) on top of the yogurt mixture. You may add other vegetables, such as chopped tomatoes and peppers, as desired.
And here is a video to help with its preparation. This recipe uses meat.
This is another recipe recipe from Travel Food Atlas
Asher Dayanim's Bio:
Originally from Philadelphia, Asher is a rising senior at Columbia University studying Economics and Middle Eastern Studies. For the first two years of his higher education, Asher lived in Israel and attended Tel Aviv University. He was given the opportunity to learn Hebrew and Farsi, live in a kibbutz, and teach Israeli youth at a tech summer camp. During his breaks, he broadened his cultural understanding by backpacking and vlogging about various countries in Europe and the Middle East. For the summer of 2023, Asher received a fellowship from the Columbia Business School to continue his worldly education by working for a Social Enterprise in Tajikistan. On the side, Asher loves to play trumpet and frisbee.